How to Complain (So You Get Results)

Even the most patient souls sometimes find themselves unable to get a customer service rep to set things right. While you know that screaming or threatening won't help, what should you do when you're at your wits' end? It's simple: Take a deep breath, then follow these four proven steps that will help you resolve a frustrating situation ASAP.

Related: 6 Rules for Being a Smart Shopper

1. Manage the Phone Tree

Talking to customer service is step one in solving every kind of complaint - and, in many cases, it's the only step needed. Still, that doesn't mean you have to spend hours on the phone. To cut time navigating endless phone menus, visit gethuman.com for free tips on reaching a live person faster. If the first rep you talk to isn't inclined to help, hang up and try again, suggests Bill Withers, Ed.D., a communications professor at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, who specializes in customer service issues.
Whatever you do, don't skip this first step. The people you'll reach out to next typically ask about your experience with customer service and whom you spoke with. If you never gave them a chance, you'll likely get pushed back to square one.

2. Contact the Honchos

When customer service reps can't or won't help, send a letter or an e-mail to higher-ups at the corporate office. Even though you may not get a personal response from the CEO, it may well get your problem in front of someone with the power to resolve the dispute, says Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas, an etiquette-training firm that consults with corporate clients. In fact, many companies keep executive service teams for just this purpose.
Once you've drafted a letter or an e-mail, hunt down top executives' names, usually listed on the company's website under the "About Us" or "Investor Information" section. To help get the correct e-mail format (e.g., firstname.lastname@name-of-company.com), visit the free site executivebomb.com (don't worry, it doesn't encourage violence), which posts that info for more than 3,000 companies.

Related: Customer Service Help

3. Take it Public

If your problem still hasn't been resolved, ask for help again - this time on social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, where companies can quickly lose face with other customers if they don't respond.
Consider what happened to Pamela Dodd of Orlando, FL: She was more than a little peeved when the 1-800-Flowers.com Mother's Day bouquet she'd sent her mom never arrived. When she contacted the company's customer service line, a rep said it had been delivered. So Dodd logged on to Twitter and posted a complaint on her account: "Disappointed in 1800Flowers.com. My 88-y-o mom's bouquet hasn't arrived. Wonder how many other moms didn't get their flowers?"
"I heard back within five minutes from their customer service blogger [@1800 Flowers]," says Dodd, whose mother got her bouquet bright and early the next morning, plus a free arrangement from the company.

4. Call in the Advocates
When everything else fails, call in the cavalry: professional advocates. It's a long shot, but such organizations can sometimes spur a company to act when your own actions don't, says Withers. Complaining to a consumer advisory group can also warn others away from an unscrupulous business or even contribute to litigation if lawmakers deem the recurring problem unethical and illegal.
Make the Better Business Bureau your first stop. Fill out the complaint form at bbb.org, and the local bureau will request a reply from the offending company. The organization can also help you set up mediation if you're not satisfied with the response. In addition, you can file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (ftccomplaintassistant.gov) and with your state's attorney general (find your state office's contact information at naag.org). Depending on the state, staffers may try to resolve your complaint, but they will also log it into databases that contribute to ongoing investigations.

Related: Sneaky Credit Card Charges

Read on to learn how to write a complaint letter.
And share your most effective strategy for dealing with customer service in the comments.

- By Kelli B. Grant

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Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.