Make Money

Your Ten-Step Guide to Profitable Complaining

Introduction

I just tried Orville Redenbacher’s Naturals microwave popcorn. It was pretty good, and I received the box for free (the regular price was $3.99).

Why? Because I complained about their Movie Theater Butter single serve popcorn. That one was okay except for a lot of unpopped kernels and tiny portions. My wife and I normally share one bag of microwave popcorn, but we needed three of these “single serve” bags to feel satisfied, so it turned out to be a poor value.

Disappointed, I spent two minutes to leave my feedback on the Conagra brands contact page. The next day I received an email apology, followed by a coupon in the mail a few days later, which was good for the free box.

It pays to complain.

And it can pay big. A while back I got a check for $1,600 from an air conditioning company after complaining about a unit they installed two years earlier. They had done several things wrong that had to be corrected when we sold the home.

Of course complaining can take time. I worked for hours over the course of two weeks to get that $1,600. And a complaint won’t always put money in your pocket. So what can you do to make a positive result more likely? Use this ten-step guide to profitable complaining.

1. Determine What You Want

You can skip this step for minor complaints. For example, I would have taken whatever they gave me for my popcorn complaint. It isn’t worth spending much time on small matters.

On the other hand, if there is big money involved, you need to be clear about your goal. For example, if a repair to your car failed, do you want the same garage to fix it again or would you prefer a refund so you can go elsewhere?

It’s easier to resolve your problem when you have the desired solution in mind.

2. Prepare Your Case

This is another step you can skip when the matter is small. Just fill out a form or make a call and leave it at that.

For more important matters, take notes and document everything. I got that $1,600 check from the air conditioning company in part because I detailed exactly what they did wrong and included dates and times when I had to deal with it (I charged them for my mileage).

Also, since larger financial complaints might end up in court, you might as well prepare your “case” for that possibility.

3. Contact the Business

Sometimes you can get compensation by simply filling out a feedback form online, and that’s a good point of first contact.

If your complaint is about a food product you can usually find a phone number to call or an email address on the package. I once called the number on a bad bag of frozen vegetables and within a week I got a $20 check (and an apology for ruining our meal).

GetHuman.com is a great resource if you need to find a phone number for a business. Enter the name of the business and click on the tab for phone and contact information. You’ll often get more than one number, with the hours of operation, and sometimes they list the estimated wait time.

Google the company name to find not just the usual contact information, but the names of the key people. Then you can locate their contact information.

For example, a few weeks ago I tried an online trading app, and it didn’t work. I asked the company to put my funds put back in my bank account. The customer service people repeatedly said only I could do it and only with the app — the one that didn’t work on my phone.

I wasn’t going to buy a new phone just to get the app to work, so I Googled the company to get the CEO’s name, along with his Linkedin and Twitter account. After a brief a private message and a tweet (“Give me my money back!”) the customer service reps suddenly found a way to transfer the money for me.

4. Keep it Friendly

As a rule, be nice. Most of the time companies really do want to resolve your issue, so there’s no reason to be negative (at first). Also, the guy or gal answering the phone may have nothing to do with the company’s policies.

More than that, if you announce that you’ll never do business with the company again, where’s the incentive to keep you happy? After all, they already lost you as a customer.

Depending on the circumstances, a refund can be an admission of liability, so you might want to reassure a business owner that all you want is your money back, and that it’s no big deal.

My wife and I stayed at a Hyatt and found garbage in the bushes by the hot tub. We nicely told the desk clerk how much we love Hyatt hotels — and how disappointed we were by dirty the pool area was in this one. She apologized and put 6,000 points on my Hyatt account — enough for a free night at some of their properties.

Of course, friendly doesn’t always work, so…

5. Add a Hint of Unfriendliness

When you don’t get an immediate resolution, a hint of unfriendliness can help. You have probably heard the saying “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Get squeaky when necessary.

Subtle insults can be useful. You might add to an email complaint, “I never thought your company would treat customers like this.” That implies a good reputation is being lost and offers them the opportunity to defend it by resolving your complaint.

And if that’s not enough, it may be time to…

6. Make Threats

Okay, at this point in the process you’re probably upset. But don’t get carried away. Just threaten to do do what is right and necessary.

For example, I was overcharged $25 for a computer repair (the tech overstated his time at the house), and my pleasant phone call didn’t help. So I made the following email threat:

I’ll be disputing the entire charge on my credit card… And I’m waiting to see how this is resolved before posting my Yelp.com review of your company.

The $25 was refunded that day.

Threats work best when you’re prepared to follow through, but even if you have no intention to pursue the matter further, make a threat as a last attempt to get compensation. Don’t threaten anything illegal, and be believable (no, you won’t really organize a nationwide boycott, and the vendor knows it).

So what can you threaten? See the following actions for ideas…

7. Take Action

Here are some things you can do to get a business to respond to your complaint. Remember that prior to taking any of these steps, you can threaten to take them. That may be enough to motivate a company to do the right thing.

File a Complaint

Use the Better Business Bureau Online Complaint System. They’ll contact the company and try to resolve your complaint. USA.gov has information on other ways to file a consumer complaint, and they have sample complaint letters you download and modify.

Post Reviews

Business owners know negative online reviews hurt them. That makes the threat of or actual posting of reviews one of the most powerful weapons in your complaint arsenal.

When you review a company, be careful to state the facts of your case clearly, and avoid profanity.

Here are some examples of places to post your reviews:

  • Angie’s List – Review service providers, even if you’re not a member.
  • Yelp – Review companies of any sort.
  • TripAdvisor – Review of hotels, restaurants, and travel-related businesses.
  • Google – Review retailers and other businesses.
  • Yellow Pages – Review any business.
Use Social Media

You can always tell your Facebook friends and Twitter followers about your experiences with a company. The impact is greater, of course, if you have a lot of contacts. Even more effective is posting your story on the company’s Twitter feed or Facebook page.

Go in Person

Visit during a busy time so there are other customers for the company to impress with their fast and friendly resolution of your problem. For example,my loud complaining in the waiting room of a auto repair shop (the bearing they replaced failed within days) caused the manger to pull $220 cash out of the register and hand it to me. He did so right after he said, “We never refund the money, but we do guarantee to make it right.”

8. Keep up the Pressure

Business owners may fail to respond at first because they know many people will quickly give up trying to get a refund or other resolution to their complaint. To make your complaint more effective then, make it clear you won’t give up — and don’t.

It takes only a minute to fire off another email, and a few minutes to write another review. At some point a business owner usually realizes it’s easier and less damaging to give in to your rightful demands.

I’ve been known to send emails, talk to company reps through a chat window, and call the company all at the same time. They have to pay people to respond to emails, to chat, and to answer the phone. So if you make it clear you have time to waste their time, they’ll understand that the cheaper route is to make it right for you.

Another way to keep up the pressure is to…

9. Threaten Legal Action

I hate threatening to sue, but it has worked for me, and it might work for you.

When I first tried to get that air conditioning company to pay for all the necessary repairs (and for my time and mileage spent dealing with them), the owner said he wouldn’t give me a penny. There was more to the back-and-forth, but when I threatened a lawsuit, his wife sent the check.

Like any threat, it helps if you’re prepared to follow through, or if it at least appears that way. In the case of the A/C company, I sent copies of emails to an attorney. I didn’t actually hire the attorney, but the implication was there in the email “cc” line.

Furthermore, I also did a few minutes of research online so I could tell the business owners exactly where I would file my lawsuit (my county, so they would have to travel from theirs), and how much the filing fee was, and what additional expenses I was entitled to ask for if I sued. I wanted them to know I had done the research, so they would know I was serious.

If the threat of legal action is not enough, you might have to…

10. Take Legal Action

When I was younger a guy convinced me I could make big money placing consignment earring racks in stores and beauty shops (don’t ask). Months later he refused to buy back the earrings as he had promised to do, so I filed a lawsuit in small claims court. I paid a filing fee of $18 and $13 extra to have the local sheriff serve the papers.

Sometimes that’s all the legal action you’ll need. The earring salesman called me as soon as he saw the summons and he wrote me a check for $1,900.

You can learn how to file in small claims court online. The limits vary, but most state allow small claims suits of up to $5,000. If you need to sue for more than the limit you’ll probably have to talk to an attorney.

By the way, you could avoid the trouble by getting the forms to fill out from the court and bringing them with you to visit the business owner. Stand there with your pen ready and the papers clearly visible while you innocently tell him you want to make sure you get his name right.

Hiring an attorney is a big step, to be reserved for big complaints. On the other hand, a letter from a law office could be all it takes to make a business owner see things your way, and that should not be expensive. If that’s your hope, make it clear to any lawyer you talk to — otherwise he might prefer to go to court.

Try This Practice Complaint

Want to save a chunk of money for a few minutes on the phone? Practice your complaining skills on your cable company.

Yes, you should only complain when a company does something wrong, but cable companies are almost always doing something wrong. To start with, they charge high rates because they’re given monopolies by local governments.

The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 50,000 complaints about Comcast and has been voted America’s worst company. It’s bad enough that they don’t compete directly with Time Warner anywhere in the United States, but then they tried to merge with them to get even more pricing control.

Most cable companies are disliked by their customers. So call your cable provider, and tell them you’ve thought about canceling (think about it now… there, now you’re being honest). Explain that the service costs too much and ask if they can do anything about that or if you should consider other providers.

I’ve done this a number of times over the years, with several companies, and almost every time I got a discount on the spot. Typically they give me something like $10 off per month for six months. That’s $60 for a five minute phone call. It pays to complain.

Tell us how you’ve made or saved money by complaining, and keep on frugaling!

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