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6 Best Ways to Get Your Money Back

Former head of Consumerist.com shows you how to take action against lousy customer service

By Ben Popken | May 31, 2012
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Journalist Ben Popken is the former Managing Editor of Consumerist.com, published by Consumer Reports.

Everyone gets overcharged or receives bad service from time to time, but most people don't know how to complain effectively when that happens.
 
As the former managing editor of Consumerist.com, I helped hundreds of burned consumers get results in dealing with everything from unfair bank fees to shoddy laptop repairs to fraudulent cell phone charges. That's because, over the years, my readers and I perfected effective techniques for fighting back and standing up for your rights as a consumer. Here are our six secrets:
 
Make customer service serve you. When you call the company's customer service number, in two sentences tell the rep exactly what you want him or her to do to make amends. This way, you’ll take control of the situation and save the customer service person from having to play Sherlock to figure out what will placate you.
 
Be calm, polite and professional during the call. Try cracking a joke or two, or find another way to make a personal connection, while firmly insisting on getting what you deserve.
 
By the way, don’t call Monday or Friday. Those are the busiest days for customer service, which means they're especially rushed. While your goal is to keep the call short, you want their full attention.
 
Call “executive customer service” if you can. For a grievance with a Fortune 500 company, ignore the firm’s standard 1-800 customer service number. Instead, look up the direct line to the company headquarters in Google Finance by typing in the name of the business. Call the number then ask for the office of one of the top execs by name (you’ll find the names when you do the Google Finance search).
 
After you get transferred to that office, pitch your sad tale to the assistant. He or she will either take care of you or transfer you to a division known as “executive customer service.” One caveat: This technique has grown so popular that some companies have limited their executive customer service agents' powers lately.
 
Fire a laser-targeted email to a high-ranking staffer. Dig through the company's website or Google Finance listing to find a senior person with jurisdiction over what you’re complaining about. Then shoot him or her an email. (For instance, you might want to contact the company’s head of marketing about a nationally promoted price that its local store isn’t honoring.)
 
To deduce a company’s email format, look for a contact email in a press release on the firm’s site. Or you can put the exec’s name in common email formats such as firstname.lastname@company.com or firstletteroffirstname.lastname@company.com then see if one of those gets through.
 
The email should contain a well-crafted complaint letter with specifics about your grievance and the solution you seek.
 
This strategy can really pay off. One of the Consumerist.com readers had repeated problems with his Xbox 360. After emailing Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide customer service, he received a new one for free.
 
Deploy an “Executive Email Carpet Bomb.” If the laser email tactic doesn’t work, try escalating to what I call an EECB. The Executive Email Carpet Bomb can be effective when you’re dealing with a big company in which upper management is very distanced from ground-level customer interactions.
 
The EECB works like this: You send the same type of electronic complaint as above, but email it to a list of all the top company execs. Sit back and wait for the inevitable cascade of “accountability seeking” to net you a call or email back from a friendly assistant or helpful executive. One Consumerist.com reader used an EECB to receive a $525 refund of overdraft fees from Bank of America.
 
Hit the business in the balance sheet. Admittedly, this is a very aggressive, guerrilla-like strategy. Here, you want to show the company that it's more expensive to ignore you than to solve your problem. You could print copies of your complaint and pass them out on the edge of the company’s property line. Or buy one share of its stock and tell the investor relations department that you're going to attend the next shareholder meeting and publicly tell the floor your horror story.
 
After a mix-up with his mortgage, Philadelphia homeowner Patrick Rodgers sued Wells Fargo in small claims court, and he got the sheriff to put the contents of the bank's local office up for auction when Wells didn't pay the default judgment. That got Wells Fargo's attention. The bank soon forked over the cash.
 
Go public. One way to really get a company’s attention is to publish your story for free online using a blogging site like Tumblr, Wordpress or Blogger. Then send your blog link to sympathetic reporters, bloggers, Tweeters and websites. Most brands have Facebook and YouTube presences as well and you can post on those pages.
 
Many companies also have their own public Twitter accounts. So you might Tweet your blog link at them to get noticed.
 
Odds are, if your story starts spreading, the company will reach out to you to douse the fire.
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