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Your 7-Step Guide To Profitable Complaining

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It pays to complain. I just got off the phone with Cox Communications, our internet provider. It took fifteen minutes on hold, another ten minutes of complaining, and a threat to cancel our service, but they agreed to reduce the rate by $10 per month for the next year.

One twenty-five-minute phone call. Total savings: $120.

Hey, I don’t like being a complainer, but for $120? You bet I’ll whine a bit. On other occasions my complaints have netted me checks for $1,600 and $1,900. Those times I had to sue or threatening to sue someone, which isn’t pleasant, but I was well-paid for my efforts.

Of course a lawsuit is a last resort, so let’s start this seven-step guide to profitable complaining with some examples of what to try first…

1. Practice Your Complaint Skills On The Cable Company

When you first complain be polite and ask for help. Most companies want to make you happy or at least to keep you as a customer, but rudeness may convince them that they already lost you, giving them no reason to make concessions.

So practice your complaining. And there is no better place to start than the cable company, because they always provide something to complain about, whether it’s slow internet, outages, or just high prices.

And they’ll almost always give you some compensation. I have complained to my internet providers five or six times over the years, and the least I’ve received is a $10 discount for six months – that’s $60 for a phone call.

Don’t feel bad about doing this. Cable companies usually have local monopolies, so you’re often stuck with their crappy service. For example, cable giants Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete directly anywhere in the U.S.

Comcast has been voted America’s worst company, and their employees are supposed to sell you something on every call).

Call your cable company and, once you have a real person on the line, explain that you’re planning to cancel your service to try something cheaper. You’ll probably get a “retention offer,” meaning they will give you some kind of discount for a set period of time.

Aim for at least $10 off your monthly bill for six months.

2. Start With A Phone Call

In most cases a simple phone call is the simplest way to complain. For example, one night there was sand in our frozen vegetables, which we only discovered once we started to eat. I dug the bag out of the garbage, found the customer service number, and called it.

A very nice lady apologized for ruining our meal and sent me a check for $20 to cover the cost.

Getting the right phone number can be one of the biggest challenges. You need to talk to a real person — I’ve never run into an automated system that can issue a refund or reimbursement.

GetHuman.com can help. For most companies they have the phone numbers and tricks needed to get you through to a human quickly.

3. Be Friendly At First

I didn’t yell at the lady on the phone about the sandy zucchini wrecking our stir-fry. In fact, I was very nice, and even told her, “”It wasn’t an expensive meal. I just thought you should know.”

It helps to be someone the customer service rep or owner wants to help, but there’s more to it than just that. The business owner or representative might also be thinking about future sales and/or liability.

The future sales aspect is easy enough to understand. If you start with “I’m never buying your product again!” you make it clear that there is little reason to resolve your complaint. In fact, if you start with “I love your product,” you’ll probably convince the representative that you’re a customer worth retaining.

Also keep in mind that a refund can be an admission of liability. For example, if a roof repair leaks, even a partial refund might be seen as an admission of faulty work and leave the business open to a claim for further damages.

So you don’t want to suggest you’re thinking of suing (not at first anyhow). Just be friendly and ask for help.

4. Get Your Credit Card Company To Help You

If you paid by credit card, the easiest way to resolve the matter is often to file a dispute with issuer of the card. Typically they refund the amount paid immediately while they investigate. A phone call starts the process, and you may have to sign a form (it will be sent to you).

If you’re not sure you want to file a dispute you can at least threaten to, which brings us to the next step…

5. Make Simple Threats

Okay, you’ve tried the friendly approach and it got you nowhere. Now what? It’s time to make a threat or two.

But do it the right way. Don’t start with “I’m going to sue you for a million dollars,” when you just got some bad gas from a local service station. Be realistic about the actual damages incurred, and ask for damages plus (perhaps) a reasonable amount for your time and trouble.

For example, I was over-billed by $25 for a computer repair (the technician rounded up the time spent), and when I called the owner he insisted that the charge was correct.

I sent him an email (to have evidence of contact) stating that if the money was not refunded within three days I would file a dispute with the credit card company, and I would post a poor review or two on Yelp.com and other online review sites.

I got the refund.

Make threats realistic and honest for maximum effectiveness. Threats of bad reviews are ideal because they’re meaningful to the business and easy for you to follow through on (and they know that). Here are some of the places you might post a review:

  • Yelp – Great place to review most businesses
  • Angie’s List – Review service companies here
  • TripAdvisor – Travel and entertainment related reviews

If the threat of a review isn’t sufficient, post a review with one of the appropriate sites, then send the business owner a link to the review, and ask if he or she would like to resolve the matter before you post more reviews on other sites.

You can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau if the company is a member, or you can start with the threat to file a complaint.

Go in person if that’s appropriate and likely to be effective. For example, I once got a $225 refund on a car repair even after I was told they would fix the repair but not refund the money.

How? In a waiting room full of customers I loudly started to explain what they did wrong (according to the mechanic who fixed their mess) and how they had been dishonest.

It was basically a threat to hurt their business by making a scene. I was stopped with a handful of cash handed to me, taken directly from the register (seriously).

When routine threats are not enough you may have to…

6. Threaten Legal Action

I’ve had to threaten legal action several times to get refunds.

On one occasion the threat resulted in a $1,600 check for a faulty air conditioning installation, and it included reimbursement for my mileage (at 57 cents-per-mile) for driving to and from the condo where the unit had been installed (it was a rental property we owned).

This was after the owner of the business swore he would never refund anything.

How did I get him to pay? To start with, I went to his wife, who had less ego involved and was more concerned with protecting their business.

And I didn’t make an idle threat. I prepared the case, and in my email to her I specified the exact address of the court, how much the filing fee would be (explaining that I would add that to the total requested), and other details.

The point is to be specific so they know you’re serious. It also helps to specify additional amounts you’ll be suing for (fees, attorney costs, lost income) if you need to follow through on your threat.

Make it clear that paying you what you’re asking for right now will be the easiest and cheapest solution for the business owner.

It doesn’t take long to learn how to use small claims court, so start there if the amount is small enough. You might also want to get the forms for filing your case, so you can flash them in front of the business owner.

Here’s another trick you can try: If you have an attorney (or even a friend or family member who happens to be a lawyer), forward any email complaints to him or her, making sure the business owner can see that you’ve done so.

7. Take Legal Action

Sometimes a threat isn’t enough. In that case you might have to sue.

If the amount you’re seeking is small enough you can use small claims court. The maximum amount you can sue for in small claims court in each state varies from $2,500 to $15,000.

Add anything you can think of to the damages requested. You’re not trying to be unfair to the business owner, but to get attention and force a resolution before going to court. The matter could still be settled before the court date.

For example, when a wholesale vendor refused to buy back merchandise from me, as he had promised to do, I asked him repeatedly, and threatened him with a lawsuit, but he refused. But as soon as he got the court papers he wrote me a check for the $1,900 I was requesting.

It cost me just $18 to file in small claims court, and another $20 (optional) to have a sheriff’s deputy deliver the summons.

It can be expensive to hire an attorney, but there are cheaper options. For example, if the lawsuit will be for a large enough amount of money and the case is solid, a law firm might work on a contingency basis, charging you only if and when they collect.

Another option is to ask for limited help, like a letter to the business owner. A simple letter from a law firm, explaining the legal liability involved, may be enough intimidation to get the result you desire.

Complain Reasonably

While I didn’t offer many details in the personal examples above, in every case there was a valid reason for my complaint. I’ve never made nasty threats, just reasonable ones. And I’ve never actually ended up in court, probably because I’ve never asked for more than I deserved.

I suggest you follow the same approach: Be nice to start, don’t get personal, make only legal threats for which you can follow-through, and get help when you need it.

But don’t tolerate dishonest businesses or products and services that don’t meet your reasonable expectations. Complain and get paid!

If you have a good complaint story, please share it with us … and keep on frugaling!

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