Most frequently, when a customer contacts a supplier to complain about a product or service, the focus is upon how the failure of the item impacted on the consumer. Often, that focus becomes more intensified when the client feels that the company is not paying sufficient attention to the matter.
There are two main factors at play here: The company’s (more likely, the company representative’s) initial reaction is defensiveness. “The integrity of my product (or service) is being challenged.” It is a personal affront. The customer’s initial action is anger and aggressiveness. “You sold me garbage. I won’t be abused by you.” Neither stance is fully correct or very effective. And so, the conflict often escalates.
However, there are tried-and-true techniques for mitigating disputes and exploring satisfactory solutions. They revolve around understanding each other, before initiating contact or insisting on immediate, arbitrary resolution.
The first thing that a consumer should be aware of is that the business must be in the business of customer service, if it intends to survive. Therefore, it is as motivated to find a solution that is satisfactory to it as you are to find one satisfactory to you. At the outset, it may not seem like these two objectives are similar, compatible or even capable of being based on common ground. But, almost always, they are.
Initial contact should follow the same path, whether it be by email, telephone, or letter. Begin by knowing both your rights and obligations. Begin by ascertaining, for certain, if the problem is the company’s, the product’s, your own, or a combination of the three. Be balanced and objective in your assessment, even if the issue is personal and subjective. And, vitally, be open and receptive to proposals and suggestions.
The vast majority of complaints can be resolved with the first contact. Some require one or two follow-ups, while others can be drawn out, complex and protracted. Determine, before you begin, how much time, cost and effort you are willing to expend to reach a settlement. Then, stick with the plan! The sequence is the same, regardless of the duration.
Let us use a sample case, to illustrate the techniques at work.
George has issues with his cell phone provider. First, his phone has given him problems since he signed the three-year contract last year. Second, he has been charged, infrequently, for long distance charges, even though the calls were made to exempt numbers. In the past, the phone company has reversed the charges. Third, he has an issue with “dead zone” coverage. That matter has not been resolved. Today, he finds that, when he crossed the border last month, he shut off his phone, and when he returned, as soon as he re-entered the country, he switched his phone on, parked, retrieved his messages and made two local calls. He was charged a very high roaming fee, even though he was already back in his own coverage zone. It was the last straw, and he is furious.
But wait. Each problem may be unique.
The first issue, with the phone itself. Twice he has returned to the retailer, who patiently showed him how to use the various features. Both times, the problems were not that of the phone, but of his inexperience. But he blames the phone for being too complex.
Solution: Accept that he needs to devote more time to learning the phone operation, or that he needs to trade in his phone for one that more properly meets his needs and capabilities. Don’t lay the complaint at the feet of his carrier!
Second problem – incorrect billing. He researches consumer complaints, and finds that this is a common problem, but common to all four carriers in his region. He may want to write a complaint to the Consumer’s Bureau, or other government watchdog that oversees telecommunications and telephone providers. If there are several other valid issues, it may also form the basis for future efforts to cancel the contract, or seek compensation.
But he has four issues, and to try to resolve them all at once will cloud discussions and hinder mutual understanding. He needs to focus on one, at most two complaints in each contact. If two are related, this lends itself well to strengthening the complaint process. In this example, his third issue and fourth may be intertwined, since dead zones and overlapping coverage may be tower or broadcast strength matters. He should focus this complaint on the last two. Anyway, larger companies, such as wireless carriers of telephone service, tend to catalogue complaints and reference them by client number, so he will already be on file with prior matters.
Now, he has decided to work on the last two matters, systematically. He opts to begin with a telephone call, since the carrier does not display an email address prominently on its website (a common practice, to avoid being inundated with nuisance emails), and snail mail would take too long. How to begin?
The website has a page that shows where its cell phone towers are. So does the federal watchdog. Across the border, he also sees where the towers are located. This search has taken less than fifteen minutes, but George has learned invaluable facts. The towers near where his “dead zones” occurred are spaced far apart, there are several large factories nearby, and the nearest tower is across a small lake. Near the second tower is a large power substation. He doesn’t know, for sure, if the factories and power station interfere with the signals, but he has heard anecdotes about that. He does know that many radio-type signals are seriously degraded when they pass over water. He will use that information judiciously. He also sees that the towers across the border are closer than the ones on his side. That means that they could override his local signal strength. He is less angry now, knowing that there are possible explanations.
George calls customer service. The automated answering service frustrates him immeasurably, but he doesn’t let that displeasure cloud his focus.
The representative answers. George needs to be aware that the contact person not only is not the owner(s), but is likely not even in a position of authority. She is an employee, and any attack on her would be unfsir. She is getting paid to do a difficult job, and she is limited in how she can respond. Be fair and polite to her, regardless of the outcome. Also establish that you understand her position, and want to work with her to find a solution. This approach is more likely to win her to your side, and secure her cooperation.
Don’t pontificate, use big words or talk down to the employee. She deserves the same respect that you do.
She examines your file, and explains that there have only been “a few” complaints about dead zones. You feel irritated, because you know that very few people who experience these problems follow up with a complaint. She also says that you must have been still in the other country when you made the calls. Your first urge is to blast her. But refrain. Instead, indicate that you understand that she may not fully be aware of the infrastructure, and ask her if there is someone to whom you can speak – a supervisor or techie – that can deal with this. You have reached the limit of problem solving with her. Note that many companies authorize their CS people to reverse nominal charges, just to avoid delays in the queue (e.g. bank charges). She is not so authorized, and you move to the supervisor.
Here, you deal on a more technical level. Supervisors always are given greater authority. While she may not be empowered to cancel your contract and refund your money, she will be enabled to provide recompense, investigate matters further, and so on.
Begin by pointing out that the previous employee tried, but had not been given enough power to deal with the complaint. Again, this is not the CEO or major shareholder with whom you are dealing, so recognize limitations.
Ask, first, what the proper email and snail mail address would be to provide a written, formal complaint. You may even ask who would be the next point of contact if the two of you do not come to a satisfactory agreement. While this will “set her teeth on edge,” she also will see that you do not intend to let the matter go unresolved. She will be more motivated to keep the simmering complaint from reaching her superiors. Again, don’t be aggressive, and don’t insult. All that will occur if you do is that the CS person will become defensive. Maybe point out to her how tedious the complaint process sis, and empathize with her about how that must make things more stressful for her.
Now, explain the tower locations, the research you have done, and the history of other complaints (including other providers) made to the watchdog. Point out that you are experiencing these problems repeatedly, and that they are contrary to the good service that you had been expecting from such a reputable firm. Indicate that you find formal complaints to be time-consuming, and also suggest whatever reasonable solution you had considered prior.
Let us assume that the matter is more complex: you have had so many calls dropped that you have lost a client of your own, or something has occurred that has incurred significant harm or damage to you. The harm is directly attributable to the problem. It is unlikely that this second-level employee with be able to resolve your complaint. Now, you must act more formally, and take it “to a higher court.”
Of course, you have solid documentation regarding all of the issues, don’t you? It is always imperative that you write down or have proof of your position, in each matter.
You are going to use a more aggressive tone in your first letter or email. Itemize your sequence of complaints to date. Indicate some of the loss you have incurred. Now, offer the first solution: compare your complaint to others that have been resolved (either through court, the watchdog, or privately).
Next, provide a synopsis of your legal rights, as you understand them. Discuss how you understand that the company needs to be profit-oriented and that it most likely wants to provide good quality of service, but that they are allowing your complaint to boil into something that is blown out of proportion. Then point out that, possibly to them, this is a small matter, but to you, the costs and inconvenience have much more of an impact on you. You need to show them that you are willing to see their point, but that they need to see yours, too.
As in the contact with the supervisor, you need to establish reasonableness, but firmness. Here, you want them to know that there are steps you can take, short of a lawsuit or “going public.” Make sure that they are aware that you have further documentation, and the support of at least a few other people with identical complaints. The last thing (although you have not overtly threatened it) that the company wants to see is even a discussion of a class-action suit!
One corporate client for whom I worked owned a shopping mall with a common-area sidewalk. At least once each year, someone would threaten to sue because he or she had slipped on the ice (even though there was almost never any ice on the sidewalk!). Rather than go to court, the insurance company would agree to a $200 or $300 settlement, knowing that they were in the right but that legal fees to combat the case would cost ten or twenty times as much is small claims court. It was easier to avoid the conflict.
Similarly, the telephone carrier knows where that cut-off line is. Is it easier to provide a phone with a better antenna or would it be easier to boost the signal on the tower? Obviously, the phone costs can be recouped, and the bill adjusted.
Maybe your preferred solution is, indeed, a better phone, or a cash rebate. Be aware of the reasonableness of your suggested solutions. Maybe a cash card that can be applied to future calls. Your lost calls cost $40? Ask for a $50 rebate, but be willing to settle for $25. After all, some problems are inherent in any technology. You are more concerned about being able to resolve the matter that will obviously reoccur? Ask for a dedicated contact person that you can call when it happens, but be prepared for a compromise: the carrier will flag your account so that the initial, low-level employee can solve the matter instantly.
If you suggest reasonable solutions first, even if they are not fully acceptable, you are more likely to get reasonable compromise in return. In other words, use various techniques to leverage a favourable response from the company. Don’t; get personal, but do have a plan. Show bona fide loss, but don’t exaggerate. Be prepared to be tenacious. But, be prepared to be fair.