Got a gripe? Whether it's a faulty cellphone, a cranky washing machine or a designer dress that falls apart, inevitably something goes wrong with something you've bought. What do you do?
"We live in a buck-up-and-take-it society," said Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor for Consumer Reports magazine. "We're not going to plead for anything; we're just going to take it. We have a subconscious feeling that when we speak out, we're viewed as a complainer."
But consumer experts say the old adage is true: The proverbial squeaky wheel gets results.
"Not all consumers are treated equally. If you're persistent and know how to complain effectively, you're more likely to get a remedy," said Amy J. Schmitz, a professor at the University of Colorado law school in Boulder and author of an academic study of the "squeaky wheel system."
Typically, says Schmitz, companies have two types of responses to complaining customers: those who get the quick brush-off and the "squeaky wheels" who merit some attention.
Maria Papantoniadis, an office manager for a Sacramento, Calif., graphic design firm, is definitely the latter. "Most people don't want to spend the time to write a letter or spend the money to ship (an item). I used to give up, give it away or let it sit in a drawer," says the ardent eBay and mall shopper.
Whether it's an Igloo picnic cooler or a Pottery Barn umbrella, Papantoniadis is not shy about pursuing a replacement item or parts when something goes wrong.
About two years ago, a Michael Kors watch that she'd bought on sale at Macy's stopped working, long past the original warranty period. It couldn't be repaired locally, so she went online, looked up the warranty information, found the company's customer service department and called.
At her expense, she shipped the watch to them and Michael Kors sent her a $250 replacement watch, which was more than she had paid for the original.
There's an art to getting good customer service. Here's how:
If you start off angry or arrogant, you'll likely get shut down quickly.
"Don't go in with guns blazing or you give them little incentive to help you," said Giorgianni. "There is less chance the company is going to help you if they feel they've already lost you as a customer."
Instead, make it clear that you like shopping at the particular store or buying the brand of merchandise. Mention that you're a longtime customer or loyal to the brand. Tell them you assume the problem is uncharacteristic of the company's normal customer service.
Don't pick up the phone, go online or write a letter until you have essential details: serial numbers, date of purchase, warranty information, etc. If you're shuffling papers or unsure of details or vague about what you want, you're not going to sound like someone who should be listened to.
DON'T STOP AT 'NO'
Many consumers give up too easily, especially when they encounter a brusque or unhelpful service rep.
"You really should not settle for the first thing you hear, because that person could be having a bad day, they could be mad at their spouse or girlfriend," said Giorgianni. Some customer service reps, he said, can even harbor "subconscious biases" against women or minority callers.
If you don't get a satisfactory answer, "go up the food chain," he advises. Ask to speak to a supervisor or manager. If necessary, take it to the CEO's office.
"Companies are not in business to lose customers."
PUT IT IN WRITING
Often, the most effective way to lodge a complaint is to write a letter.
Do a Google search to find the name and address of the company's customer service office. Don't be afraid to write to the CEO. While it's not likely you'll hear back personally, the CEO's office could hand it over to a consumer response team.
Spell out clearly - but not in laborious detail - the nature of your problem, what you want resolved, how to reach you and when you expect a reply. Be respectful but firm.
The federal government's website (www.USA.gov) has sample consumer complaint letters that you can use to get started. (Search under "consumer complaint letter.")
Begin with the store where you bought the item. Giorgianni says a local retailer, even if it's a chain, usually wants to treat its customers well. Plus they need to know if a manufacturer's product is causing problems.
FILL OUT THE CARD
Consumer Reports says you should always fill out the paper warranty card that comes with most major purchases. Even though it's not required to activate the warranty, "Make sure you return those cards so if there is a problem with a product, the company will know where to find you," said Giorgianni.
You can skip all the questions about your shopping and consumer habits, but do fill out the pertinent details on serial numbers and date and place of purchase.
WARRANTY OR NOT
Even if your warranty has expired, it doesn't mean there's no point in trying. Giorgianni says the legal concept of "implied warranty" means there's a reasonable expectation that a product should be workable and usable. For instance, "No reasonable person would spend $3,000 for a fridge that breaks down in a year."
Do a Web search on the product name and "consumer complaints" or "problems with" to see if others are posting similar gripes, he suggests. It can bolster your request to the company that something isn't right with that blender or flat-screen TV you've purchased.
Even if the limited warranty is long past or you lost the original receipt, you still might be able to get satisfaction.