The smarter consumer: How to fix a customer service problem now

The best way to fight bad service is right now, in real time.

Don’t wait until you get home. Businesses expect you to put it off, so by the time you’ve written a letter or figured out what to say by phone, you can bet the company has prepared an appropriate response. Or, in some instances, an inappropriate response.

Say something. Now.

Not always easy, I know. You have to take a deep breath and speak up and be prepared to stand your ground. But it’s by and large the fastest way to fix something.

Why?

• A company has more ways to make you happy when you’re disappointed with a product if you’re still at the store. They can exchange it, fix it or offer you a refund on the spot.

• Employees and their supervisors are also allowed to compensate their customers more generously in person, so they can ensure you walk away happy. They’re not always as anxious to make things right when you’re complaining phone, email or social media.

• The appeals process is usually pretty simple. Just ask for a manager, who is usually eager to listen to your case and can bend even more rules to make you whole.

The process usually goes like this: Something happens – bad service or a broken product — and you mention it to an employee. If the employee can’t fix the problem, you ask for a supervisor, until it’s taken care of.

But what if it isn’t? What if the employee you’re dealing with is dismissive? And what if that person refuses to call a manager or claims no one is available?

I’ve been in that situation before. Maybe it was my own attitude (after all, when you’re upset at the level of service, it’s hard to hide your feelings of disappointment) or maybe it was my circumstances. I’ve stormed out of my share of businesses when I should have stood my ground.
Here’s what you should do in order to find a manager who can say “yes.”
Look around.

The picture and name of a supervisor is often posted on the wall. It’s not always in a prominent place (hint: check the hallways leading to the back offices or the bathrooms). From that point, it’s just a matter of requesting that person by name.

Take a deep breath.
You’re probably upset. But that’s the last thing you want when you’re negotiating. If you’re in the grip of a powerful emotion like anger, you aren’t thinking clearly. So, if need be, find a quiet corner and calm yourself.

Mind your manners.
Remain unflappable and non-argumentative and use lots of “pleases” and “thank yous.” Allow the shoddy product or service to speak for itself. For example, a restaurant server is likely to be outraged by an insect baked into your meal, so there’s no need to add your own drama to it. And there’s never a reason – ever – to be rude. A manager is far likelier to show up when a customer is behaving rationally.

Ask for more information.
Assuming an employee can’t help, you can underscore your seriousness by politely asking for a manager’s contact information, including a name, phone number and mailing address. That shows you don’t intend to simply walk away. There’s no need to add threats like, “You’ll be hearing from my attorney!” Often, the simple request for information will prompt an employee to call the boss.

Praise them.
Another well-known technique for bringing a supervisor out into the store is with the promise of positive feedback. Tell an associate that you want to share something good with his or her supervisor; make sure you actually have something positive to share. This often works like a charm, because everyone likes an “attaboy.” After lavishing your praise, note that there’s one area of improvement you’d like to suggest, and then let ’em have it.

Ask an unanswerable question.
If you stump the employee, they’ll have to “check” with a supervisor. That often means the manager must come out to speak with you. Gotcha!

Be supportive … and polite.
It’s often true that employees don’t have the power to make something right. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re incompetent, just that they’re not allowed to do anything. An employee is far more likely to call a manager if you can offer subtle assurances that you won’t disparage them. How? By explaining that you know it’s not their fault that their hands are tied. And by being unfailingly polite.

In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to call a manager. In an ideal world, the problem you’re having wouldn’t exist at all – you’d be getting the service you paid for.

It’s not a perfect world.

(Photo: marc fal ardeau/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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