How to fix any customer service problem yourself

The most satisfying cases I handle as a consumer advocate aren’t the ones where I step in to save the day. It’s the times when you, the consumers, fix a problem without any outside help.

In other words, it’s when the system works.

Take what happened to Stacey Larsen’s subscription-TV service. She signed up last December, only to discover that it didn’t work as advertised. Her TV was plagued by numerous technical glitches that often made it impossible to watch the programs she wanted.

“We have had technician visits on Dec. 24 and 28, January 12, March 13 and May 21,” she explained. “We have had three sets of equipment swapped out over a six-month period and are still having a problem.”

None of the repair visits helped. Her TV service remained on the blink. And that’s when she contacted me, asking for help.

“The equipment they are providing does not meet the level of service in their customer agreement,” she told me. “The early cancellation should be waived. Can you help?”

Here’s where things get interesting.

At about the same time she contacted me, I experienced my own technical glitch. My initial set of emails made it to her, but the follow-up messages between her, me and the company, were held in unchecked mailbox. For three months.

What would happen to this case?

Well, surprise! By the time I found Larsen’s follow-up message, she’d convinced the company to void the contract and refund the money, which is exactly what the customer wanted. Best of all, she did it without my help.

“It was not easy,” she says.

So how do you fix your own problem?

Talk to the right people.
Every company has a “chain” that you must climb in order to resolve a dispute. Hers involved a series of tech support calls, visits and follow-ups. It’s essential to follow a company’s playbook when you’re in trouble, otherwise your requests for help could be ignored. It’s not really fair, but it’s their company, their rules.

Remember your manners.
Larsen’s complaint was successful in large part because of her demeanor. She wasn’t demanding. She used words like “please” and “thank you” even when she felt like giving the company a piece of her mind. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the resolution process: keeping your cool. It’s yet another great reason to limit your correspondence to emails. You can take your time and make sure your request doesn’t sound too shrill. Politeness wins more cases.

Be patient — but not too patient.
Larsen showed remarkable patience when she waited months to let the subscription TV company fix the problem. You have to give the process some time, but you also have to be mindful of any penalties or termination fees that apply if you wait too long. A cynical company will drag out the resolution process until your rights to a refund under your contract have expired. Don’t let that happen to you.

File your appeal.
I list the names, email addresses and phone numbers of the executives in charge of customer service on my consumer advocacy site. I’m fortunate to work with a great team of volunteers who make sure every page is up to date, and much to the chagrin of some executives, the list some direct phone numbers. I wish that wasn’t necessary, but sometimes it’s the only way to get a company’s attention.

Fish or cut bait.
At some point, when the company refuses to help, forcing you to live with a TV service on the blink, you need to take your appeal to someone who can actually do something. That should have been me, of course. But it could have also been a credit card (for a dispute) or a court (for a full refund, plus attorney fees).

Ultimately, as I’ve noted before, the best advocate for any problem is you. Larsen proved that by pressing her point with the company and receiving a full refund.

Does the system work?

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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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    I agree with you about how to complain. About 5 years ago I was on a flight that ended with an FAA incident report and a bus ride to our destination. (A really long and entertaining story.) A colleague and I were on the flight and both of us wrote to the airline about the incident. I was simply asking for reimbursement of transfer cost to get to my house as no one could pick me up at the time we finally arrived at our home airport. I mentioned everything the airline did right and told how exemplary the captain and flight attendants were throughout a rather strange night. I received a nice letter back as well as reimbursement for my out of pocket costs and a nice voucher for future travel. I was pleasantly surprised. My colleague wrote a very complaint filled letter demanding all sorts of compensation and received a small future travel voucher in return. We compared letters and actually said the same things in them—but mine highlighted what the crew did well and my colleague’s complained about all the inconvenience. (Which started with bad weather.) How you complain can make a big difference.

  • vacaygirl

    Dear FQTVLR,
    Speaking for those tasked with responding to consumer complaints on a daily basis, thank you from the bottom of our collective, trampled and battered hearts. It is consumers like you that make our lives so much easier!

  • emanon256

    I always try to send letters when I receive good service, as well as letters when I receive bad service explaining what they did well and how they can improve. It always served me well until the United Merger. Now when I write Untied with a compliment, I get an apology, and when I write with a complaint, I get told off.

  • emanon256

    I’m trying to solve a problem with Amazon dot com by myself right now and might eventually need help. They have always had amazing customer service in the past, and their policy still states they will reply to e-mail within 12 hours. So I am shocked that this is happening. I purchased an item, and later got an e-mail from Amazon stating it was recalled. I e-mailed, and they wrote back and apologized and said they will refund me and to throw away the product. I waited a month and no refund appeared, so I e-mailed again and they said they found an error in their processing and if I would like I can get a check or gift card instead. They said a check would take 15 days, and a gift card would be instant. I wrote back and asked for the gift card as I already had items in my cart to buy. They sent an e-mail back stating it would appear on my account in 24-48 hours. After 72 hours, it didn’t appear. So I e-mailed and got no reply. After several days I e-mailed again and got a reply stating that their colleague did it the right way to I will have a credit within 5 business days of when their colleague did it. It was already more than 5 business days. I waited another day, got no credit, wrote back, and got no reply after 3 days. I wrote again, and still no reply. Every time I write, it states I will get a reply within 12 hours. I know CE says not to call, but I am wondering if that is my only option.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I can help. Please send me the paper trail –

  • Christopher Elliott

    OK, the poll results do surprise me. I would have thought a majority might say the system doesn’t work.

  • emanon256

    I said it doesn’t. If it did, we wouldn’t need you.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Sadly, compliments are pretty much wasted with large companies. Face-to-face with somebody they do wonders, but with a big company odds are your compliment ends up with somebody completely unconnected to your experience who won’t be involved or able to help you when you do run into a problem in the future. Still good manners, just not really helpful.

    And, I wouldn’t be surprised if in some cases it would get get attached to your account as a contact of some sort and would then be assumed to have been a complaint.

  • emanon256

    I’m going to try by myself for a little longer first. I wrote on their Facebook wall this morning and will see where that goes. There are people who need your help with things much greater than a $32 refund from Amazon. I would rather they get your help before me.

  • Dutchess

    Emanon, instead of emails, why not try their chat service? This might be a better way to get through to an associate and eliminate the long waits between emails.

  • emanon256

    Thanks! I just spoke to someone named “Amazon” at Amazon, who is saying they are having an internal billing problem, and the refund will take an additional 2 weeks. Erg. Amazon is running like an airline with this one. We really do need a law stating when and how a refund will be processed. I just checked and Colorado has nothing on the books about it.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Good advice, Dutchess. Thank you.

  • bodega3

    Did you pay with a credit card? I would dispute this with the card company as that usually gets fast action from a company.

  • Mark Cuban

    Most organizations really don’t want to lose customers. Most of the people who have issues seem to cause them all by themselves, either by getting nasty, rude, or by simply not taking responsibility for their mistakes. No one wants to consider “life happens,” and there’s not always someone else to pay for it.

  • Judealou

    I wish your poll included “sometimes.” Much of the time, if dealing with a reputable company, the system does work. I have learned a lot from you about dealing with airlines, which I have passed on to friends who also have had mostly good luck. Recently I was on a Delta flight SEA -SLC that was delayed for 2.5 hours for various reasons, and when we got off the plane at 10:30 p.m. Delta staff were waiting at the gate with vouchers for hotels, shuttles and tickets (mine was 1st class!) for the next morning. THAT was great customer service.
    Conversely, a friend was injured on a United plane (not her fault) and asked United nicely to reimburse her for out-of-pocket expenses (medical, etc.). They said no. I wrote a polite demand letter for her from my law firm. Still no. I sued. The matter was then settled quickly and confidentially but it was ridiculous to have to go to that extreme. Most people, I guess, would probably have just walked away, I suppose.

  • emanon256

    I did, but it was over 90 days ago, so I can’t dispute it anymore. I am really hoping this is some glitch and not the new normal.


    I think it works for the most part, but some companies–both large and small–simply ignore letters. I write only about the immediate problem and do not detail a laundry list of problems. And I always find something the company did right. I cannot claim a 100% success rate, but overall I am happy with what I achieve when I have a legitimate complaint.

  • omgstfualready

    Love the chat option. I usually summarize it all at the end and ask for their agreement (then print it all out naturally).

  • bodega3

    Have you read up on the fair billing credit? I think contacting your credit card is still on option. I would at least pursue it as they are in violation of the time period to get this settled.

  • omgstfualready

    SO true! I love a specific national retail chain (sponsors a pretty big parade in NY on Thanksgiving). Their customer service in their shops has always been great. When I had a favor of sorts I was shocked they wouldn’t help. I bought a large ticket item which was elibible for return when a special charity event was started (donate $X and get Y% off). The discount paid for my donation, the store gets a fancy headline about being so generous with their customer’s money; everyone wins. I asked online customer service to charge me the charity donation and credit me back the savings to my purchase. That saves me goign to the store to return it and rebuy it. They said no. I was super shocked. So I wrote a thank you note to the service people that normally work with me in furniture (what I had just bought) and wished they could train others in service since now they have to redo the transaction for me. They called me same day and got it all taken care of for me to save me the hassle. I have to wonder if I just complained about the bad situation if I’d have the same outcome.

  • omgstfualready

    I had a great experience in Kohls with a compliment. I was in line at customer service behind a customer completely out of line. I don’t even know the issue and if I thought either side was correct, but that’s besides the point. Her words, tone, pitch was upsetting to me to witness. The clerk was calm, polite, and everything I’d not be in that situation. I was so positive she was going to put in a complaint as soon as I got home I wrote an online comment to get in ahead of her complaint. I was so happy that it made its way to the specific store manager who wrote me back a very lovely note regarding the matter.

  • emanon256

    I am not. I have been unable to find any law citing the time period. I will give them a few more days and then check with the credit card.

  • Miami510

    That was good advice, and I voted “yes.” It was difficult to vote on a yes/no basis, because the true answer is “sometimes, or most of the time.” One can get a distorted view of service problems because Christopher Elliott is brought in when other avenues haven’t worked.

    This is an exceptionally good topic because it has the instructions that will work most of the time.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Some companies believe that by being intransient enough cases will go away. That way they only pay for a tiny number of cases where the customer actually begins litigation. The savings “justifies” the additional cost. Seems very unethical to me.

  • emanon256

    Good News! I just got an e-mail saying its been investigated and they have credited my amazon account with the balance. I think it was the chat that did it.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    My son works in NYC for a large company. He regularly gets compliments and people line up to have him handle their problems or accounts. One customer wrote to the head honcho of that division of that large company. The head honcho wrote a very nice letter to my son passing on the compliment and cc’d the management at my son’s store. I might add that this large company has occasionally appeared in CE’s columns, normally later on in the week.

    My son says the reason he receives so many compliments is because people come in, figuring that they’ll be treated like dirt because a) it’s NYC; and b) it’s this large company with a reputation and the people are just so surprised when he treats them like people. He credits it to his Midwestern upbringing. :)

  • Christopher Elliott

    Nicely done.

  • PittsburghKathleen

    I did send Chris an e-mail this morning detailing a problem.
    I was trying to book a flight on from IAD-BUD from 4/22/2014 to 4/29/2014.
    On the matrix (dates before, my dates, and after my required date) the price was $898. This matrix has a #1 subscript that states: “Indication of total price in US Dollar (USD) . It includes airfare, taxes, fees and carrier charges for 1 adult.”
    However when I clicked on that price, and tried to pick the cheapest flight segments, the price changed to $1236.28 – an increase of $338.
    I tried other cities from Dulles – (IST, FCO) – on different days, different months. Each trip the price was at least $200 – $300 higher than the full fare stated price.
    I can’t believe more people aren’t complaining. This price switch has been happening for the last couple of days. Think how many people have been overcharged for their airfare.

    I e-mailed Lufthansa via their website (no response).
    I sent a Tweet and was told to contact their website people in the US. Really?
    Little Kathleen in Pittsburgh is going to fix pricing problems with Germany’s national airline that is worth billions?
    Doesn’t Lufthansa have some sort of IT safety net to ensure the price is the same?
    I filed a complaint on the Department of Transportation website because Lufthansa is in violation of the full fare regulations.

    Hopefully the DOT can do their stuff. I still have faith in the US government :)

  • omgstfualready

    I’m From NY, And I’m Lovely! ;-)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Well, my son is handsome, but I wouldn’t call him “lovely”! :-D

  • Carchar

    It works most of the time.

  • omgstfualready

    ah, well I’m a chick……

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Knew that – I read that exchange about airplane seating and broom mileage. :) Hope I didn’t misunderstand your comment about being lovely – thought you were being lighthearted.

  • emanon256

    I’m from NY and miss it sorely.

  • omgstfualready

    Yea, that was a bit of a rant eh? I’m almost always light hearted but I appreciate the comment to check, if you see the broom you’ll know I mean business!

  • jennj99738

    Have you tried the call-back option on the customer service page? I had horrible problems with an order and dealing with their out-sourced call center but when I clicked to have someone call me back and entered my phone number, I got a call from a gentleman in Denver within minutes and the issue was immediately resolved. Their chat lines and probably emails are outsourced and it’s been hit or miss with them.

    Argh, I just finished reading the thread and saw that emanon’s issue was resolved. Good news.