You've only had that new handheld organizer for a couple of weeks, and suddenly it's completely frozen and totally unable to reset itself. You now have a several-hundred-dollar paperweight, and you're furious.
The more stuff we collect, the more we have to deal with product breakdowns, shoddy construction, and generally poor service. It's tempting to either ignore the nagging problems or hurl a string of obscenities at an unsuspecting customer service representative.
It's more constructive, and probably more effective, to lodge your complaint in a polite but firm manner. Here are some suggestions that might help.
Before you call or head back to the store, get your facts in order. If you still have receipts, warranty cards, or your contract, read them all and take them with you. This is especially important where contracts are concerned. Read them and know your rights.
It might even be worth your while to do a little research with the government agency that oversees the industry. The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has reams of information to help consumers deal with problems from credit to telemarketing to cell phones. And the Federal Reserve offers some guidance about major consumer protection laws in banking and finance.
When you make your complaint, keep your cool. No one at the other end of the customer service line went to work that morning wanting to hear you curse like a drunken sailor, although that's probably what they're used to hearing. You can stand out by being polite but firm. Compliment the company for any service you do like, or mention that you're a satisfied, longtime customer.
When you get to the complaining part, tap your inner Joe Friday and just state the facts. Explain both the problem and your expectations for a remedy. For example, you purchased a handheld organizer three weeks ago; you've followed all the instructions for troubleshooting, but it has broken beyond repair; and you would like a replacement or a refund.
Here's where knowing your rights will come in handy. If you get resistance to your request, respond to each objection. Be firm. (In the case of that handheld organizer, for example, remind the representative that the product is under warranty.)
If the first person you talk to cannot help, ask to speak to a supervisor. It may simply be that the person on the lowest rung of the organization doesn't have the authority to do what you need. As you move up the organizational rungs, make sure to take note of each person's name and position as you speak to them. Write down anything that person authorizes. If your solution doesn't materialize, you can go back to these notes to work at it again.
It's tempting to immediately threaten to take your business elsewhere. You may eventually get to that point. Even if your problem is resolved, you may decide it's not worth dealing with a certain company any longer. Resist the urge to start the conversation this way, but do state your intentions if you're not getting what you want. Most businesses do not want to lose a customer, nor suffer the bad publicity when you tell all your friends and neighbors to stay away.
Although many companies handle consumer complaints by phone, you may have to put your request in writing. In that case, stick to the same guidelines. Clearly state the problem and the solution you want. Don't send a 10-page screed that sounds like it came from the Unabomber. Include copies of any supporting material. Follow up your letter in a few weeks if you don't hear anything.
If all else fails, complain to a higher authority -- the FTC, the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org/), or the federal or state government agency that regulates the industry. Let the business know you've escalated your complaint.
Don't hesitate to complain tactfully to businesses that you really appreciate, and include some lavish praise. Use those comment cards you see everywhere. Companies like good feedback as much as the criticism.