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How to save money by complaining — and actually get your way

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Ever experience terrible customer service? Or been hit with an unexpected fee — or received a product that wasn't as-promised? Even if you have, you may not have felt it was worth taking action: One study found that 96% of unhappy customers never complain to a business that has dissatisfied them.

But if you're not complaining, you're missing out on an opportunity to get better service, save money and even improve your mental health, according to research. Proactive complainers are "most likely to get the assistance, remedies and other benefits they seek," a Pepperdine Law Review article points out, whereas staying silent gets you squat.

The key to complaining and actually getting results? Know when to do it, and how to do it, so you can get money back and not feel guilty about lodging a complaint. These five steps will help you get what you want.

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1. Know which battles to pick

To be an effective complainer, it's vital to choose the right moments to speak up — and let go when the problem isn't worth raising. "Resist the temptation to become a chronic complainer," suggests Psychology Today. "Choose your issues." To decide when to make a stink, ask yourself two questions:

Is your complaint a legitimate one? Make sure "you have a valid and timely complaint," which will "save you time and effort," Consumer Action advised in a How to Complain guide. If you're complaining about a minor incident of rudeness that happened two years ago, you've probably waited too long.

Is there a specific result you're trying to achieve? Research suggests that people who complain with specific goals in mind are happier than those who don't. As frustrated as you might feel, you shouldn't just call and complain without a request ready: Even if it's just a freebie, voucher or coupon.

Certain industries can be better than others at responding to complaints: You should always try your luck with the credit card industry, airlines, grocers, internet service providers, hotels, banks, insurers, cell phone providers and satellite TV companies, according to Money Crashers.

If you have a problem with service in these industries, you're more likely to get results: As many as 69% of requests to credit card customer service reps, for example, are granted, including calls to waive or lower the annual fee.

2. Make sure you talk to the right person

When you have a complaint, "identify the person who has the power to make the changes you seek; then complain to that person directly," Psychology Today advised. Depending on your problem, it might be a waste of time telling your tale to the very first person who answers the phone.

Start by asking for a manager, supervisor or customer retention department. If you aren't happy with their responses, elevate your concerns by calling or writing to the CEO, owner or general counsel.

"Higher-level officials are sensitive to the firm's image, and often are more willing and able to find a solution to complaints," Consumer Action advises. To find the name of a higher-up, use the company directory, call and ask or use tricks to find an email address. When in doubt, just Google.

You likely won't actually get to talk to the CEO, but the person in their office who receives your message will get your information to the right people to address the complaint — plus, simply putting your complaint in writing can push companies to be more responsive because it shows you're serious, says Consumer Action.

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3. Get that honey ready

If you want to succeed, get your anger under control before you raise your issue: "If you spatter hot fury all over the recipient of your complaint, he or she will focus more on your venom than on helping you," Psychology Today warns.

To be most effective, kill them with kindness and raise only one complaint at a time. A "complaint sandwich" can be an effective way to get heard, according to Psychology Today. Your "sandwich" should include:

An "ear opener," to make the listener sympathetic. Try: "I've been a customer of your bank for five years," or "I've planned this trip for a long time and was excited to stay in your hotel," or "I've heard such great things about this restaurant and your wait staff has been so friendly."

The "meat," or your requested resolution. For example: "I noticed you charged me a $3 fee and I'd like that removed," or "The room was very dirty and the hotel was noisy, so I'm hoping you'd be willing to offer a 10% discount" or "My food was delivered cold, so I'd appreciate a complimentary dessert."

A "digestive" to motivate the listener to help. This should be simple: "I'd really appreciate your help," or "I'd be grateful it if you could help me solve this problem," or — simply — "Thanks very much for listening."

4. Be realistic about results...

Complaining can both save you money and help you to get better service. You can ask for discounts, waived fees and other perks to compensate you when things go wrong. But you need to be realistic about what you actually expect to achieve. A noisy room won't get you a free week in a hotel, for example.

Before you complain, decide exactly what you want the company to do. Some options include the following:

• Repair of a damaged item

• Replacement of a damaged item

• Exchanging an item for an undamaged one

• A discount or a credit

• A refunded fee

You might want to — politely — lead with a bigger request, but then stay open and amenable to meeting in the middle: "Consider whether a compromise would be acceptable. It may be easier to resolve the complaint if you agree to a settlement that falls short of a full refund," Consumer Action advised.

5. ...but if you're right, hold your ground

Remember: You have no reason to feel bad about complaining if you have a legitimate grievance and you complain in a proactive and polite way.

Complaints are "tools we use to bring about significant improvements in many aspects of our lives," Guy Winch wrote in The Squeaky Wheel. "Effective complaints could lead to fundamental changes in our community and better public service. When we complain to a company about a product and get it to fix or improve it, other consumers gain from our actions too."

So, don't hesitate to pick up the phone or send that letter. You can save money, get better service and potentially improve products and services for everyone.