Personal Finance

The best consumer self-advocacy tool you've never used

Ron Lieber
Getty Images

Even semiprofessional consumers like me run into our share of problems. These are particularly irksome, since we should probably know better than to find ourselves on the wrong end of a busted product or poorly delivered service.

So this week, I'm pleased to share with you the single best tool I've ever found for getting my money back or my money's worth. In fact, it has never failed me.

It's called the Executive Email Carpet Bomb (E.E.C.B. for short) — a well-written message to the right group of corporate executives, whose email addresses are often pretty easy to figure out. A group of renegades at a blog called Consumerist first published the concept 10 years ago this month.

More from New York Times:
Wells Fargo Whistle-Blowers' Fate Becomes Just a Footnote
Fox News Besieged by New Bias Lawsuit and Federal Inquiry
As 'Brexit' Tensions Rise, E.U. Proposal Targets London Finance

Consumerist was originally part of the Gawker Media empire, and Joel Johnson was the founding editor who helped set the tone for its punk-rock, bottoms-up approach. A former phone company support representative, he brought to the blog strong memories of former customers bursting into tears when he saved them piles of money. "When people were taken advantage of, I wanted them not to get kicked into the sewer of customer-service phone numbers," he said in an interview this week, describing the kind of assistance he wanted the site to provide.

Avid readers piled in with tips of all sorts, but one from a reader named Marc stuck out. He'd assembled lists of email addresses for executives at companies that had done him wrong, and his notes to them had all led to resolution. The Consumerist team named the concept and gave it life (and a four-letter abbreviation) in its initial post by Ben Popken.

Here are the instructions: First, the E.E.C.B. is a last resort. Exhaust all other options before bringing out this heavy weaponry. Don't turn to this until after speaking with a supervisor on a help line, stopping into the bank branch and so on. After all, if everyone bombards senior executives whenever anything goes wrong, the E.E.C.B. will stop working.

Second, write a note that is pointed but polite. "Make it cogent and understandable and perhaps even warm and funny," said Meg Marco, who was a senior editor at the time of the E.E.C.B.'s coinage and now runs Consumerist, these days a sibling brand to Consumer Reports.

Keep it short. State the problem quickly. Make a reasonable ask. Don't threaten to bomb the factory, which an old friend of mine did when two lamps that he had purchased failed in rapid succession. (The stern letter he received in return went up on a dorm room wall.) And try to avoid being one of the crazy-sounding people companies never want to hear from. "Don't send a rant," Ms. Marco said.

Consumerist has published its own complaint-letter template, and I've posted a real E.E.C.B. of my own. My letter helped persuade Jewel-Osco, a grocer that is part of the Albertsons chain, to fix a dangerous condition at a store that was affecting neighbors (including my mother).

Now, about the recipients. You'll want to look up a company's senior executive team online and find the people who are most likely to have something to do with your problem. Most public companies will have a page listing those people, but you can often find relevant names in news releases that private companies put out, too. As for the email formatting, the media contact page often has addresses listed for public relations staff members that will show you whether it's or something else. Don't bug the P.R. people though, since it's not their job to answer consumers directly. Consumerist has a post with additional email-format search tips.

So how well does the E.E.C.B. work? Again, I've never had it fail, though I've had to resend the note once or twice. I've used it at American Airlines more than once, and at Best Buy when it sold me a defective backpack. (Even though a warranty claim should, in theory, have gone to Samsonite, Best Buy stepped up and refunded the money, which I promptly spent on another backpack at Best Buy as a way to express appreciation.) Hertz eventually did the right thing, too, after hitting us with insurance charges that we had specifically declined.

And why does the E.E.C.B. work? I wondered whether recipients ever Google my name and discover what I do for a living, even though I send notes from my personal email account. But I've coached too many friends and family members through successful E.E.C.B. efforts for that to be an explanation. My father received prompt replies after shabby treatment by a Lexus dealer, and friends have received refunds from United Airlines, American Express and other companies. The biggest victory of all may have been a quick reply from an executive at El Al, the Israeli airline, long known for its disdain for passengers. (Or perhaps it's just rigorous security that comes with a scowl.)

When I sent the missive on my mother's behalf to a variety of Albertsons and Jewel-Osco executives last summer, I heard back from Mike Withers, Jewel-Osco's president. I checked back with him this week to see whether he had looked me up at the time, but he said that he had not.

"I do personally answer most complaints that come to me," he said in an email from Portugal, where he was visiting his sons. "If they sent it to me, I assume that they want to hear from me."

I generally don't pester the president or chief executive, but Jewel-Osco is a small enough part of the Albertsons empire that I figured it was worth a shot. Often, I'll hear back from someone in an executive customer service department of some sort, after my email gets sent along. And that's great, too. These agents generally have ninja powers that allow them to cut through red tape, issue refunds or find facts.

Ms. Marco at Consumerist said she has never had to send an E.E.C.B. herself. She doesn't have a favorite reader war story, though she did point me to a witty — and particularly effective — breakup note that someone had sent to Frontier Communications.

I'd hoped to speak to Mr. Popken, who wrote the original E.E.C.B. post back in 2007, to tip my cap and congratulate him on a job well done. He now works for a big company himself, however, NBC News. Emily Passer, a spokeswoman there, said Mr. Popken would not be able to help me, and would not explain why on the record.

So here's an E.E.C.B. to NBC News:

Dear Colleagues in Truth-Telling,

How did we get to a point where journalism organizations won't let their journalists talk to other journalists about their great journalism? You have many talented people there, and it really wouldn't hurt to let them talk to other reporters every so often about the impactful work that they've done for you or others. Heck, it might even help morale in this tough media environment.

Thanks, Ron

Perhaps Mr. Popken will turn up anonymously in the comments attached to this article online. He, and all of you, are welcome to post examples of your own complaint letters that worked or notes on what it's like to be on the receiving end of similar correspondence.

Again, the E.E.C.B. is a last resort, not a default. But if you write one in the right way, it will most likely become the best tool in your kit when you're at loggerheads with a large organization.

"There is a huge convoluted system of consumer capitalism that is so hard to navigate and takes so much time," said Mr. Johnson, the Consumerist founding editor. He's now a communications and strategy consultant but still looks back fondly on his time in the blogging trenches. "If you can help people in this way, it's an everyday mitzvah."