How to Complain: Squeaky Wheel Still Gets the Grease

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Most people who have a complaint don't really push for a solution. They make a quick phone call or send an email, but if they get the brush-off, they're done.

The fact is, if you want to get your problem solved, you need to speak up and stand your ground until the company makes you happy.

"Yes, it's the squeaky-wheel system of customer service," said Amy Schmitz, a law professor at the University of Colorado. Her study "Access to Consumer Remedies in the Squeaky-Wheel System" was published in the Pepperdine Law Review.

Schmitz believes some companies would rather give customers the runaround than deal with their complaint.

"It appears deliberate," she told me. "If they know they can save money by only providing remedies to those who are most persistent, businesses may be able to maximize their profits and elude legitimate complaints."

If you know how to complain and are willing to be a squeaky wheel, you're more likely to be successful.

"Don't give up," she said. "Otherwise you will be ignored."

To find out how to complain, I spoke with Ruth Susswein at Consumer Action. They've published a step-by-step booklet on how to get results when you complain. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

Q: What are the most important things to remember when we're going to complain?

A: Be calm, be firm and be concise. Decide what you're looking for. What's the outcome you want? Do you want your money back? Do you want a new product? Or do you just want to vent and get an apology?

I've seen complaint letters that go on and on about the problem, but never explain what the customer is looking for. Figure out what you want. Briefly state the problem and what you expect the solution to be.

Q: You say it's important to complain right away. Why does that matter?

A: There are certain kinds of complaints that have deadlines attached to them. For example, you have 60 days after you receive a credit card statement with a charge on it that you intend to dispute, to write a complaint letter to the credit card company. There's often a time limit for a health insurance appeal. If there's a deadline related to your complaint, don't miss it.

Q: Is there a right forum to complain? How do you know whether to use the customer service line, write a letter or send an email? How do you decide where to begin?

A: Sometimes it doesn't matter. It all depends on the type of complaint. Ultimately, you want your complaint in writing. You can start calling the company, but you need to follow-up in writing. You want some proof that you made that complaint and the only way to do that is by putting it in writing.

Q: What about records that document your complaint?

A: The more records you have, the better. If you have proof, provide copies of that proof to help make your case. Never send originals. So for example, if you have a receipt that shows when you bought the item and how much you paid for it, send a copy with your complaint letter.

Q: What if you explain the problem, document your case and you still get turned down?

A: Then you need to escalate; take your problem to the next level. It may be the CEO of a company; it may be that you have to turn to a regulator, a government agency that oversees this kind of industry. There are lots of places to turn. No matter what sort of complaint you have, there's probably a government agency to turn to if your complaint is unresolved.

Q: Odds are the CEO won't read your letter, but that's not the point, right?

A: Right. Someone in the CEO's office is going to take it seriously and will direct your complaint to someone who hopefully can resolve it swiftly.

Q: So your advice is: if I have what I believe to be a legitimate complaint and I'm being ignored, don't give up.

A: Absolutely! Go after it again and again. In the case of a health insurance claim, you may have to re-appeal a decision. You need to be persistent, but also patient, calm and in control. The way to get the best results is to stay calm.