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Gentle art of consumer complaints

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Buying a satisfactory product or service usually means just paying for it. But unfortunately, consumers sometimes have to do a little more: They have to complain to get what they want. And they may have to complain again and again.

What some call the ''art'' of complaining is being practiced by more people as habits of buying and saving change and retailers and financial service firms struggle to keep up with these changes.

* More purchases are being made by mail order than ever before, so mail-order firms receive more complaints about missed deliveries, damaged goods, or shoddy merchandise.

* More financial service complaints are being heard by banks, brokerages, and insurance companies. New products and new customers whose previous savings experience was limited to bank passbook accounts have resulted in increased complaints. People with individual retirement accounts, for example, have experienced delays of up to 18 months when they wanted to transfer their IRAs from one company or bank to another.

* More holiday gift buying will mean more complaints about presents that either weren't sent on time or started to fall apart after the first wearing.

Whatever the reason for a complaint, knowing how to complain effectively can dramatically increase your chances of satisfaction.

First, get your facts, or evidence, together. Gather any receipts, bills, letters, catalogs, advertisements, and anything else relating to the purchase. Make a list of all the dates, including the date you placed an order, sent in money, paid a bill, received the merchandise, signed a policy, or opened an account. You should also write out a summary of what you expected in the first place, what was wrong with what you got, what you want done about it, and what you'll do if you don't get satisfaction. This can be both the basis for future letters or memorized for oral use.

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