Sometimes you have to complain. Sometimes it works. Matter of fact, I’ve collected some pretty nice loot with effective dear-sir-you-cur letters: refunds, gifts, blandishments to persuade me to return to the fold. So…what DOES work in the consumer complaint department?
In my experience, four strategies tend to work with some reliability:
- Extreme clarity. Explain your problem and what you want done about it in clear, concise, economical language. Try to keep your message to one page if at all possible; only under the most extreme circumstances should your letter run longer than two pages.
- Good humor or at least moderate courtesy. Try to sound reasonable, if at all possible. Never threaten a lawsuit; instead use this language: “I expect that xxxx will be done.” The potential for a lawsuit is obvious to higher management, which, in the circumstances where that could be a possibility, is where you will address your dear-sir-you-cur. You need not and should not threaten. When you need a lawyer, just quietly go hire one.
- Addressing the right person(s). Find out where, within a company, you can find someone who can do something to fix your problem. Try The Consumerist or Google; in either case, search the company’s name + “company headquarters” to find the names of upper-level executives and their addresses. Also look outside the company to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, professional organizations that your correspondent may belong to, and regulatory agencies with some legal sway over the company’s behavior. Do not forget state and federal attorneys general, if a law appears to have been violated. If that’s the case, cc your letter to these outside agencies. A couple of weeks ago I posted a guide with links to places to track such worthies down.
- A request that something specific happen to remedy your issue. A random rant will get you nowhere. Your purpose in writing the dear-sir-you-cur is to obtain some sort of redress for whatever wrong you believe has been inflicted on you.
Hmmm…. Let’s see how these principles work in real life. Here’s a letter that netted me a sweet little prize:
December 15, 2005
260 Metty Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Dear Sir or Madame:
Enclosed is a Calphalon teakettle that has corroded all the way through to the outside. I took the kettle back to Williams-Sonoma, where I purchased it, and asked them if they were serious about the “lifetime guarantee” they promised when they sold it to me some years ago. They said they are, but they no longer carry Calphalon, and so they gave me your 800 number. Your customer service representative advised me to send the kettle back to you and said it would be replaced with a kettle in the style you are currently manufacturing.
And so—here it is.
Would it be possible to get a kettle that has an efficient, working whistle? Among the reasons I have so loved your wonderful old kettle is that its whistle actually works-few so-called whistling teakettles really make a loud noise. In my growing senility, I occasionally will put the water on the fire and then wander off and forget it. If I’m working at the computer or in the garden, I’m capable of completely forgetting about the kettle on the stove; in the past, I have melted two enamel teakettles to electric burners doing this. Obviously, this creates a considerable risk that sooner or later I’ll burn down the house. So, will you please send me a functioning, real whistling teakettle? If the little whistle that goes on the old kettle will fit on the new one, would you send back the old whistle?
This has been the best kettle I have ever owned. Besides making a noise audible in the garden and the back office and besides being visually beautiful, it is so perfectly balanced that even when it is full, it hardly feels heavy. I hope your new kettle is as intelligently designed.
Notice that this little guy has several characteristics that mark a successful dear-sir-you-cur:
- It’s not especially churlish. You catch more flies with molasses than you do with vinegar.
- It makes a specific request: it tells the correspondent exactly what you want to have happen. (Matter of fact, this one makes two requests: a) please send me a replacement teakettle; and b) please make it a whistling teakettle.)
- It says something complimentary about the correspondent or the company involved.
Mellow—or at least good humor—usually gets you further than rant. In this simple example, the main points are that I’m asking for something specific and that I’m restraining myself from having a fit because the allegedly indestructible Calphalon teakettle failed to hold up under the corrosive effects of Central Arizona Project water, a substance that many residents will not ingest in its unfiltered state.
By 2005, Calphalon was no longer making its wonderful whistling teakettle. Instead the company sent me a fairly awesome stainless steel model that I could not have afforded to buy unless I’d won the lottery. It worked magnificently and lasted a long time, until…yes…I wandered off and forgot I’d left the heat on under it. Which, as you’ll recall, was the reason I needed a kettle that makes a noise when the water comes to a boil.
The year 2005 was a good one for the dear-sir-you-cur. That summer, I extracted a refund from the California Automobile Association, after they refused to supply the service I’d purchased. This effort required a series of letters:
July 5, 2005
California State Automobile Association
150 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
Dear Sir or Madam:
On August 15, 2004, I sent the California Automobile Association a check for $49 to cover a year’s membership for my son, Oliver Q. Boxankle, who was living in San Francisco.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, he moved back to Arizona. This afternoon while he was hauling his goods to a storage locker, his car battery went dead. The temperature here today, by the way, was 112 degrees.
He called AAA and was refused help. He ultimately had to get a friend to drive him to a Checker auto, wait while he purchased a battery, drive him back to the vehicle, and help install it.
The reason I paid your organization fifty bucks was so that this sort of little crisis wouldn’t happen. Since AAA declined to honor its contract, I believe you should refund my fee.
Kindly do so promptly. I will refrain from notifying the California attorney general’s office and the Better Business Bureau about this for a week or two, giving you some time to refund the money, but unless I hear from you soon, I will take my complaint to the authorities in your state.
Not only did this appeal elicit no response, what I did get was an ad proposing that I send the California AAA more money for an extended membership. Argh! I sent the solicitation and a copy of my original dear-sir-you-cur back to the person who was billed as the organization’s membership director, with an expression of dismay:
August 6, 2005
Vice President, Membership
California State Automobile Association
San Francisco, CA 94142-9186
Dear Chitra Nayak:
Now that this annoying solicitation arrives, instead of the refund I requested, I do believe I will let the California Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau know what my son received in exchange for the fee I gave you last year.
Steal from me once, shame on you. Steal from me twice, shame on me.
And shame, indeed, Chitra Nayak. I would be embarrassed to work for an organization that steals from its members and then dares to hold its hand out for another ripoff.
Hm. Could be the language was getting a bit strong there. That notwithstanding, I also sent a complaint to the California Attorney General’s consumer division:
August 6, 2005
Attorney General’s Office
California Department of Justice
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550
Dear Sir or Madam:
Less than a year after I purchased a membership in the California Automobile Association for my son, who was living in San Francisco, he moved back to Arizona. The ambient temperature exceeded 112 degrees the day he went to store some of his possessions in a rented space, and, not surprisingly, his battery went dead.
He called AAA using the number on his card. They refused to send help.
In doing so, they violated their contract with me, and so I asked them to refund my money. In response I got nothing but a solicitation to renew the membership!
This outfit clearly is dishonest. You need to find out why they do not honor their contract with their members. If one person has been cheated, probably many more have had similar experiences.
Probably I would have let it drop had AAA made no response to my original request. The solicitation that I re-up the membership, though, really did go beyond the pale. Interestingly, the August 6 letters worked: AAA gave me a prorated refund for the time remaining on the year’s membership. It wasn’t much. But it was the principle of the thing.
In the Great Qwest Fiasco, the tide is running in my favor just now, largely thanks to a carefully crafted letter to Qwest’s chairman and CEO, cc’ed to the Arizona Corporation Commission and, for good measure, to the highest-ranking Qwest marketing executive I could identify. Today I got another call from the company’s Denver headquarters, where the woman who seems to have become my personal ombudsperson arranged for another refund—the latest in the amount of $99. Most of the mess is now untangled, the overcharges (as far as I can tell) have been rescinded, and I got free of the cell phone contract with no cancellation fee.
I do have to admit that while I was tilting at this particular windmill, I violated many of the standard dear-sir-you-cur rules:
October 23, 2008
Edward A. Mueller
Chairman and CEO
1801 California Street
Denver, Colorado 80202
Dear Mr. Mueller:
This letter is to ask that I be released from the remainder of my cell phone contract with Qwest, which runs until next June. I believe this request is justified by the abominable way in which I have been treated by your company and by the outrageous monetary gouges that have been inflicted on me as a result of Qwest’s incompetence and through no fault of my own.
Last August my DSL connection failed. I called your company’s DSL support and reached a person in Manila, who barely spoke English. After a comedy of errors ensuing from reading a script, this woman asked me to unplug the phone line from the wall, disconnecting us. I again had to trudge through your company’s monstrously off-putting robotic answering system and sit on hold forever to finally reach another Filipino, whose English was slightly better but far from perfect. He lock-stepped his way through the same script and, when nothing that he was trained to try worked, he concluded the modem was broken. He said he would send a new modem, and I should immediately return the old one lest I be charged something in excess of a hundred bucks for it.
Within a few hours of these exchanges, the DSL came back online. It stayed online. When the new modem, which appeared to be identical to the old modem, arrived here, I called your company and asked what I should do with the new modem and said I did not wish to be charged for it. I also asked to have a mysterious long-distance charge explained. Now I reached a representative who called himself “Josh,” and that was when the real trouble began.
“Josh” remarked that he could save me money on my phone bill by bundling the three services I have: DSL, an Internet connection, and the most minimal cell phone service I could extract from your company. I said the services were already bundled. He said they were not. I said the only reason I signed up for the DSL was that Qwest sent an offer promising a low rate for bundling the three services. He said the bundling had not been done, and that he could cut $10 off my monthly bill by doing so.
In the course of this discussion, he said that at no extra cost he was arranging to upgrade the speed of my DSL connection, but to accomplish this I need a new modem. I must mail back the modem Manila had sent, said “Josh.” A serviceman would come and attach the new modem, which would cost me a hundred dollars. But, o lucky me, Qwest would send me a $50 rebate. Reluctantly, I agreed to this.
Not until I got off the phone did I register that at one point in the conversation “Josh” apparently realized the modem that was sent to me was the same as the modem he proposed to replace it with. This was when he backpedaled to maneuver me into letting him replace it with another one that I have to pay for—no doubt he gets paid by the amount of junk he sells to consumers.
And it was not until the conversation ended that I looked up my records in Quicken and found that I signed up for the alleged “bundle” way back in August 2006, meaning that for the previous two full years I was overcharged $10 a month. This amounts to $240 for a service that was misrepresented to me.
At this point I would like to pause in my narrative to suggest that the $240 rip-off should more than compensate for any additional gouge your company proposes to inflict for canceling your cell phone contract.
A few days later, a Qwest DSL technician showed up. He was mystified at the proposal that he replace the modem. He said I did not need a new modem for the service I was getting, and furthermore the service I had was working fine. He took the modem he had brought in his truck back to Qwest.
Subsequently, Qwest tried to charge me for this modem, which was never installed and which was taken away by the technician. Another miserable trudge through your execrable answering system, on September 23, connected me with “Amy,” who said the amount would be credited to my bill on the next cycle. I pointed out that this meant I would be soaked for $100 that I can’t afford in this cycle-I work for the state of Arizona and do not earn even a measurable fraction of what a phone company executive earns. When she realized the account was set up for automatic payments from my checking account, she said she could cancel this month’s autopay, accept a credit card payment for the $55.47 actually owing, and restart the autopay the following month, at which time, she promised, the cost would return to $86.
“Amy” made the following arrangement, which I read back to her over the phone to confirm:
- Autopay was stopped for the current billing cycle.
- It would restart the following month.
- The next bill would be approximately $86.
- The $99 charge for the undelivered modem was credited to my Qwest account.
- I paid $55.47 for the current month’s bill by charging it to my American Express card.
- The confirmation number for the AMEX transaction was 144875.
- No late fees would be charged.
A couple of weeks later a threatening letter came from Qwest. Dated October 8, it stated that my bank had bounced a payment for $155.46 and that Qwest would soon disconnect my phone service and trash my credit rating.
This document is problematic (not to say “specious” or “untrue”) in several ways.
- First, it includes a bill for the modem that I never received, and that Amy supposedly credited to my account TWO WEEKS before the statement’s date.
- Second, no attempt to debit my checking account was made. Had Qwest tried to debit my account and failed, the credit union would have sent me a notice to that effect.
- Third, at the time this shenanigan was going on, my checking account held something over $1,600.
- Fourth, I have three thousand dollars worth of check overdraft protection on that account, so that even if the account were empty (which it most certainly was not), the credit union would have honored the debit anyway.
I again wasted some more of my time to slog through your insulting, infuriating, and frustrating robotic answering system. This time I reached “Brad.” He said the bill was cut on September 16 (why it was dated October 8 was not explained) and I talked with “Amy” on the 23rd. At first he thought maybe Qwest had an incorrect bank routing number, but after some study, he couldn’t see why a bounced transaction notice should have been sent out at all. He said one of the modems wasn’t credited because Qwest employees failed to provide a “return authorization number.” Thus the return didn’t register in the system. He found the $155.46 was deleted on September 23 and then remarked, about what he saw on the system, “This doesn’t make sense.” He said no late fee should have been issued.
“Brad” adjusted the account (or so he said) and concluded the account balance was zero and nothing was owing. I asked if the next regular bill would be $86. He said that was correct: the bill would now be exactly the same as it was before this time-wasting exercise began. The confirmation number for that transaction was 2850757.
Yesterday, I received a bill from Qwest informing me that your company is about to arrogate $169.03 from my checking account. The bill is utterly incomprehensible (as it is evidently intended to be), but when compared with the August bill it reveals that the charge for the phone has been jacked up from $26.72 to $43.18! The charge for the Internet service increased from $29.99 to an incredible $89.98!
Once again, I called and trudged through the hateful answering system, reaching one “Alex.” I explained that since “Brad” had told me Qwest’s recorded announcement that telephone conversations were recorded was not entirely true and only a small number of transactions are recorded, I was making my own recording of the conversation. After I rehearsed the fiasco again, he said he would get someone in the “Loyalty Department” (you have got to be kidding!) who apparently had more authority to deal with the mess than he did. He put me on hold for a while. When he came back on the line, he said he couldn’t get past the hold button for “Loyalty” but on reading my bill he saw that a $108.29 credit was issued on October 16, and I should have been billed for $69.03. He said I will be credited for that amount next month.
Once again, I explained that I cannot afford a $170 gouge this month. He then said he would have to go to the collections department to get the amount removed from this month’s bill. Belatedly, he now noticed that the $108.29 credit actually was applied to the bill.
I pointed out that the bill is incomprehensible and that it’s impossible to tell whether that was true or not. I also stated that I wanted the automatic payment canceled NOW, and that I would pay whatever is actually owed by check. He said he would call collections, stay on the line, and arrange for the credit to go through this month.
I then pointed out the bizarre increases in the costs of the phone and the Internet services. In response, he said he needed to talk to “Escalations” and put me back on hold.
Forty-five minutes into the call, I was still listening to Qwest’s annoying “Get in the Loop” advertisement, infinitely looping.
Now someone named “Amber” got on the line. She demanded that I turn off the tape recorder and said no action would be taken as long as the call was being recorded.
Interesting, isn’t it, that it’s OK for Qwest to record its customers but not OK for the customers to record Qwest? Says something about Qwest’s attitude toward the people it “serves.”
After some double-talk, she claimed the amounts looked different because of the different layout and composition of the bills, but they actually were the same. She refused to brook any skepticism about this. Then she said $30 was added for a “renewal fee” for long distance-that somehow I got enrolled in some sort of “membership plan.” I said I never enrolled in any such arrangement and no one had ever told me that I had. She claimed I was billed that much last year. I pointed out that $30 does not account for a difference between $85.99 and $177.33. She said I was billed for 2 ½ months’ worth of Internet service because the upgrade in September was not billed at that time. I said I was told there would be no change in the amount due. She said that was “misinformation” (apparently Qwest jargon meaning “a lie”). She said she would return the service to 256K and backdate it, reducing that fee.
Later, after I got off the phone from “Amber,” I looked up last year’s Qwest bills in my Quicken records and found that I was never billed an extra $30 for anything. Evidently “Amber” was “misinforming” me again.
That made it pretty clear why she didn’t want to be recorded.
In response to Amber’s very practiced brush-off, I informed her that I found Qwest’s service so unacceptable that I intend to change providers. I asked how much longer was left on the cell phone’s contract, which I was corralled into by a fast-talking service representative about 18 months ago, and how much the cost of the cell phone alone would be. She said the cell would cost $25 a month and the contract runs out in June 2009. She downgraded the Internet connection to 256K (with, I might add, zero effect on the speed of operation) and said the cost for that would be $24.99 as of October 28. The order number for this activity is C245880.
I asked her if Qwest would try to soak me for any other charges when I change services. She said no exit fees would be levied. Given the several instances of “misinformation” to which I have been subjected, to say nothing of the brush-offs and the manipulation, I will believe that when I see it.
This kind of treatment of a customer who has paid her bills regularly and on time for decades is inexcusable.
I am dropping Qwest immediately and signing up with another provider. I would like to be quit of all relations with your corporation. That means I want the cell phone canceled, too. Considering the way your employees have treated me, the amounts Qwest has overcharged me, and the incalculable amount of my time Qwest has wasted, I believe your company should release me from this contract and cancel the cell phone service with no further charges.
If you had any decency at all, you would also refund the amounts I apparently have been overcharged. But I certainly don’t expect that, after experiencing your company’s “Spirit of Service.” All I want is to get quit of Qwest as fast as possible with no further gouges, threats, or hassles.
cc: Arizona Corporation Commission
Rule violation after outrageous rule violation occurs in this tome of an epistle:
- The thing is FIVE single-spaced pages long! A signal violation of the two-page max.
- The language is truly over the top, with terms like “gouge,” “threats,” “insulting, infuriating, and frustrating,” “specious,” “double-talk,” and “lie” elevating the tone from angry into the incandescent heights of blue-hot rage.
- It makes only one explicit request—cancellation of the cell phone contract, which had another eight months to run—when several requests are implicit in the narrative (refund of overcharges, cessation of harassment, immediate cancellation of all Qwest services).
Why did I commit these violations, and why did the volley seem to work anyway?
First, a one- or two-page statement would not have described the interminable series of runarounds to which I was subjected. I wanted to communicate, in form as well as content, just how much of my time was wasted. Second, I truly was outraged at the run-arounds, rip-offs, and exorbitant gouges, and I think I was righteously outraged. The steadily escalating tone that moves from frustration to annoyance to anger to fury was deliberately crafted to make a point. Third, in general senior executives at large corporations get where they are because they are intelligent and because, believe it or not, they tend to like people. They often are gregarious souls who want to please. Banking on this generalization, I guessed that Mr. Mueller would respond to the emotion as well as the facts presented here in detail.
And why did it work? Probably because I sent a copy to the Arizona Corporation Commission. The agency’s website specifically states that it regulates matters having to do with billing, equipment installation, and customer service. Having noticed that, I addressed each of these issues in my letter to Qwest’s executives, and I pointed out, in a much shorter cover letter to the corporation commission, that my complaint addressed all the issues.
So, in the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do department, here are some overall guidelines for mounting a successful consumer complaint:
- Express your complaint, in writing, as clearly and succinctly as you can.
- Try to keep it short.
- State explicitly what you would like the company to do for you.
- Address your complaint to a human being who is in a position to get things done.
- Identify trade groups and regulatory or law enforcement agencies that might support your case. Be prepared to file complaints with them if you do not get satisfaction after a reasonable length of time.
The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease