Gentle art of consumer complaints

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.

Now, you have to decide what to do with this ammunition. Depending on the type of company you're dealing with and the nature of the complaint, you can either send a letter, pick up the telephone, or have it out face to face.

With complaints about computer foul-ups, bureaucrats who are too bureaucratic , discourteous clerks, or faulty products, it is probably best to start with a letter - a firm, to-the-point letter. It should be addressed to the highest-ranking person whose name you can find. You can be almost certain the letter will be passed on to a subordinate, but your chances of satisfaction are probably higher with a letter that gets passed down to the subordinate than one that gets passed up.

Your letter will be perhaps one of hundreds the company will receive on various subjects, so you want to make sure it doesn't take more than a couple of sentences for someone to figure out what yours is about. Start with a short paragraph of no more than three short sentences that summarize the problem and what you want done about it. This solution should also be included in the last paragraph.

Between these paragraphs, give more specific details about your complaint, including when you purchased or ordered the product, any serial or product numbers, and exactly what was wrong with it. If you can keep your letter to one typed, double-spaced page, it will probably get a better reading.

The telephone can also be a useful complaint tool, if you don't have to spend too much money on long-distance calls or too much time on ''hold.'' Many companies have toll-free telephone numbers and you can call 800-555-1212 (toll-free directory information) to see if the company you're after has one. If not, try to call a local distributor or retailer to get the most effective phone number.

When you call, ask for a specific name, or the public relations, customer service, or billing department. Introduce yourself by giving your name, account number if you have one, and the product or service involved. Before starting your complaint, ask for the name and title of the person you're talking to and write it down with the other notes you are keeping on this matter.

When discussing the problem at this stage, be as calm and friendly as you can. The foul-up is probably not this individual's fault and if you can get on good terms, he or she can serve as a conduit for any additional help you may need. Whatever you do, don't start the conversation with a tirade or a long recital of the tribulations you've had to endure with this product. Also, avoid threats; although receiving a very large number of consumer complaints can put companies out of business, yours alone won't do it, so don't talk about it.

If the person you are talking to cannot remedy your problem, ask for the name of a supervisor. This gets the first person off the hook and gives you a name higher up the ladder. Try to be persistent here. Don't be put off by a promise of future action. If someone at the company offers relief, get his name and ask for specifics. Then, if corrective action isn't taken, you can say that on a certain date, so-and-so promised a cash refund, a new item, or whatever.

At the end of the call, repeat the person's name, the date, and the promised remedy to that person. Follow up the call with a letter that repeats the main points of both sides in the conversation.

The face-to-face approach is often the least effective, because you're talking to a clerk or teller who is powerless to provide the help you need. If, however, you get to talk to a manager, floorwalker, department head, or whoever else is in charge, your chances of success will quickly increase, particularly if the people know you won't leave until the problem is solved.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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