Your new car's steering wheel comes off in your hands, and the manufacturer tells you it must be your fault. Moving day has come and gone with no moves in sight, and the company tells you it has ``scheduling problems''; maybe they'll get to you next week.
The cable-TV network you signed up for to get family movies has an added benefit -- the network with striptease shows comes through loud and clear, too. When you complain, the company asks if you're against freedom of expression.
The federal government can get you prompt action on all these problems and more -- if you can figure out which of its nearly 3 million employees to call and are willing to call them. ``Nobody wants to be considered a bother or a nag,'' says Roger Goldblatt, who started the Federal Complaint Coordination Center under the last administration.
A pro at getting complaints answered, he's recently written ``Making It Work: The User's Guide to Government'' (Resource Press) to help others wind their way through the federal bureaucracy.
First line of complaining should be the business itself, he says. ``Coca-Cola did a survey a few years back and discovered that, through word of mouth, one dissatisfied customer leads to 30 people having bad feelings about a company. So many businesses bend over backward to satisfy complaints.'' The smart companies use those complaints to make a better product, he says.
Some businesses, of course, are not responsive, and that's where the government can help. First, identify the government agency that ``has some clout'' over your issue, Mr. Goldblatt explains. ``We used to get thousands of car repair complaints, and unfortunately the federal government can do nothing to help. But many of these shops have to get local licenses, and the licensing agencies can threaten to revoke their license. So that's the place to go.''
Sometimes, however, the federal level is better equipped to handle your complaint. Most large cities have a Federal Information Center listed under United States Government in the phone book. This center should be able to steer you to the proper governmental agency. If, after a reasonable time, you're unable to get satisfaction from the agency, Goldblatt advises that you call or write Capitol Hill, ``especially your representative, since he has to stand for election every two years. Turnaround time for a complaint from the Hill is three to five days, because these agencies depend on the Hill for their budgets.''
No matter what level you're trying, Goldblatt advises using the following techniques:
Stay calm. ``A lot of people call up to yell, and that just gets the person on the other end angry.''
Get a name. ``The first person you talk to will probably just screen you and send you to the right person. Ask for that second person's name, and that puts him on notice.''
Explain the problem, and say exactly what you want done about it. ``Many people call out of anger, but the agency doesn't know what it will take to satisfy them. If you don't have your social security check, say, ask what it will take to have a new check issued.''
Don't let them call you back. ``Many agencies count on you not being persistent. Tell them you don't mind holding, or if they must call you back, ask again for their name and direct dial number, and say that you'll call in a few days if you haven't heard from them. Then do it.''
Go in person. ``There's a certain shock value to the bureaucracy to see people who are actually affected by these programs,'' Goldblatt says. Going in person is always more effective since they can't ``accidentally'' disconnect you or lose your letter, but ``prepare to take all day. This is particularly unfair to the working poor,'' Goldblatt explains.
Tapping the right agency can be ``like having a friend in the business,'' he says. His years of working with the legislative and executive branches of government have given him these insights into the ways different agencies can help:
Department of Aging, Health, and Human Services. ``These people keep track of what programs are available to people over 62 and should be able to send you a big batch of pamphlets.''
Environmental Protection Agency. ``If you live close to a hazardous-materials dumping site and are nervous about it, they'll send out inspectors with radar equipment to check it.''
Federal Communications Commission. ``Most people don't realize that this is the agency you contact if your cable-TV is picking up the wrong channel, or your cordless telephone is tapping into other people's conversations. These are privacy issues.''
Federal Emergency Management Agency. ``A lot of people with businesses in high crime areas have trouble getting insurance; FEMA will supply it.''
Federal Trade Commission. ``They're the people you go to if you suspect the information on that clothing tag isn't true. Is it really down in your jacket? They'll check it for you.'' Also, if you sign a contract with a door-to-door salesman or buy something from him, ``you have a 72-hour `cooling down' period to get out of it. If the salespeople don't honor your request,'' he says, ``call the local consumer affairs office of the FTC.''
Interstate Commerce Commission. ``If you're moving across state lines and the movers don't show up, call them -- they can get them there within hours. Movers rely on the ICC for registration.''
National Highway Traffic Safety Commission. Their hotline (800-424-9393) can tell you if there's been action before on your car type and how to get your vehicle checked so the manufacturer will replace the defective part. If not, they can add your complaint to others, and if enough come in, action will be taken.
Postal Service. ``This is one of the best consumer affairs agencies. The people are highly accessible: There are cards at every post office you can fill out, and a postal inspector in each district who will investigate fraudulent advertising in the mail. They're really good at shutting down fly-by-night businesses,'' he adds.
Social Security Administration. ``The bulk of complaints to the federal government come from people whose checks are late. In fact, only one-half of 1 percent of all checks are really lost, which is a Post Office problem. Be sure to ask how a new check can be issued.''
Veterans' Administration. ``This is probably one of the most generous agencies, giving money for housing, education, and medical expenses. But to get satisfaction, you usually have to go down there and expect to spend all day, the bureaucracy is so thick.''