Consumer IQ

How to Get Out of a Form Letter Trap: 5 Insider Tips

photo: • Happy Batatinha •

So you got a form letter from your company. Lucky you!

Last week, I helped you ferret out a form response from a real one, despite a company’s often clever attempts to fool you. But what now?

Fact is, if you reply to a form letter, chances are you’ll just get another one. As a consumer advocate, I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. Even a well-reasoned response can yield yet another cookie-cutter missive, which continues until the company goes silent with a terse, “We will not respond to any more correspondence on this issue.”

Most customers don’t bother responding if they suspect they’ve been sent a form letter.

“I usually contact the president or CEO’s office directly with a phone call,” says Kenny Jahng, a technology consultant in Bayonne, NJ. “Most public companies’ CEO office telephone numbers are relatively easy to find on the Internet or through the headquarters’ switchboard.”

But say you want to play the game (I’ll offer a few insider tips for appealing to a higher power in an upcoming story). How do you respond in a way that ensures you won’t get another form?

1. Be polite

Nothing makes a customer-service representative hold down CTRL+C followeed by CTRL+V– the ol’ cut-and-paste keys — like a letter peppered with four-letter words, or where entire sentence are rendered in UPPERCASE (the equivalent of yelling). If you threaten to sue, your letter will be forwarded to the legal department, which will just send another form response. If you threaten never to do business with the company again, you might not even get a response. Ever. Better to take a measured, polite tone.

2. Send more than a letter

One letter typically begets another one. But sending additional information can throw a company for a loop. “Include all backup documentation to support your particular case,” recommends Michelle Dunn. She should know. She authored the book, “Starting a Collection Agency: How to Make Money Collecting Money.” The documentation must be reviewed and factored into the company’s response, all of which makes a form letter far less likely.

3. Don’t point out the absurdity of a company’s form letter

Sarcasm doesn’t go over very well in writing. I’ve seen a lot of ineffective responses to form letters that excerpt from the company response, pointing out how insensitive it is, line by line. Or even mocking it. That won’t move your case forward. In fact, it virtually guarantees you’ll get another form letter, this time with a non-apology that the company is sorry for the way it made you feel. A more effective response is a kind of rhetorical ju-jitsu. When a company says, “Customer service is our priority,” you say, “I’m happy to know customer service is a priority, and I want to suggest a way that yours can be improved.”

4. Offer a solution

One of the best ways to ensure a company doesn’t respond with another cookie-cutter is to give it a way out – a resolution that will force the company to go off-script. I would estimate that just slightly half of the form responses I deal with as a consumer advocate are a matter of the company and customer not being able to agree on a solution (the company doesn’t want to do anything and the customer expects the world). Often, in the interests of keep a customer happy, a company will compromise. But you have to make a reasonable offer.

5. Ask for a personal response

Ending a letter by saying, “Thank you for taking the time to review my letter and for your personal reply,” puts the company on notice: You’re not going to accept another form letter in response. (It’s also a less aggressive way of saying it should pay attention.) This is probably the single-most effective way of derailing the form process.

Insist on personalization. Granted, some companies will ignore your level-headed approach and send you a form, anyway. But there are ways around that, too. More on that next week.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.