Consumer IQ

Talk is Cheap: How to Hold a Company Accountable

Talk is cheap.

If you’re a consumer, which you are, then I probably don’t have to elaborate. But I will: What an employee promises in the heat of a sale or when you’re on the phone asking for a refund, isn’t always realized.

And that’s a problem.  The latest Edelman Trust survey found that trust in all institutions, including business, government, non-government organization and, ahem, media, fell by eight points to 46 percent.

In other words, more than half of you, dear readers, don’t believe anything I’m writing. A sobering thought, that one.

As one of the lone consumer advocates on the beat, I can tell you that the Russian proverb popularized by Ronald Reagan holds true: “Trust but verify.” And to that end, here are a few ideas:

Record your phone calls.

Companies announce that some calls may be recorded “for quality assurance purposes” but in fact, many corporations record every last call and can access a recording in the event of a dispute. You should be able to do the same thing. On many computer-based voice-over IP phone services, you can tape an incoming conversation with a touch of a button. Outgoing calls usually require a third-party application that captures your PCs audio. Also, be aware of state laws on taping phone conversations.

Get everything in writing.

When a salesman tells you there’s a five-year warranty that covers “everything,” make sure you get that promise in writing before you make the purchase. Actually, any time someone makes a promise – and particularly one that sounds too good to be true – get it on paper. If they’re reluctant (or even unwilling) to put something in writing, that’s a sign their rhetoric doesn’t match with reality.

When you buy online, know how to use your screen shot application.

You can bet that your company is recording your every move online. I know, because companies have sent me screen shots of disputed customer purchases in the past. The only way to prove that any offer was made on a site is to record it. (On a Mac, for example, pressing Shift+Option+4 will let you take an instant screen capture.) Learn how to use it, and take snapshots of your purchase whenever you buy something, but particularly when you see an offer that’s displayed only once.

When you do an online chat, save the transcript.

Again, you can count on your company doing the same thing. And here’s the tricky part: Although the electronic dialogue is easily recorded by a business, because it is hosting the chat application on its site, it may not be a simple cut-and-paste maneuver for you. I’ve personally participated in a “chat” where the only way to download the transcript is to use the right Web browser or take screen shots of the back-and-forth. They sure don’t make it easy.

The bottom line.

In order to hold a company accountable for what it says, you have to insist on getting its verbal promises in writing and learn how to become a power user of your computer and browser. Plus, you need to brush up on state phone recording laws.

It’s a tall order, but failing to do so may cost you even more in the long run.

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 at by email.