Consumer IQ

6 Stupid Things Customers Do When They Have a Service Problem

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Yelling. Threatening. Cursing.

You probably already know that throwing a tantrum — no matter how justified — isn’t the ideal way of persuading a company to address your customer-service problem.

Or do you? A few weeks ago, I featured a controversial interview with a former call-center worker who told me that pitching a fit sometimes worked. It shouldn’t, but at her former place of employment, it did.

Granted, there are exceptions to every rule. But some general principles apply – principles that are widely ignored by the general public.

Here are six of the biggest ones:

1. Calling with a complaint

The phone is almost always the least efficient way of resolving a service problem. Why? Because there’s no meaningful record of a phone call, at least not on the customer’s side. Call centers routinely record conversations, but they don’t let customers listen to them.

Instead, send an email. Not a letter – an email. Electronic messages can easily be forwarded to a supervisor, regulatory agency, or a consumer advocate.

2. Taking it personally

Don’t take anything a company says to you — in person, by phone or by email — personally. The more dispassionate your case can be stated, the better your chances of success. Take a few deep breaths and wait before responding to an e-mail. If you’re writing (a good idea, as I’ve already mentioned) then ask a friend to review your email before clicking the “send” button.

3. Telling your life story

I’ve seen written complaints that go on for pages. Those tend to be unsuccessful. A customer-service representative has only a limited amount of time to decide what to do with your case. The most effective written grievances are half a page, or between 300 and 500 words.

Anything longer than that, and you’re testing a company’s patience.

4. Asking for too much

It’s easy to lose perspective. I’ve seen otherwise rational people make ridiculous demands of companies when something goes wrong. My favorite example is the person whose luggage is delayed by a few hours, asking for a first-class ticket wherever the airline flies. Not gonna happen. Keep your expectations modest and realistic. Sometimes, the best you can expect is a sincere apology.

5. Not asking for anything at all

If you never let a company know how to fix a problem, how can it be expected to make you happy? They’re customer-service representatives, not mindreaders.

6. Acting like a jerk

It merits repeating: be nice. The flip side of not taking your grievance personally (see #2) is being polite. A cordial response is your secret weapon against a faceless corporation. There is no known defense mechanism against it. I’ve spoken with dozens of customer service representatives who tell me time and again that politeness pays. Except when it doesn’t — and that’s a rare exception.

Avoiding the biggest customer-service mistakes is easy. Put everything in writing, be polite and concise and tell a company how it can fix a problem. And remember, most companies don’t want you to be unhappy with their product or service, so chances are, you’re both on the same side.

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.