Terrible Service or Faulty Products? Your Guide to Profitable Complaining

My wife and I threw away dinner one night last week because the frozen zucchini had sand in it. I spent five minutes calling the number on the bag, and a nice lady at the company gave us an apology and a $20 check, which arrived today.

Effective complaining can easily put some money in your pocket. Make sure your concerns are legitimate — the company has actually made a mistake or provided a faulty product — and be ready to stick to your guns.

Ready to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease? Here are some strategies for profitable complaining.

Start With the Cable Company

While you should complain only when a company is in the wrong, cable companies pretty much always fit that description. They’re granted monopolies by local governments, allowing them to exclude other companies so you have to pay the price they ask for their service, no matter how terrible it is. Cable giants Comcast and Time Warner (possibly merging) don’t compete directly anywhere in the United States, and Comcast was recently voted America’s worst company.

Call your cable provider today and say, “I’m considering canceling my service.” If you first consider it for a few seconds, it will be an honest statement. Say it costs too much and you’re looking into other options. See what they offer you to continue as a customer.

I’ve done this five times over the years, and every single time I was offered a discount to keep the service. Most of those complaints resulted in a $10 reduction in my bill for six months. Is 30 minutes on the phone worth $60?

In addition, Comcast offers a $20 credit if they can’t fix a routine problem on the first try. You can bet I took time to call and get that credit when they had to return twice to fix my internet connection — and I demanded a credit for the down time.

Hate automated phone systems? Use GetHuman.com to find the phone numbers and tricks that will get you through more quickly. I like to open a live chat window and call on two phones at once, just because one of the three ways will be quicker.

A final tip: if you’re calling Comcast, be aware that their employees are trained to try to sell you something on every call. Be firm and stick to your request.

How to Complain Effectively

Depending on the circumstances, you’ll want to try different complaint strategies.

Start by Being Friendly

First, there’s the friendly, “help-me-out” approach, which is best used in person or over the phone. That’s what I used to get the $20 check for bad zucchini. After explaining that it ruined our stir-fry, I added pleasantly, “It wasn’t an expensive meal. I just thought you should know.”

If you keep the conversation friendly, a company usually wants to keep you, their customer, happy. But if the company representative suspects you might sue, he could start wondering if a refund is an admission of liability. Also, if it’s clear that they’ve permanently lost you as a customer, there is less reason to help you out. So start with friendly.

Explain You’ll Share Your Experience

But sometimes, you have to be a bit more firm. I was recently billed an extra $25 for a computer repair. The supervisor said the $100-per-hour tech was here for 75 minutes, when the visit was actually less than an hour — which I noted on the work order I signed. When a pleasant phone call didn’t work, I sent an email telling him I wanted the $25 refunded immediately, or . . .

I’ll be disputing the entire charge on my credit card (since nothing was fixed). And I’m waiting to see how this is resolved before posting my Yelp.com review of your company.

What happened? I got the $25 refund.

Threats are most effective when they are realistic and honest. You can start by mentioning the places you might put a review or file a complaint, including these:

Visit in Person

With businesses you physically visit, it usually helps to go in person. Sometimes, you’ll need to use the implied threat of scaring away other customers. For example, I had a wheel bearing repaired by a national auto-repair franchise only to have it fail a few days later. A mechanic at another place found that no new parts had been installed. He repaired it properly and explained that I had been ripped off.

When I went to the first repair shop to ask for a refund, I was told, “We never refund the money, but we do guarantee to make it right.” Raising my voice, I repeated that I wanted my $220 back, and the owner offered to repair the car. I began to explain, loud enough for the customers in the waiting room to hear, that I already had it fixed, and couldn’t very well trust him to do it since his mechanic had cheated me the first time. He glanced around the room nervously, took the cash from the register and handed it to me.

Take Your Complaint to Court

When all else fails, you might have to threaten to go to court (and maybe actually go). You can learn how to use small claims court online. If possible, get the filing forms from your local court and flash them in front of the owner of the business while asking for his full name. If that fails, file the forms.

I once spent the $18 to file in small claims court, and finally got a $1,900 refund I had been trying to get for weeks. I didn’t have to actually go to court; seeing the summons was enough to convince the guy I was serious.

An attorney can be too expensive to hire for many situations, but not if you do it right. Start by simply paying a lawyer to send a letter to the company with which you’re having a problem. You can drop the matter after that if it’s too expensive to pursue, but often a letter from a law office is all it takes to get a company to see things your way.

Of course, since your complaints are honest, the money you earn from complaining is your own — it’s not really a profit at all. But it’s still money you wouldn’t have in your pocket if you let things slide.

Your Turn: Have you ever successfully complained and received a refund or compensation? Tell us your stories!