Catherine Cole
July 15, 2016
Betty Lin-Fisher

We’ve all likely had our run-ins with customer service representatives as we try to get a refund or credit.

Sometimes it’s an easy process, but often it’s not.

In the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to have had some pretty big “wins” of complaints.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually don’t complain a lot — this just happened to be a good run. And in the spirit of full disclosure, when I do complain, I usually use my married name or lodge the complaint under my husband’s name because, ethically, I don’t want there to be any preferential treatment since I’m a consumer columnist. But I’m still a consumer and deserve fair treatment if something has gone wrong.

In all three cases, I figured we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was concise and clear and not rude.

I also fully acknowledge that not everyone is “successful.” I hear from plenty of consumers who are not satisfied with how a company is resolving a problem, if the company is even responding. My hopes in sharing my experience and talking to a consumer expert is to offer some tips that may help you the next time.

My successes include:

  • A one-time “courtesy” coverage of out-of-warranty work on my seven-year-old vehicle, which should have cost between $900 and $1,200. I had all but given up on getting the embarrassingly loud knocking sound when I started the car fixed, even though it was a known warranty issue (though mine started after 120,000 miles). I think what tipped things in my favor was laying out to the manufacturer a history of bad customer service with a certain dealer and that, as a result of that, I needed to go to another dealer 45 minutes out of my way to get the work done.
  • A refund of $165 in labor costs for a problem with my less-than-two-year old air conditioner. I told the manufacturer I bought it for the excellent reputation. While the part was covered under warranty, the labor was not. But the refund didn’t come easily. The first offer was $24.75 as a “goodwill gesture.” I politely said no and asked them to try again. The next day, they offered $57.75. I was about to suggest meeting them halfway when a colleague encouraged me to stand my ground. Surprisingly, about an hour later, after they talked to their “team,” I was offered $165.
  • My father in Seattle was admitted to the hospital in March for congestive heart failure and kidney issues for three days. My mom took him to a non-network emergency room since he was having a hard time breathing. I called the insurer and hospital as he was waiting to be admitted to make sure we would not be charged huge out-of-network rates or if we needed to get him transferred. I was assured that if the doctors felt it was medically necessary and admitted him through the ER, it would be considered an in-network stay. Instead, the insurer denied the claim and said we’d be responsible for $15,000, saying my father simply needed some medication to go to the restroom (obviously not true). For months, my sisters and I called and wrote letters for my father to the insurer and the hospital and filed an appeal. It was again denied, but they said they would review it again.

Just this past week, my parents finally got a letter saying the insurer agreed with us and they would only be responsible for the expected $810 co-pay instead of $15,000.

I phoned Catherine Cole, a professor of marketing and department chair at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa for consumer tips. Cole studies consumer behavior at the university, my alma mater.


Interestingly, Cole said “companies want people to complain.”

“If you just get mad and leave, they lose a customer and they don’t get any feedback. What we teach now is [companies] should be paying attention to customer complaints because you learn from them. If you can delight or make a customer happy, you’ve got a customer for life. If they just get angry and leave, then you’ve lost a customer for life.”

Consumer advocates have also told me that a happy customer may tell a few friends about an experience, but an angry customer will tell a lot more people.

And social media makes that easier. Cole said complaining online via Facebook, Twitter and other platforms can be effective.

To be successful in complaining, Cole said, be specific and clear in what you want. If you have a lot of details you can share, including things like what went wrong and who you talked to, that bolsters your complaint, she said.

It’s very important to stay calm.

If you call and start yelling at the representative, “they’re going to shut down. Their goal is to get you off the phone. Customer service people have limited authority, but they can do some things.”

When I asked Cole whether it was better to call or have things in writing, she said it depends. “If you’re the kind of person who gets really angry on the phone and you’ve got raw emotions, it’s better to put it in writing. If you can negotiate on the phone, I think the thing is to be calm.”

“The good companies will look at complaints and will try to make it right.”

But Cole said the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes customers have unrealistic expectations.

“We teach in marketing that it’s OK to fire a customer if you’re a company. If someone walks in with an unrealistic complaint, the company could be justified in saying ‘I’m sorry, this is an unrealistic expectation and if you have to take your business elsewhere, that’s fine.’ ”