I hate big corporations — they’re bureaucratic nightmares.

Three years ago, Verizon claimed that our family business had signed up for a $37.20 monthly listing in their telephone directory. We had not. I spent nearly six months battling their customer service department to get the charges removed. I made phone calls and sent registered letters, but still they insisted we’d signed up for service we’d never requested.

Eventually, through internet sleuthing, I found the e-mail address for a Verizon bigwig. One polite (but forceful) e-mail to her was enough to get the matter resolved. But it shouldn’t have taken so much effort.

When the consumer makes an error, big corporations are unforgiving. But when the company screws up, the customer has little recourse. (I’m reminded of Sallie Mae’s recent computer glitch that could cost borrowers tons of money.)

That’s why I’m such a fan of The Consumerist, the blog that explores consumer experiences with big business. Now editor Ben Popken has contributed a story to Reader’s Digest that distills hundreds of blog posts into a single focused article about how to get what you paid for with effective consumer complaints. He writes:

Companies have the right to make a profit. As consumers, we have the right to receive the goods and services we purchased at the price and quality advertised. We also have the right to seek redress if those expectations are not met.

But the Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory bodies that are supposed to protect us from reckless profiteers can’t possibly address every complaint. So now it’s up to you to protect your consumer rights.

Popken details five core techniques for obtaining satisfaction:

  • Dictate the options. On an index card, write a sentence or two describing what it is you want the company to do for you. Refer to this index card when you phone or e-mail — it’ll keep you focused. Tell them what the problem is and how they can make it right.
  • Threaten to cancel. Let the company know that you’re ready to move to a competitor (but be prepared to follow through on the threat). Popken suggests using the phrase, “Give me a reason to stick around.”
  • Shoot for the top. If you cannot obtain a reasonable solution through the normal customer service channels, get resourceful. Find a way to connect with the CEO or some other high-profile executive. That was the only way I could get my problem with Verizon resolved.
  • Use the power of e-mail. Popken suggests finding (or guessing at) e-mail addresses for all the top executives. Armed with this info, launch an “e-mail carpet bomb”.
  • Broadcast your complaint. If all else fails, exercise your First Amendment right to tell others about your experience. No company wants bad publicity. As long as your message is reasonable and true, you’re entitled to warn others away.

Popken’s article features other tips and suggestions, along with real-life stories of consumers who have used these techniques to resolve complaints with big corporations. He’s careful to warn, however, that these methods should only be used for valid grievances:

Before you open your mouth to complain about poor customer service, you need to ask yourself two questions: Do I have a valid complaint? Am I expecting a reasonable solution? If the answer to both questions is yes, you can use the strategies here to get satisfaction for almost any transaction.

I don’t run into situations like these often, but they do occur. I’ve bookmarked Popken’s guide for the next time I need to deal with corporate bureaucracy.

[Reader’s Digest: The guerilla guide to getting what you paid for (without getting arrested)]

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