The Courageous Consumer

by Beth Huber

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We've all faced at least one consumer nightmare that took money out of our pockets. The appliance that didn't live up to advertised expectations, the furniture that was delivered damaged, the unsatisfactory construction job, the vendor's promise left unfulfilled. What's the best way to handle these frustrating experiences so that you end up with the outcome you want? Whether that's a refund, an exchange, a repair, or the completion of a job, here's how to make it happen:

Document. Keep track of the facts. Set up a folder for all the relevant paperwork, such as receipts, correspondence, etc. Each time you have a conversation with a company representative, take notes. Include the date, the name of the person you spoke with, and what they agreed to do.

Prepare. Before you make a call or visit, review your documentation and make a summary of key points so you don't have to shuffle through papers as you speak. Organize your thoughts and supporting facts before you initiate contact. Keep your file near the phone so that when you receive return calls, you will have the material you need right at hand.

Confront. Meet in person if possible. It's easy for a company representative to de-personalize you and minimize the importance of your situation when you are just a voice on the other end of the phone line. But when you are face to face, they cannot easily make excuses or pass you on to someone in another department.

Stay calm. Never direct your anger towards the person with whom you are dealing. They may have had nothing to do with creating your problem. Your emotional outburst could very well backfire, making them less likely to want to help you. It is okay to articulate your frustration, but do it in a composed voice. The more rational you remain, the more credibility you will maintain.

Communicate. State the facts fully and completely. Review the sequence of events. Present the resolution you desire. And then be silent. Do not fill the silence with more words, apologies, sighs or negative body language. Just wait. An awkward silence places the ball in their court; allow it to press them into responding.

Negotiate. Give as much as you can, so they will give as much as they can. Remember that you are one of many customers. Show empathy and have understanding for the complications of schedule and logistics. Get agreement on how the situation will be resolved and on what and when their follow-up will be.

Follow up. Keep the issue on project status. Accept the fact that even though the resolution is their "To Do" item, you must make it your "To Do" item by following up. If you do not receive satisfaction, write a letter to the company president. And if all other efforts fail, contact the Better Business Bureau to register a complaint.

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