Even the timid can confront poor quality or service

The Quiet Consumer Learns to Speak Up

by Beth Hering

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I confess that in pre-recession days, I wasn't a particularly vocal consumer. Sure, I clipped coupons with the best of them and bought toilet paper in bulk when it went on sale, but I was also the type to sit in a restaurant drinking a flat Coke rather than say something to the waitress.

But as every dollar is getting harder to come by, I'm no longer content to suffer in silence. Whether a purchase or a service, I want to feel like my money has been well spent, and this often means speaking up.

For others interested in getting the most from their money, here are some tips to make expressing customer complaints a little less daunting:

Do It Over the Phone or the Internet

If face-to-face confrontations make you uneasy, use technology to your advantage. Most goods have a customer service phone number or Web address on the packaging. The representative will want to know the nature of the problem and where you bought the item (though you shouldn't need the actual receipt). He also may want the lot number, expiration date, UPC, or other information, so it helps to have the packaging in front of you. (Hint: Keep reading glasses handy. Those numbers can be small!)

By expressing customer complaints in this manner, I've received a cereal refund for a type that tasted like cardboard, a discount-store coupon to make up for rubbery store-label cheese, and a gift certificate good on a replacement cosmetic for a red lipstick that came out pink.

Bring the Right Material

If going back to the place of purchase, a receipt undoubtedly makes life easier. Any tags that came with the item can help facilitate scanning. (Don't worry if they aren't attached.) For matching price guarantees, bring in the competitor's ad with the sale date and the item circled to avoid having to ruffle through papers.

Pick a Good Time and Place

"Complaining" while a line waits behind you can be uncomfortable. Try finding an off time when you won't feel pressured to rush your conversation. Likewise, if you need to speak to a manager, you'll probably feel less nervous if you hold the exchange out of earshot from other customers.

To exude confidence, address customer complaints as quickly as possible. If a steak tastes overdone in the first two bites, don't wait until you've consumed half of it to mention something.

Ask for What You Want

My son saved his money for a rather pricey video game. Despite all of our best efforts (and quite a few calls to the manufacturer's customer service line), we could not get the bonus feature to play. Since that extra was the deciding factor as to why he chose that game over another, I decided to go back to the store with a simple request: Show me how to get this to work or issue a store credit.

Given the nearly universal policy that an opened video game can be returned only for the same item, my husband thought I was wasting my time. But don't doubt a mother bear protecting her cub. I came home with a gift card after three tech associates became just as frustrated as I was with the "easy" set-up instructions.

Believe that Others Want to Help You

Finally, remember that most companies really do want you to be happy. Your money is their income. If you aren't satisfied, chances are you won't be a repeat customer. Don't think of yourself as a "whiner" but as a respected part of a mutually beneficial exchange. When you start taking that frame of mind, I guarantee you won't settle for flat soda again!

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