Should I take my complaint straight to the top?

If you have a complaint, the conventional wisdom has always been to start at the bottom and work your way to the top. Which is to say, ask an employee to fix it and then appeal your case up the chain of command until you get what you want.

But is the conventional wisdom wrong? Maybe.

Two recent cases made me wonder. They’re very different, but both suggest there may be a time when you should take your complaint straight to the top.

But when? Ah, that’s the real question.

A happy ending with Samsung

“I wanted to express my thanks,” wrote Tom Sherrard, a reader from Graeagle, Calif. “We have had an impossible time with a warranty issue with a Samsung refrigerator and found Samsung to be rude, condescending and cavalier in their treatment of us.”

Sherrard searched the Internet for Samsung executive contacts and found the ones on my site.

“Yesterday, I emailed them with amazing results,” he says. “Problem solved in less than a day! Encourage folks to insist on going to the top of an organization, and keep up the great service you provide!”

Well, OK.

In fairness to Samsung, our page advises consumers to file a complaint through the company’s website form. But if that doesn’t work, we offer more resources so that their “no” form letter doesn’t have to be final.

Losing my luggage on Virgin

Our second story of going straight to the top comes to us by way of Johanna Westerman of Newport Beach, Calif. She was flying from London to Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic with her four children, and an odd thing happened. Even though they checked five bags, the ticket agents in London gave them only four claim checks.

“The last one, my large bag, must not have received its own check,” she says. “It was of particular importance because my children had never been to Europe before, so it held one-of-a-kind treasures carefully gathered as souvenirs to commemorate their first trip to London and Paris.”

Her children were upset when the fifth bag never showed up at the carousel, and Westerman says she was “devastated.” She believed that without a receipt, Virgin would never find her bag.

Westerman filed a lost luggage claim, but a Virgin representative told her not to get her hopes up. Without the tag, the bag was as good as gone.

“I typed in a search in Google for Sir Richard’s email address and found it instantly,” she says. “I heard from his head assistant, Julie, the very next day.”

And wouldn’t you know it? Virgin found the bag.

“I know that had I not sought out Mr. Branson’s help, my bag would have been lost forever,” she adds. “So my lesson from all of this is to never be afraid to go straight to the top if something is not working out in your favor when dealing with a company.”

When to take shortcuts

Maybe, just maybe, there are times when you should take your complaint straight to the top.

I said maybe.

Westerman’s case might have been hopeless, and only a direct intervention from the CEO would have changed the outcome. Sherrard dealt with several low-level hassles but didn’t start a paper trail. Still, he’d had enough.

Should there be the equivalent of a shot clock on a consumer dispute where, after a few attempts, you should be able to take a grievance straight to the CEO?

There is a shot clock of 60 days, the amount of time you have to dispute a credit card purchase under the Fair Credit Billing Act. There are also statutes of limitations imposed by a court, and additional warranty restrictions by companies.

Time is limited, in other words.

I’d rather give the company time to resolve a complaint. But under special circumstances, a direct appeal to the CEO might make sense. But be careful: Once you’ve appealed, you probably won’t be able to de-escalate your case to a lower level. A “no” would likely be a final answer, absent a court order. Do you really want to paint yourself in that corner?

Should you ever take a shortcut and contact the CEO directly?

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