How do you get a company to bend to your will?

Jacob Casper wants to know how I do it.

“I’ve been reading your column for quite a while and am always amazed how you can successfully resolve the problems you are presented,” he wrote. “Can you always do that? Would you share with your readers how you do this and your procedures and techniques? That way, we would have better tools to work with.”

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Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer. Both can help you the next time you’re in trouble and need to call for help.

The short answer: No, I can’t fix everything. Just read this site if you have any doubts. Most of the cases remain unresolved for a number of reasons. I write about them because we can learn more from failure than success.

Here’s how the numbers break down: I receive about 300 new cases a week. Of those, about three are strong enough for me to pass along to a company. And of those, only one will be successfully resolved, because of my direct involvement.

That’s not to say the other 297 are meritless. My team of advocates and I are busy behind the scenes, feeding them executive contact information and advising them on how to approach a company. In other words, we work all the cases. Sometimes it’s done through email exchanges, sometimes in the open on our forums.

But when I’m involved, how do I do it?

“Is the threat of bad publicity ever made?” asks Casper. “If so, does that have any bearing?”

In my experience — and I’ve been advocating for the last two decades — threats get you nowhere. Companies like to see evidence that a customer has attempted a resolution through normal channels (a strong paper trail helps). An airtight case and complete neutrality by the reader-advocate is useful, too.

I try to let the paperwork do all the talking and then I get out of the way.

That’s not hard to do when it’s someone else’s case. But when I have a grievance, I find it’s too easy to become emotional, and for my emails to quickly turn irrational. Being a DIY advocate is hard.

My advice? Ask a friend to review your email before you send it so that you don’t hurt your own case by inadvertently offending a customer service representative. Stick to facts. Mind your manners.

Persuading a company to bend to your will is fairly straightforward when your cause is right and your paperwork is in order.

I’ll admit that having the clout of a nationally-syndicated consumer advocacy column behind you can help. But not as much as you would think.

Corporations often push back when they feel a case has no merit. Again, if you don’t believe me, see the Case Dismissed files on this site. Many of them are painful to read.

Some have suggested that the kind of advocacy I practice is a scam. We had a full discussion a few months ago, and it was pretty interesting. A small but significant percentage of readers think that the kind pro-consumer journalism I do is, for lack of a better term, a form of media blackmail.

I’ve offered to show some of these critics what happens behind the curtains, but they are unconvinced. They believe the free market alone should determine which consumers win and which ones lose.

I respectfully disagree.

If I have a hidden agenda, it’s this: I want to live in a world where everyone can successfully advocate their own case without having to become angry or irrational. That world doesn’t exist yet. Companies hide the names and numbers of their managers — even the executives with the words “customer service” in their titles.

They offer preferential treatment to their best customers and force the rest of us to wait in long lines and read us canned rejection letters. They operate outside the law, thanks to an army of well-paid lobbyists in Washington. They spin the truth by hiring a gaggle of bloggers to distort facts and promote their avaricious agenda.

That is why this site exists. That is why I wake up every morning and go to work for you. The world isn’t a fair place, but I’m working tirelessly to make it a little fairer, one case at a time.

Should "special" skills be required to get good service from a company?

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49 thoughts on “How do you get a company to bend to your will?

  1. My question to you Chris would be, what percentage of companies you deal with do you feel actually care for their customers, as opposed to just try to get out of paying out for bad product/service?

  2. I couldn’t vote today… Didn’t like either choice.
    In the long run I guess I’m probably bunched in with the “small but significant percentage of readers think that the kind pro-consumer journalism I do is, for lack of a better term, a form of media blackmail.”

    Not understanding the effect on a company when a member of the media contacts it is putting your head in the sand. The implied threat of poor press is there. Some companies are going to roll over, even though they did nothing wrong, simply because the cost of the bad press from Chris exceeds the cost of pacifying him. Let’s face it, Chris rarely writes a story that shames the customer. In fact, even in most of those, he points out negatives about the company. Its the ultimate lose / lose for the company.

    On the flip side, I agree with, and assist Chris, with what he does for the wronged customer (The cases where the company doesn’t fulfill its obligations to the customer under their agreement) . If it takes the implied threat to make them live up to their agreement, use it.

    1. While I disagree with your assessment, I think that it’s important to have dissenting opinions. That permits a robust, and hopefully respectful, discussion and helps elevate everyone’s thinking. Otherwise, we end up with intellectual stagnation. 100 people thinking the same thing is a terrible outcome.

      I am very skeptical about this media blackmail for several reasons:

      1. From a free market perspective, most leisure passengers buy on price alone regardless of their image of the airline, number of complaints, etc. (think Spirit). The people that the airline “cares” about, get far better treatment by airlines than regular passengers who don’t resonate with premium class passengers.

      2. Chris gets numerous cases where he is unable to assist. Incidentally, Chris tried to mediate a case with Hilton on my behalf eons ago. Hilton had no problem giving him the middle finger, none at all.

      3. The travel suppliers that Chris works with know that blackmail not his style. He has a progressive perspective, but he strives to present an honest assessment of the circumstances.

      As an attorney, I can generally resolve a situation better than my clients. One of the main reasons for that is when I send a letter, on my letterhead, it gets routed to an important person, someone who is in a position to look at the matter critically, instead of customer service. The response is usually from an attorney or senior management.

      I suspect that Chris gets the same thing. When he comes knocking he can cut through the BS and speak to someone worth speaking to,

      1. Dissenting opinions are absolutely needed, a long as they are RESPECTFUL. Don’t call me an idiot if you don’t agree with my view.

      2. @carverclarkfarrow:disqus I’m going to disagree with your assessment. Your letters get results for the same reason Chris’s do, there’s an implied threat. Do what I want or we’ll sue. At that point the company makes the decision on if the point, defendable or not, is one that they’re willing to spend the money to go to court over. It has little to do with the veracity of your complaint. Instead its balancing the cost of the suit vs the cost of resolution.

        1. That is 100% incorrect. An implied threat of litigation doesn’t faze a business person, let alone another attorney. Litigation is merely one of the costs of doing business. Remember, it’s not the recipient’s money.

          As I mentioned before, where my letter has power is that it gets routed to someone with authority. I suspect, the same is true with Chris.

          1. Ah, that makes sense. In the episode I described below, I submitted my rebuttal to a GA’s office and the GA forwarded it to the company. It seems higher-ups would respond inquiries from GAs. I got a reply from a vice president and it was settled within a week.
            My little secret is that I put my degree after my name in correspondence whenever possible. When a rep notices it and starts addressing me as “Dr. Mylastname”, it seems I can get better attention.

    2. I agree with your comments.

      As I have stated previously, I think that Chris should concentrate his time on cases where the company doesn’t fulfill its obligations to the customer under their agreement (i.e. the customer pays for a hotel room with a full ocean view and is given a room in the basement). If it takes social media to shame the company in fulfilling their obligations or refunding the customer…I don’t have a problem with that.

      However, it seems to me that the majority of the cases that I have read over the past ten years doesn’t fall into the ‘wronged customer’ scenario. They fall into ‘DIY travel agents’ making mistakes or consumers that made a decision to save money by accepting risks (i.e. non-refundable fares; electing not to purchase travel insurance; etc.) then not taking responsibility for these risks when they occurred. In these cases, it is my opinion that Chris is ‘greenmailing’ these companies in providing refunds, credits, etc.

      He always writes “I am a consumer advocate” or “I am for the consumer”. Does that means that he should advocate even when the consumer is totally wrong? It seems like he expects these individual to have no responsibilities for their actions or lack of actions.

      There is nothing wrong for a person to ask a company for an exception (I have asked several times for exceptions) in their rules, policies, procedures, etc. If the company says ‘No’ then a person has two choices: 1) continue to do business with that company or 2) look for another company.

      As you stated, most companies will pay because 1) the cost of bad press and 2) the cost of the time to research and respond and 3) the hope of generating good will (this is hard because the company is usually slammed in the article).

      If this was a case: A person goes to Home Depot or Lowe’s to purchase lumber for a project at their house. When working on the project at their house, the person measured incorrectly and cut the lumber wrong making the lumber not usable for their project.

      Using the logic and reasoning that Chris has used in his articles over the years, Chris expects Home Depot or Lowe’s to give new lumber (by the way, lumber isn’t cheap if you haven’t price it lately) to the person. Also, there will be readers expecting Home Depot or Lowe’s to give free lumber to this person.

      1. There is nothing wrong for a person to ask a company for an exception (I have asked several times for exceptions) in their rules, policies, procedures, etc. If the company says ‘No’ then a person has two choices: 1) continue to do business with that company or 2) look for another company.

        No, the person has option #3: Escalate. The fundamental flaw in that reasoning is that is assumes a monolithic corporation. Someone in the company may say yes. The person that the average consumer speaks to may not be empowered. The person that Chris speaks to is higher up, empowered and has the time and training to look at the problem critically and make an informed decision when an exception is warranted.

        Using the logic and reasoning that Chris has used in his articles over the years, Chris expects Home Depot or Lowe’s to give new lumber (by the way, lumber isn’t cheap if you haven’t price it lately) to the person. Also, there will be readers expecting Home Depot or Lowe’s to give free lumber to this person.

        I must disagree. The analogy fails for innumerable reasons, the most obvious being that purchasing lumbar is an easy task. Home Depot does not make it difficult to understand. There are no weird rules, no consumer unfriendly policies, no “gotcha” clauses that requires a senior level attorney to parse.

        The second reason is that since travel is a perishable commodity, the industry can make service recovery options such as vouchers which can only be redeemed when the travel provider has unsold inventory. Thus unlike giving away lumbar which has a hard cost, service recovery can be done for little or no hard costs in travel.

        1. One exception: in your last point, you refer to “unsold inventory” as if one could issue a a voucher that would onlybe usable at the last minute if seats were available. Airlines almost always have “unsold inventory”….it just may not be available at the last minute or on the exact flight one might want.

    3. Some companies are going to roll over, even though they did nothing wrong, simply because the cost of the bad press from Chris exceeds the cost of pacifying him

      I believe Chris fairly reports the company’s side of the story, when it chooses to provide one.

      If we (hopefully) agree on that premise, then unless the company considers its own policies or actions embarrassing, I don’t see why there would be any “cost of bad press.”

      It seems to me that you invoke the word “wrong” in an extremely narrow, legalistic sense. In the cases when you believe a company is “right” (or at least not provably “wrong”), and you believe they are getting “bad press” because of Chris, that could be because many readers don’t think too highly of the adhesive contracts and unfriendly policies that allow the company to declare itself “right.”

      Shining a light on possibly embarrassing policies and practices and fine print that entities would prefer not to see highlighted and subjected to scrutiny is hardly “blackmail”. It is a basic part of journalism IMO. And in this case, it’s also a public service which educates consumers.

      1. Yep. When a company is doing nothing wrong, how can it get blackmailed? When Chris approaches a company, it has a choice to defend its contractual rights. Doesn’t exercising one’s own righteous right appeal to people as a good thing? An irony is that those who share the “blackmail” view implicitly admit that what the company is doing is, on contrary, hurting its reputation.

  3. If publicizing a consumer problem is “media blackmail,” then that’s exactly what we need more of. Too many companies are “resolving” customer service problems by simply refusing to deal with them. There’s no phone number, and nobody will respond to your email.

    1. If you let them operate behind closed door, shrouded in secrecy, then bad dealings and bad service are bound to be the result. Corporations/Businesses are beholden to only one god – Profit. Making the board/stock holders/CEO happy is the only concern.

      The only difference is your approach to get there – either snaking money from customers to get the highest profit out of the least amount of expenditure or providing a solid product and support so customers choose to keep returning due to a positive experience.

      Bringing bad experiences, service, products out into the light is a great way to get reform and change.

    1. Thanks Chris. it’d be nice if there were a list somewhere of “Companies that go/went above and beyond”, but I know it’s probably not feasible. (not to mention it’d be a moving target)

    2. Since companies are made up of people, and customers are people, what this means is that fewer and fewer people care about other people these days. It’s worth thinking hard about this because we are all part of the society in which this is happening, so it could be that we ourselves are part of the problem.

  4. @dchamp56:disqus How do you define “care for their customers”?
    Some people would say that companies that don’t refund not refundable reservations don’t care. Others, those that won’t extend the benefits of purchasing trip insurance to those that declined it, don’t care. In both cases, I would argue that those decisions have nothing to do with caring. The customer made a decision to save money by accepting risk and the risk got them.

    Ultimately, I think that’s the biggest ongoing unvoiced debate on this site.

    1. I think (correct me if I’m wrong Chris) it’d just be how he felt about these companies. I’m sure he gets a feeling over time, who cares and who doesn’t.

    2. Well, I’m not shy to voice the debate 🙂

      I consider an uncaring company to be one that elects a corporate philosophy of no waivers, no favors. That is certainly the company’s legal right. I can also elect not to be business with such a company. That legal right flows both ways which I think some of my free market brethren tend to forget.

      I believe this quote best sums up an uncaring business philosophy:

      Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

      “Are there no prisons?”

      “Plenty of prisons…”

      “And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

      “Both very busy, sir…”

      “Those who are badly off must go there.”

      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

    3. I know you didn’t ask me, but I would define caring as a company who, when they make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and make it right in a timely manner. Such a company would also pro-actively look for problems and fix them before the customer even becomes aware (Though this can’t be done in all cases). They would also take the time to listen to customer complaints and explain the rules and why certain things can’t be done the way the customer wants them.

    4. My previous comment disappeared (or was not approved?)so I hope this is not a duplicate

      I define an uncaring company as one which follows a no favors, no waivers,. Certainly that is the company’s legal right. No question about it. But there is another legal right. My legal right to patronize or not patronize a given business.

      If I have a choice between a business that blindly enforces rules v. another which exercises discretion when needed, I choose the later. And, I am happy to pay a premium for that courtesy.

    5. I think this quote from A Christmas Carolbest sums up an uncaring, but perfectly legal, business philosophy:

      “At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than
      usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the
      Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many
      thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are
      in want of common comforts, sir.”

      “Are there no prisons?”

      “Plenty of prisons…”

      “And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

      “Both very busy, sir…”

      “Those who are badly off must go there.”

      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    6. “Caring” would be defined as “displaying kindness and concern for others”. So following the rules may be acceptable, it might not meet the definition of “caring”. To me at least, caring would sometimes go above and beyond what is acceptable to help someone.

    7. I agree that the biggest debate on this site is that Chris and several of the readers believe that individuals should receive the benefits of a refundable farerate and travel insurance without paying for it.

  5. Really good companies with really good customer service will not get complaints sent to Chris. So the question of how few companies give really good service cannot be answered here. The good guys will be invisible. The others need, shall we say, “motivation” to do better, and Chris provides it.
    Maybe the naysayers would be happy if Chris had an occasional feature: “The customer is not always right.”

    1. There is a pretty well known story about how a perpetually complaining woman wrote letter after letter to Southwest. The last letter got on to Herb Kelleher’s desk. He wrote back to her: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.” True story or not, it is illustrative that the customer is *not* always right, and that even companies with really good customer service will end up with a complaint against them lodged with the press or an advocate.

      1. Unfortunately true. Some folks just feel “entitled” to more than they are, and do not care how unreasonable they are. Hurts everyone in the long run, as companies get tired of capitulating, and take a hard line on future complaints.

      2. That recently happened to a family member of mine. The family member keep writing letters of complaints regarding the cell phone company they used. The cell phone company finally got tired of it and suggested they move to another company, which they did. The complaint was about the lack of a cell tower in their valley and my family member thought by writing so many letters, it would nag them into placing one there. It didn’t work. We still chuckle about it!

        1. I just moved, and am in a dead zone. I contact AT&T and they gave me a micro-cell for my house for free. Well, they were out, so they asked me to buy it, and they credit my bill for what I paid including tax.

    2. When I used to work for what I believed to be a really good company, with really good customer service, we still got complaints. There are plenty of bad customers, and even though we did everything right, went above and beyond to be good stewards of customer service, these people still complained and were still unhappy despite there never begin a problem to begin with, and us giving them good will in response to the complaints. With some people, its not possible to win. I’m sure some of these people contact Chris.

  6. My own experience though a dispute with a company dictates that politeness, professional attitude, and good faith are the key. The last component is very important. I studied other consumers’ complaints against this company in BBB. Calling the company a scammer hardly gets a customer to a solution. You don’t call a company a scammer even if your friends and family tell you otherwise. Instead, you assume that the company is acting in good faith and pretend that the company is making an honest mistake. And politely point out what mistake the company is making and what key facts the company is missing.
    I notice that Chris takes this approach towards companies and letter writers. He assumes that they just made honest mistakes and are genuinely seeking for help, no matter what the circumstances are. Not sure if this trait is something natural to him or he picked it up through his career, but I believe his quality of good faith is what makes him a great mediator.

    1. They may be honest mistakes. (Of course, several times here some posters have been exposed by commenters’ research.) But does that mean the company should be liable for fixing them in those cases?

      1. No. In case of consumers’ honest mistakes, there is, of course, no company’s “should” or “liability”. Consumers are just asking for forgiveness, which I don’t see any problem in. I believe that a company should listen to them intently even in these cases and they will decide whether or not it will forgive the customer for PR purpose or to keep the customer royal to it.

      1. Really? Snarky means: sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner.

        Was the poll question really not intended to be sarcastic? I mean, I really don’t think anybody (other than really jerky business owners) thinks only specially skilled customers should get good service. I suspect the vast majority of votes on that side of the poll are themselves snarky.

        I’m really not trying to be a smart alec here. I thought that the poll question was meant to be snarky.

        Okay, I am now done being the snark police.

  7. I thoroughly agree with your advice to have someone else review your correspondence before sending. It is very hard to keep your composure in the heat of the moment and often a complaint rattles on and on and is way too long. Have someone who can cut to the chase and state the facts in your case in the least amount of wording that can be sent.

    You should also state what you want from the company to resolve your problem that is a reasonable solution to your issue. Companies aren’t mind readers and if you are direct about what you expect, you might be surprised to get it with a well written letter.

    Some of the issues we see here are ridiculous and are from someone who doesn’t feel the rules apply to them, such as they didn’t buy insurance, had to cancel due to illness and didn’t get their money back. If a company had to refund in all those situations they’d go broke. But when you paid for a service and didn’t receive what you paid for, that is a whole other story. No company is perfect and those that acknowledge an error and make it right are to be commended.

    1. So, I’ll be the bad guy. The unilateral and crazy rules that the travel providers and other vendors impose mean nothing to me. We both have choices. The travel provider can choose to impose a junk fee (early check-in fee? really?) or otherwise act unreasonably to me. I can also choose never to use their services again.

      I see absolutely nothing wrong with asking for a waiver, especially of a junk fee. I choose to patronize those establishments with policies, and more importantly, practices, which benefit me, even if those practices are technically against the rules.

      1. If we had real choices, that would be a perfectly acceptable way of doing things. Sadly, consolidation has reduced airlines, cell phone companies, cable providers and car rental to near-oligopolies (and in some cases, to near-monopolies). And that’s why this site exists.

        1. I agree with airlines and cable companies. I can’t think of a less consumer friendly enterprise. Airlines, its hard to do much about. Fortunately, I predict you will see cable companies getting better customer service and policies, particularly as unplugging from cable is a real option as many people use netflix, hulu, etc. I personally never watch a live show on cable.

          I’m not sure what the issue is with cell phones and especially car rentals.

        2. As I re-read your post, I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I was objecting to the rules is rules argument. My point is that just because a vendor says no, there are no ethical rules violated when you press them to say yes.,

  8. I will say that I’ve tangled with many large and reputable companies and have an extremely high success rate in getting a resolution. I do this without threats of any kind. I think I’m successful because I am respectful, make a clear and convincing case based on facts, and only ask for a resolution that is reasonable. I also usually make the case in a letter to the CEO after I have had an unsuccessful result working through the standard process (and I cite the details of the bad experience prior to escalating).

    Chris spends a lot of time on this site trying to educate the readers to this behavior; and you’ll notice he won’t always support taking a situation to the company. Follow his advice, and you, too, can have good results when you are wronged if you are unobjective.

  9. Chris was able to resolve an issue for me when I sent him my paperwork. I made sure I had all the communication between me and the company. Chris is right. Make sure you give him everything including your correspondence to the company. I was polite and cordial at all times and tried to work through the steps for filing a greivence. Once that no longer worked I went to Mr. Elliott. He help me resolve the issue. I considered myself luck and really did not hold uout much hope since my last communication stated there were no more appleas and their decision was final. Mr Elliott was able to get them toll at the issue again and look at what I was actually trying to do. Chris is right have sometimes you are right and get nowhere and sometimes things work out. I was at a road block but he knew how to get around it and get the matter resolved. Dometime it takes someone else to look at an issue from a distance and determine what are the next steps and figure out how to resolve.

  10. Like Mike in MI, I have a pretty good success rate as well, particularly in ace-to-face discussions. I will share, as I previously shared with Chris: Be sure it’s important enough to pursue. Know what you’re talking about. Stick to the basics. Remember the other guy needs something too. State your case politely. Tell them what you want. Be quiet. When they go on and on, listen with interest. (I especially enjoy the rationale for resort fees on my bill.) Respond and repeat your point. Be quiet. Continue until you get what you deserve and the other guy is still smiling. Don’t forget that most people in the travel business want you to be happy. And before the flaming arrows start, I said MOST people!

  11. I like the way you put that — “threats get you nowhere” – In my experience, I counsel consumers to also watch their language with customer service professionals. Some customer service agents in call centers and face-to-face are trained to hang up or disengage the moment things get ugly – yelling, cursing, threats. There are also language you shouldn’t use when giving feedback. When giving feedback in a survey, keep it clean, share your emotion and ask for a callback. Most consumers give nasty feedback thinking someone will call them back. Ask for it specifically. Some organizations will only callback their detractors, but only that is hit and miss at best.

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