Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Feb 10 2006, 08:36PM

The first secret to complaining effectively is to complain in the first place

The first secret to complaining effectively is to complain in the first place. Only about four percent of dissatisfied consumers bother. The rest assume their complaints will go nowhere –and so that self-fulfilling prophecy comes to pass. Studies show it's cheaper for a company to keep an existing customer than to attract a brand new one. Use that statistic to your advantage.When you have a problem with a product or service, first gather your evidence. Collect price tags, receipts, warranties, manuals. Photograph or videotape the product or evidence, if appropriate.

Next, adopt the right attitude. No matter how irate you are, set aside your anger. It's called acting! Be polite but firm. Avoid displays of temper, which will only get you labeled as a crank. People instinctively go on guard and resist your requests when you're overly aggressive. They may even say "no" just to spite you. The best approach is to say that you have a problem and ask for help. Most people have trouble turning away somebody who humbly asks for assistance.

Years ago, I wanted to exchange a defective portable stereo at the store rather than going through the manufacturer. I was in a mellow mood, so I pleasantly asked the sales guy if that might be possible. Even though the store had no obligation to help me because the exchange period was longer over, he did it. He explained that he helped me because I wasn't shrill and obnoxious like so many of his customers. (He caught me on a good day! And I learned a good lesson!)

I got lucky with that salesman and that's where you should start too: at the bottom. Contrary to popular belief, "taking it straight to the top" is not always best. The company president will only hand your complaint off to the customer service department anyway. Corporations often establish complex complaint procedures to discourage casual gripers. Demonstrate your seriousness by going through the process. As you proceed, keep a written record of who you spoke with, what they promised and when. If possible, visit the business in person. It's harder for employees to dismiss somebody who's standing right in front of them. As you pass through each level of the hierarchy, thank the person, tell them you appreciate how helpful they've been (even if they haven't) and move on. The person at the next level is likely to consult with the underling you just dealt with, so leave a good impression.

Verbal requests only go so far. At some point, you may need to make your complaint official by putting it in writing. Keep your letter concise –one page if possible. List the product or service you had trouble with, giving details like makes, model numbers, names and dates. DO NOT ramble about other things that bugged you about the sales experience. Stick with the core facts. Enclose copies of your documentation, never originals. State the specific solution you would be satisfied with: a refund, exchange, repair, etc.

Specify a reasonable time limit, maybe two weeks, and explain that after that you will have to seek assistance from a third party. Note that you've always liked the business or it came recommended (to imply that it's possible to keep you as a customer if the company does the right thing.) Include your day and evening phone numbers. Make a copy of the letter for your files and send it certified mail, return receipt requested.

If the business agrees to help you, write a confirmation letter and send that certified also. It can double as a thank you letter. The sign of a good business is not whether it makes mistakes, but how it addresses those mistakes.

1. Keep receipts, price tags, contracts, warranties, instructions and owner's manuals for everything you buy.
2. Do some deep breathing to adopt the right attitude before you complain! In with the positive, out with the negative.
3. Work your way up the food chain, refining your argument as you go.
4. Keep a record of each person you speak with, the date and what they said.
5. Research which government watchdog oversees the business –but don't file a complaint with that watchdog yet. Instead, name that third party in your letter.
6. Think about what outcome will satisfy you and ask for it in a firm, concise letter.
7. If you paid with a credit card, consider disputing the charge through your credit card company too. You generally have sixty days to do this after the charge is made.
8. If you financed the item, you can get the finance company involved too.
9. If the business fails to meet your deadline, then complain to the Better Business Bureau and the relevant government watchdog.