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Write Complaints That Get Results

A good complaint to a store or, say, a cable TV company, requires planning and, often, careful writing. Here's how to be sure your complaint gets results.

My husband spent last Sunday doing one of his favorite springtime activities -- watching the NBA playoffs. The games start at around noon and end late in the evening. When the 8:00 p.m. game was about to start, the cable channel that carried it went blank.

We were able to get all the other stations, just not the one that should have been carrying the game.

He complained. He channel-surfed. And he kept flipping back to what should have been the game. After about 45 minutes, I suggested he call the cable company. Another 15 minutes passed when finally, remote-finger tired from the back-and-forth workout, he finally got up to call.

After waiting on hold, the customer service rep told him we weren't getting the game because the cable company can't run home games of the team in question: the team has its own deal for broadcasting home games on cable.

He wasn't satisfied.

Are you going to get a new contract, or will this continue to be a problem?" my husband asked, fruitlessly.

Of course, the customer service rep doesn't have anything to do with contract negotiations. So, there was no way she could answer the question.

After he hung up, I suggested my husband write a complaint letter to the cable company. Maybe there was some satisfaction from that. But days later, he hasn't done it. And like most consumers, he probably won't.

It takes too much time and trouble, people think, and complaint letters probably just sit on some pencil-pushers desk. Some maybe, but not always. Whether it's a faulty dishwasher, a broken toy or a catalog delivery that never made it to your home, you can get satisfaction with an effective complaint letter.

Start at the beginning. Consumer complaints are part of the retail business. But that doesn't mean every salesperson you encounter is going to handle your complaint well. Some will gladly help, replace defective products and give your money back. If you don't get the response you want at the sales desk, go to your own desk, and start writing.

Find the right recipient. Before you write your letter, make sure it will land in the right hands. If it's a store you're having trouble with, call to get the name of the manager. If it's an online retail outfit, check its Web site for a customer complaint division. No matter what kind of business your problem is with, call the company's headquarters and get the name and address of someone really high up -- the president or even the CEO.

Send two copies of your letter -- one to the store manager and a second to the big mucky-muck. The store manager will be more likely to give personal attention to the matter if he knows the big boss is aware of the problem. At the bottom of your letter, a simple CC: John Smith, President, ABC Company will do the trick.

Type it. You want your letter to look professional and serious, so a handwritten note isn't the way to go. Type your letter neatly. Be sure to use spell-check -- you want your message, and not your spelling errors, to come through to the reader.

Be short and to the point. No matter how much of a runaround you've been given, or how long your story is, be short and to the point. Keep your letter to one page.

Start off with the facts. "I bought Product X but it broke after one day. Your salesperson Mary Jones in Store Y wouldn't give me a refund even though store policy clearly states refunds are given within 30 days of purchase."

Be nice. No matter how angry you are. Write something like this: "I was hoping you could help remedy the problem."

Offer a clear solution. "I'd like my money back."

Offer a time frame. Tell the company what you plan to do if you don't get satisfaction. "I hope to hear from you in the next 30 days. If I don't get a response, I will take my complaint to the Better Business Bureau." (You can look up your local BBB at the Better Business Bureau Web site.) Be careful, here. No one likes to hear threats or intimidation. Be matter-of-fact, and again, professional.

Better Business Bureau Online

Include your contact information. Even the best intentioned company representative probably won't track you down if you don't include your contact information. After you sign your letter, include your name (especially if your signature is as illegible as mine,) your address, and your work and home phone numbers.

Go public. If you don't get satisfaction from your letter, don't give up. If you feel you're in the right, and can prove it, look for help in a more public forum. Send a second letter to the company and tell them you're going to go public if your complaint is not answered. Then follow through.

Call or write to the consumer reporters of your local television stations or newspaper. Call consumer help-lines or advocacy groups in your area. Fearing negative publicity, some companies respond more effectively to consumer groups or the media.

As for our basketball problem, the team that we couldn't on cable get is still in the playoffs. That means there will probably be more games that don't get televised in my house.

But I have to confess: I won't be writing a complaint letter. I'm a hockey fan, after all.

Karin Price Mueller is the author of the Online Money Management (Microsoft, 2001).

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