CONSUMER FORUM

When all else fails, complain

Posted Aug. 07, 2011, at 11:11 a.m.

As consumers, we often can resolve disputes with retailers or manufacturers simply by explaining a problem. Many times, the seller or producer of goods we use is eager to keep us happy and loyal; otherwise, we might turn grumpy and complain, not only to them, but also about them.

However, when consumers can’t get their problems resolved just by speaking up, they may have to speak louder. They might spread the word casually among friends and family or broadcast their bad experiences far and wide via the Internet.

We should say a few words here about the effectiveness of complaints. As noted above, reputable companies seek to avoid trouble and may respond favorably to concerns voiced to their customer service personnel.

Before contacting them, consumers with problems should have all receipts, warranties and other relevant documents organized and photocopied. If the customer service folks can’t or won’t help (and at some firms, their main job is to get you off the phone), then you need to use the U.S. Postal Service.

In many executives’ minds, emails and phone calls don’t have the effect a letter does. A well-written, carefully documented account of your issue might prompt a solution all by itself. This is where the photocopies come in; send them and keep your originals. We suggest writing to the president or chief executive officer of the company — you often can find the names of these people through their websites, or you may ask your local librarian for help finding that information and a mailing address.

While their companies receive emails and phone calls in big numbers, executives realize that few consumers take the time and trouble to write a well-documented letter. The savvy executives realize that each letter likely reflects the concerns of many more consumers, and that resolving those concerns pays dividends.

When that approach doesn’t work, consumers may take a more public approach. Social networking websites are fertile ground both for consumer complaints and responses from companies. Complaints.com has been around since 2000. Its website boasts, “Often, a single complaint posted to Complaints.com about a business appears higher in the search result rankings than the home page of the business that is the subject of that complaint.”

We can’t verify that, but you get the idea.

We were reminded recently by the Consumer Reports publication “Money Adviser” that effective complaining results from credibility. Before you post a comment online, check the company’s “frequently asked questions” section and check the rules for posting. Make your comment brief and factual. Stating the good along with the bad lets readers know you’re more likely to be a real consumer than a competitor slinging mud.

Avoid backlash that might come from a company you’ve criticized unfairly. Companies and professionals have sued over comments their critics have posted. While free speech might ultimately triumph, such lawsuits can be expensive to defend against. Many states, including Maine, have passed laws barring Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, suits. Recent challenges, both here and in other states, bear watching.

We’re not legal experts, but we strongly advise consumers who complain to back themselves up with facts. While a rant may make you feel good for a while, defending yourself against a libel suit may cause long-term headaches. So, choose your words carefully. Also, while you think you’ve posted a comment anonymously, a court order might prompt website creators to overturn their own privacy policies.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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