5 Tips to Beat Bad Service – and Get Freebies

A recent Consumer Reports survey found that two-thirds of us have been so ticked off by poor customer service that we’ve walked out of a store. Here’s how to make your complaints heard – and to convert complaints into free goodies.


I get tired of hearing other customers express surprise when service stinks at the local Walmart. The chain beats everyone’s prices, and you get what you pay for, right?

Not necessarily, says Consumer Reports. Their recent survey found that most of us think customer service stinks in general – enough to walk out of a store. Of the 1,000 people surveyed:

  • 64 percent had left a store in the previous 12 months because of poor service.
  • 65 percent are “tremendously annoyed” by rude salespeople.
  • 67 percent hung up the phone without getting their issue resolved.
  • 71 percent were extremely irritated when they couldn’t reach a human on the phone.

The survey – part of an investigation featured in Consumer Reports’ July 2011 issue – identified the companies from 21 different industries that have the best service. Walmart topped the list of worst offenders, but it’s not alone.

“Walmart or Sam’s Club, and sometimes both, were among the worst in eight categories, including retailers for appliances, electronics, cell phones and supermarkets,” Consumer Reports says, adding, “Computer tech support, TV, phone and Internet service providers earned some of the lowest scores.”

So, who fared the best? The service at brokerage firms, eyeglass retailers, and pharmacies was among the highest-rated.

And can anything be done about Walmart and friends? Consumer Reports suggests picking up the phone – and offers these tips for successful griping:

  • Bypass automated phone menus. Websites such as DialAHuman.com and GetHuman.com list customer service numbers and tell how to bypass automated prompts to get a real person. Another free service, LucyPhone, will help you avoid sitting on hold by letting you to provide your phone number and hang up. The service calls you back when a live representative is on the line.
  • Write it down. When calling customer service, be ready to write. Record the date and time of the call, the name and location of everyone you talk to, how many times you were put on hold and for how long, and notes of the responses. Asking for these details will show the company you’re capable, serious and organized.
  • Threaten to take it upstairs. If you’re not getting action, tell the customer service rep you want to escalate the issue and talk to a supervisor. Since reps aren’t supposed to let that happen, it might result in a quicker fix.
  • Air your dirty laundry in public. If push comes to shove, use the Internet. Post your stories on social network and complaint sites. When using Twitter, use hashtag keywords to make them searchable. But stick to the facts and use good manners: while your frustration may driving you nuts, don’t rage: be polite, succinct and fair. Before you hit the “enter” key, imagine that what you’re saying is going to be read aloud in court – because it might be. See our story When Free Speech Gets Expensive.
  • If you use the stick, don’t forget the carrot. If you complain, especially publicly, don’t forget to use the same venues to thank a company for a happy outcome.

Even if you don’t have a beef, writing a company – especially with paper and envelope – to praise them for good service or a great product is probably the single best way to score free coupons or gift cards. This also sometimes works if you’re complaining about poor service or a disappointing product. Companies want to thank customers who take the time to compliment them – and they want to try to win back customers who take the time to let them know they’ve been turned off by the company’s service or product.

My mother taught me this deal-seeking lesson when I was a kid. It’s not guaranteed to work every time, but you stand a much better chance if you write a formal letter instead of an email. And instead of mailing it to the local store you’re complimenting or dissing, mail it to the company’s CEO at its headquarters and “CC” the manager at the local store.

(The CEO’s name and the headquarters address is always on their annual report. Just Google for “[company name] annual report” – here’s an example from my favorite department store. For the address of your local store, check their website’s store locator. For the name of their manager, call and ask nicely.)

So the next time you’re miffed about Walmart-like service, instead of whining to the person behind you in the unnecessarily long line, use that time to whip out your cell phone and do something about it: Make a call or send an email. And when you get home, find your stamps.

Stacy Johnson

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