Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Fine Whines: Crafting Complaints

There is an art to whining. You can get a lot of mileage out of consumer complaints filed with a combination of good cheer and forcefulness.

There is no reason to accept poor service or problem merchandise, including toys that are unpacked from a store dead-on-arrival. Likewise, substandard vacation accommodations (dirty rooms or unfulfilled promises) can also be appealed to resort owners or your credit card company if you are dissatisfied.

An honest complaint (filed without fabrications, embellishments or other unethical breaches) can yield coupons, vouchers or refunds if you have mastered the art of polite complaints.

In my household, we go straight to the source when we have a consumer complaint. When dealing with products from a large manufacturer, we locate the 800 number and file our complaint with the appropriate consumers’ relations department. From defective wheels on baby carriages to mislabeled cosmetics, we have found that most manufacturers are quite receptive to our feedback and have shipped — free of charge—parts, coupons and refunds for defective items.

And in some cases, the manufacturer is more receptive to our complaints than even the retailers who directly sold us the goods. That’s because many manufacturers seek to build brand loyalty and consumer confidence. They want your repeat business.

But don’t abuse the process or the call center staff, says one consumer rep for a major toy company, who gave me the inside-story on the complaint business. She estimates that 50 percent of callers are impolite or abusive and that attitude can carry hidden penalties for the consumer. For while her company is generous with its return and refund policy, callers that abuse the system are placed in a “restricted area.”

Of course, every caller is theoretically treated the same, but exceptions can be made for those who abuse the system. The company — one of the largest manufacturers of children’s toys — typically provides vouchers for consumers who have purchased defective toys or those missing parts.

For amounts of $25 or under you do not even have to return the toy, but for refunds of larger amounts, the manufacturer will request a proof of purchase, including the return of some small, obscure part. For example, you may be requested to mail in a battery cover, the consumer rep says.

However, abusive or repeat callers seeking freebies are placed on a special restricted list and may receive fewer benefits. And keep in mind that if you give personal data in order to receive a voucher or a replacement part that information is logged into the system.

“We monitor every call,” she says. “Everything is documented and monitored.”

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