When Martha Crawley, a financial analyst, was studying at the Yale School of Organization and Management, she purchased a Northgate personal computer that turned out to be a lemon. She did what was logical: She called the company's technical support line. And called. And called again.
Instead of giving up, Ms. Crawley got smart.
"It suddenly occurred to me: Who has the most interest in keeping me happy? The company's sales people, of course! I got through immediately to the sales staff, and the replacement part I needed was in my hands within three days."
A creative approach like Ms. Crawley's goes a long way toward getting help from a company that has sold you a problem.
Here are some more guidelines for successful complaining, and a list of whom to call when things go wrong.
* Contact the company: If you are complaining about a product, start by contacting the company. To complain about a service or a non-responsive company in your state, contact the state's consumer protection agency (look in the government listings in the telephone book). As for the state's attorney's office and the local Better Business Bureau, they will want a record of your complaint to pursue the problem for the public good, but they will not act as your personal problem solver. Any complaint about a merchant or service provider that requires a city license (for example, taxi drivers, dry cleaners) should be reported to your mayor's office.
* The Consumer's Resource Handbook: Published quarterly, this book lists the addresses of several hundred consumer representatives and federal and state agencies that handle consumer complaints. It is available in most libraries, or you can get a free copy by writing to the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.
* Toll-free directory: Another valuable resource is AT&T's directory of toll-free numbers for virtually every business that has any dealings with consumers. It is available for $9.95 by calling (800) 426-8686. A call to your library's reference section can yield a company's phone number and address from Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives.
* Documentation: Before you make any calls or write any letters, gather all of the necessary documentation: Know the model number of any appliance; dig the warranty out of the kitchen drawer, along with the sales receipt. When you call a company, record the name of the person you talk with and keep careful notes on what was said and how many calls you made before your call was returned.
* Know your rights as a consumer: Ralph Charell, author of "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (Linden Press, 1985), offered the following advice: "Call the state or federal agency that handles your type of complaint, and explain to the receptionist that your problem is extremely legalistic and you'd prefer to speak directly with their on-staff counsel. Most of the time, you'll be referred directly to the person most able to help you.
"Ask the attorney if he or she could copy for you any laws that directly outline your rights in this case. Also ask whether you can add his or her name to the list of people who will receive copies of all correspondence about this complaint. You may get faster results from a company when they see you've already gotten an attorney for the state's Consumer Protection Agency involved."
* Keep cool: "State simply and reasonably what has happened and how you'd like the situation resolved," said Barry Reid, director of the Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.
* Be prepared to escalate: "If it's clear you're being stonewalled, announce where you plan to go next in your hunt for satisfaction," Mr. Charell says. "Reporting the problem to state or federal agencies or even contacting the local news media may well be enough to make sure your claim receives attention."
For specific types of problems, try these resources:
* Credit cards: Bankcard Holders of America, (703) 481-1110, provides pamphlets that outline your rights as a credit-card consumer and that help guide the complaint process. Most pamphlets cost $1.
* Travel-agent trauma: The American Society of Travel Agents, (703) 739-2782, or the United States Tour Operators Association, (212) 944-5727, will mediate if the troublesome agent is a member. If not, your state's consumer protection agency can help.
* Car trouble: The Center for Auto Safety, (202) 328-7700, can help direct your complaint in the right direction.
The National Automobile Dealers Association, (703) 821-7000; the American Automobile Association's Autosolve division, (407) 444-7000; the American Arbitration Association, (212) 484-4000, and the Better Business Bureau's Auto Line (check with your local chapter) all provide mediation for consumers with complaints about cars. Each group handles complaints about a different group of car makers; call for details. The Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Corp. have in-house mediation boards.