In complaint world, seek ally

Value Judgments

Your Money

September 05, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

EVER NOTICE how no one admits that they love to complain? Most complaints, in fact, start out with the phrase, "I hate to complain, but ... ."

Well, I hate to complain, but I'm getting better at it thanks to a mind-numbing dance of customer service problems that came my way this summer when I moved into a new home and started up a home office.

There was the time I noticed (after installation) that the kitchen sink was a single instead of a double. There were the shower doors that didn't fit, and the one that didn't fit even on the second try. I'm still waiting for that one. And there were the towel bars that were lost in transit for about six weeks.

All of it, however, paled in comparison to my laptop computer saga.

Last spring, I bought a lightweight Thinkpad from IBM for about $1,800. From the start, the system seemed sluggish. Over the next several weeks the problem worsened, until when in mid-July it moved beyond even the abilities of my computer-geek husband.

An IBM technical support representative said if I shipped the machine to the repair center, I'd have it back in three to five business days.

Customer Fairy Tale No. 1: Everything takes three to five business days.

If you've ever been through service problems with a big company, you can pretty much fill in the blanks.

To get a refund on the computer, I couldn't have the repair center dispose of it and get a credit for my purchase. I had to have the repair center ship it back to me, then wait for special mailing labels, and then return it to another department.

When I ordered a replacement, a salesperson said they didn't have the exact computer in stock, but that if I upgraded to another system (and paid another $300), I would have it in about five business days.

You guessed it. It took until the third week of August to get a replacement computer.

To their credit, the IBM folks were far better to deal with than some other companies.

Once my repair problem went into the sixth day, a customer service agent took over my case, herded me through the return process and set me up for some substantial discounts on the reorder.

Even though I paid the $300 extra, I got a much higher-end machine loaded with extras. The deal went a long way in restoring my trust and getting me to order the second computer.

More people stay loyal to a brand if a complaint was resolved satisfactorily than if no complaint was lodged, said Bill Oden, a senior partner with TMI USA, a Las Vegas-based corporate training consultancy that advises companies on their customer service practices.

"In those cases, customers know the company is one that will step up to the plate if something goes wrong," he said.

I asked Oden for a few more tips on complaining. Everyone knows the first rule in this game is to keep calm and not threaten to climb through the telephone wire to do bodily harm to the person on the other end of the phone, which also happens to be everyone's natural first instinct.

Beyond that, his best advice - and the method I used - was to get an ally.

"Sometimes I'll ask them what they would do in my situation," Oden said. "They probably won't have a real suggestion, but it's a good rapport builder to get the person away from the approved script.

"Then you'll usually need to escalate things to a manager, but I always tell the first person that I'm not going to complain about them, that I'm just complaining about the system. A lot of times, when they transfer you to the supervisor, they go to bat for you."

When my replacement computer was delayed, I appealed to the original customer service agent who helped me through the repair process. The new computer arrived in two business days.

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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