For tough problems, call executive customer service

High-level staff can untangle even the worst knots

November 28, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

You've called a company's 800 number and gotten nowhere. Your problem perplexes every customer service representative you reach. You've spoken with countless supervisors and still can't resolve the issue.

It may be time to resort to the heavy artillery: executive customer service.

Consumerist.com, a blog that popularized the phrase, has made a franchise out of tracking down those high-level executives and staff who are behind the workers manning the phone bank and often have the ability to tackle customers' most nightmarish problems. According to Ben Popken, the blog's managing editor: "They're there to get things done."

"They are the firewall between the angry customer and the busy executive on the golf course," he said.

Who are these magicians? The problem-solver can be an assistant in the office of a company's president or CEO. In other cases, an entire department is dedicated to untangling seemingly intractable customer quandaries.

And the Consumerist, whose motto is "Shoppers bite back," aims to help you find them. The blog, owned by the nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, invites readers to share their experiences trying to make an end-run to a company representative who can help. It posts a company listing with contact numbers.

Many industries offer tiered levels of service for frequent customers or big spenders, sometimes for a higher price — think first class and business class on airlines. Companies can use a preferred service line to cement relationships with customers by making them feel special, said James Fisher, head of the marketing department at Saint Louis University.

But they can't offer that level of response to everyone.

"Business, at the end of the day, is about allocating scarce resources," Fisher said.

Higher-level or executive customer service exists because standard customer service representatives are limited in what they can do, Popken said. They're working from a manual that dictates their responses and have little discretion to improvise, he said.

Popken said companies that can seem the most impenetrable — cable and telephone companies, credit card issuers, banks and airlines — often have employees in executive customer service roles. But tracking down the right phone number can be a challenge. "You're definitely not going to find it on the back of a package," he said.

Bradley S. Shear, a lawyer based in Bethesda, said he has taken his consumer grievances directly to company executives after he's tried unsuccessfully to resolve problems via traditional avenues. And it has worked.

A few years ago, Shear said he and his wife tried to return a stroller they had received as a gift from Babies "R" Us. He said a store worker indicated the return could be credited only to the gift-giver's credit card. So Shear mailed a letter to the company's CEO — along with the stroller.

In return, Shear said he received a letter from a "customer service coordinator" with a gift card covering not just the value of the stroller and the shipping he paid but also $50 for his trouble. Now, Shear said, he's a Babies "R" Us customer for life.

You may not need to ship a product to an executive suite, but such tactics may help. "Whatever the situation is, you have to be creative and use whatever you can to get the CEO's attention," said Shear, who advised consumers to use certified mail or to pay for a return receipt to show they've invested their own time and money to help resolve the problem.

Popken has his own advice: No matter how frustrated you may be, don't start at the top. "It definitely should not be your first call," he said. "You've got to call the normal 1-800 number at least twice."

He urges consumers to persevere. "Just keep at it," he said, "Just confidently ask … and you'll get great results."

But if perseverance and confidence don't work, he said, you might need to go straight to the top.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Executive customer service

•When you're unable to resolve a problem via the usual customer service route, try reaching a higher-level company official who can make things right.

•To find phone numbers, check the company directory at Consumerist.com. Or get names of top corporate representatives as well as the address and phone number for the headquarters from a company's website.

•Ben Popken, managing editor of the Consumerist.com, advises condensing your complaint, proposing a resolution and remembering to be polite, professional and persistent.

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