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How to get what you want from customer service

customer_service.top.gif By Linda Stern, contributing writer

(MONEY Magazine) -- Press 1 if you're delusional enough to think that the customer service rep you just spoke with actually gives a damn about your $5,000 cellphone bill, your exploded microwave or cancelled-without-notice flight.

Fortunately, not all technology is on the side of the companies that hide behind tortuous voicemail systems Savvy consumers are increasingly harnessing Twitter, Google, YouTube, and the rest of the web to get their complaints heard.

"Companies used to worry that a dissatisfied consumer would tell seven people," says Barry Moltz, who advises companies on customer service strategy. "Now you can tell 7 million people."

Case in point: Last year, after his guitar was allegedly damaged on a flight, singer-songwriter Dave Carroll wrote and performed a ditty called "United Breaks Guitars" that spread virally via YouTube. The result? A guitar manufacturer gave Carroll two new guitars, and United made a charitable donation in his name.

Fortunately, you don't need killer licks to get customer-service satisfaction; you just need to know how to get results online.

Find your quarry

Complaining directly to a company still works, but you'll need to break through to a live person to get any kind of resolution. A good place to start: Gethuman.com, which gives tips on bypassing the voicemail systems of thousands of companies.

No luck? Head up the food chain. With all the info that's online, it's fairly easy to find a firm's top brass. After his utility company removed trees on his property -- and his calls made no headway -- Joseph Goldberg of Harrisburg, Pa., tracked down the company's president online. Googling the name, Goldberg found a letter the exec had written that included a phone number. A call resulted in an offer to replace the trees.

Get the name of the president or CEO from the investor section of the firm's website or via the company directory at Consumerist.com. E-mail is usually more effective than a call. The boss's address may not be listed, but you can usually figure it out from press releases: If the publicist's e-mail is firstname.lastname@company.com, the president's probably is too.

Gather ammunition

Unhappy consumers gather online at sites like complaint.com, complaintsboard.com, consumeraffairs.com, my3cents.com, pissedconsumer.com, and ripoffreport.com. These six -- which recently earned accolades from the Consumer Federation of America -- have logged thousands of complaints, so they can be useful in helping you determine what type of remediation to request.

Search the sites to see if other people have had similar issues. If lots of folks' microwaves exploded, the company may have a standard resolution. (You should note in your complaint that you know it's a common problem.) If your experience is unique, see how the firm typically handles complaints. For example, when people got results from the airline you flew, did they get a refund or a voucher?

Strike at their reputation

If your e-mail doesn't get results, you can try embarrassing a company into treating you right. Many big corporations, including AT&T, Comcast, and Sears, have representatives trolling the web for aggrieved customers to protect the firms' reputations.

Try whining on the firm's Facebook wall or at the complaint sites noted earlier. (Just avoid statements that seem factual but can't be verified, such as "XYZ knowingly sells shoddy products" -- you could be sued, says Leslie Ann Ries, professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.) And if you're on Twitter, air your complaint to your followers, ending it with "#[company name]." Businesses follow tweets that tag their names.

When Jeff Dodd, a Columbus, Ga., business traveler, vented on Twitter about what he thought was an excessive credit card hold for incidentals at a Kimpton Hotel, he got a quick tweet back from the company and a follow-up call from the hotel manager offering him an immediate refund and a free stay.

Press 2 if you think that beats being put on hold due to "unusually high call volume."  To top of page

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