Buzz Worthy

Avoiding Customer Service Nightmares

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Last month Vincent Ferrari recorded the last five minutes of his attempt to cancel an AOL account. Not since Linda Tripp chatted with Monica Lewinsky has a recorded phone call attracted so much attention. The AOL customer service representative first tried to tell Ferrari he was making a terrible mistake, and then scolded him vigorously when Ferrari repeatedly requested that he "cancel the account."

Ferrari posted the phone call to his blog, Insignificantthoughts.com, where it was picked up by myriad other blogs and Web sites. He since has appeared on CNN and the "Today" show to talk about the phenomenon of the phone call and the frustration of customer service.

At almost the same time, Brian Finkelstein, the Washington writer of Snakesonablog.com, had a video camera running when a Comcast technician fell asleep on his couch during a service call. He posted the video to his blog and to Youtube.com, where hundreds of thousands saw it.

Ben Popken, editor of the Web site Consumerist.com has been tracking both stories and says audio-visual evidence put together by customers is going to shame companies into better service.

"Previously, you could make it up in volume; what was one bad call in the bucket?" Popken says. "Well, if that one customer happened to have a video camera running, that one call could be the story du jour on CNBC."

Popken and other customer-service experts offered some tips on getting satisfaction with a consumer complaint.

· Be polite, persistent and stick to the facts, Popken says. "At the very least, keep a written log of who you speak with, when, and what was covered and agreed upon during the conversation. That way if anything goes wrong, you have a log to fall back upon."

· Before you start taping a customer-service call, check with the laws for your state. Some states, including Maryland, require both parties to consent to taping a phone call. "You don't want to get in trouble for recording in a two-party state," says consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky of Consumerworld.org. "You can start your conversation: 'Let me advise you, this phone call is being recorded.' "

· Don't be afraid to go to the top. Do some Internet sleuthing and find the phone number for the corporate headquarters. Call and ask to be transferred to the chief executive officer. You'll likely get a voice mail or executive assistant, but that's okay, Popken says: "State your case clearly and concisely and you can obtain the Holy Grail, a call back from someone on the executive customer service team, a person equipped with near superhuman powers to effect real change."

· If you can't get satisfaction from the company, you still have options, Dworsky says. A former Massachusetts assistant attorney general in consumer protection and consumer education consultant for the Federal Trade Commission, Dworsky recommends making a complaint with your state consumer affairs bureau or attorney general's office, as they have the power to enforce sanctions or begin investigations if they get enough complaints. The Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs ( http://www.dcra.dc.gov/ ) is the consumer watchdog for the District.

· Dworsky also recommends making any big purchase on a credit card in order to protect yourself if there's a problem with the item. He also says some gold and platinum cards provide extended warranties for free. "You would have to be nuts if you didn't use a credit card to buy a big-screen TV or to buy an appliance," he says.

· Take your message to the people. Web sites like Consumerist.com, Complaints.com, Angieslist.com, Apartmentratings.com and the Aviation Consumer Protection Division home page ( http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm ) allow consumers to rate services and air grievances. Roland Rust of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business went this route when an airline gouged him on a flight to attend his father's funeral. "I thought that was appalling," he says. "So I went online and let them have it."

Paul J. Williams


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