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What to do -- and write -- if you have a customer service complaint

Writing a letter

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: If you've got a beef about bad customer service, don't yell, don't get angry -- get even! Just kidding. You might try a good, old-fashioned letter and then submit it to a complaint letter-writing contest on Slate.com! About 150 people did just that after columnist Timothy Noah invited them to submit their best efforts. Welcome to the show, Tim.

TIMOTHY NOAH: Thank you for having me.

VIGELAND: Well let's start with what I think is the slow death of customer service. Why is it so hard to get help these days?

NOAH: I don't believe that customer service is actually dead, it's just gone into hiding. It's hiding behind a big, old call center in Manila and eventually somebody comes onto the line and tells you that they can't help you. And next step is to write an irate letter to the CEO of the company or the Better Business Bureau.

VIGELAND: Does the Better Business Bureau actually do anything anymore? Wouldn't it be effective to just tweet something?

NOAH: Tweeting something might just help as well. The Better Business Bureau ranks companies and the whole process is somewhat corrupt. It's a little bit of a protection racket. You have to be a member to really usually get a good rating. But in fielding complaints, the Better Business Bureau is still a perfectly good place to squawk about a company.

VIGELAND: But I wonder if in some way many of us have just given up on trying to get good customer service?

NOAH: There is a lot of resignation out there and I confess that I am one of these resigned people.

VIGELAND: So am I.

NOAH: But there is another breed -- people who take it to the next level and they write a letter. So then the question becomes: is your letter the kind of letter that's really going to get results?

VIGELAND: Well let's talk about your complaint letter contest. I think I remember when you launched it, you said let the kvetching begin. What kind of response did you get?

NOAH: We got a big response. We got about 150 letters, but most of the letters I felt were really not up to snuff. I think that's because when you announce that you're having a contest inviting readers to submit angry customer letters, you attract a certain crowd. And I felt annoyed because I had said in my contest instructions: Don't get angry, and the other was, be succinct. And I have to say, even most of the winners of my contest ignored those two pieces of advice.

VIGELAND: All right, so you had nine finalists and then you asked your readers to cast their votes, right?

NOAH: Yes. We had an interactive poll and our ultimate winner was a very popular choice from the get-go.

VIGELAND: Well let's talk to him. Keith Bertrand is on the line. Hi Keith.

KEITH BERTRAND: Hi.

VIGELAND: Congratulations.

BERTRAND: Well thank you. Yeah, I guess I've been named griper of the year. Don't know if I can put it on my resume any time soon, but it's quite an honor nevertheless.

VIGELAND: Well tell us a little about what your complaint was.

BERTRAND: My wife and I had identical wedding bands and they are two-tone things that have an inner band that's gold and an outer one that's platinum. On my wife's band, the outer platinum ring was becoming loose and was in danger of falling off. So we went to the company to try and get that fixed. Initially, we didn't have good results. They felt that somehow we had altered this ring and we certainly hadn't. So then in desperation I wrote a letter and I just faxed it in.

VIGELAND: And who did you hear from?

BERTRAND: I got a call back from the president of the company and he was very gracious. It turns out it's a family-owned company and he was happy to uphold the values of the company and he replaced the ring, free of charge.

VIGELAND: Well read us the part of the letter that you think won them over.

BERTRAND: "When we look at these rings, we want to be reminded of what we have always been reminded of and what we were meant to always be reminded of: our commitment to each other. We don't want to look at Jill's ring and think of it as just another piece of defective merchandise that we had to pay for twice because the company that made it was unwilling to stand behind it."

VIGELAND: Timothy, you were partially a judge, at least you picked the nine finalists here. Why was this one a standout for you?

NOAH: I was intrigued by the fact that it was such a good letter even though it violated one of my rules. I said don't say in your letter how this problem makes you feel, just explain the problem. And here this letter obviously did the precise opposite -- and it was very moving.

BERTRAND: One thing I did in my letter was I quoted back the mission statement of the company. And I think that's, in the end, is what the company president saw.

VIGELAND: Well congratulations.

BERTRAND: Thank you.

VIGELAND: And particularly congratulations on getting a response, but also on becoming the griper of the year.

BERTRAND: Griper of the year, yeah. I guess my next career move is probably into reality television.

VIGELAND: Thanks so much for joining us.

BERTRAND: Thank you.

VIGELAND: You know, I have to say, I guess from the company perspective, you have to recognize that if someone is going to take the time to write a letter like this, that they're probably pretty loyal to your brand and that's something you need to pay attention to.

NOAH: That's a nice way of putting it. A not-nice way of putting it is if someone is going to take the trouble to write a letter, then they really know how to make things happen. So you want to pay a little bit more attention to their complaints.

VIGELAND: Thanks so much, Tim.

NOAH: Thanks for having me.

VIGELAND: Timothy Noah pens The Customer column at Slate.com, where he is also a senior writer.

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I don't think "griper of the year" is the right name for this gentleman. My husband and I owned a couple of small businesses. I always listened to feedback from the public on what experience they had in my store when I was not present. Customers are the absolute best advertising. One bad experience can do untold damage to your business. I would prefer it to be called constructive critism, not griping. I must admit to reporting problems frequently on merchandise. If they don't know, how can they fix it?

In my recent book, 'The Squeaky Wheel', I argue that most of us do not know how to complain effectively, that a shift in our 'complaining psychology' has led to a mindset of resignation instead of action and results. This complaining passivity also happens in our personal lives and relationships. The Squeaky Wheel provides techniques and tools for complaining effectively (to a spouse, co-worker and customer service representative) and discusses the steep psychological and emotional price we sometimes pay for our complaining impotence.
Guy Winch Ph.D.
Psychologist/Author
http://www.guywinch.com

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