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Friday, March 20, 2009

Five Tips for Self-Advocacy When Dealing with Businesses

Ann-Marie Luciano Bio

Since my patience has worn thin recently from all of the ways customer service has deteriorated, I decided to describe my top five ways of navigating the most annoying experiences:

1. Don't succumb to shaming.
I've noticed that I can't go to a store in the mall without the cashier saying, in a shaming voice: "Would you like anything else to go with that today"? It's as if you're not "allowed" to buy just one item. If you buy a pair of jeans, they want to know if you also would like to buy the "buy one, get one 50% off" shirts. If you only want to buy one bottle of lotion, they ask if you'd also like to buy a set of three to "save money." As if we're all that stupid. We all know what happens when you give in to the public shaming: you end up with three bottles of lotion, only one of which you will use, and the other two are either re gifted or sent to charity. The key is to be firm – as soon as you hesitate or turn around to look at the alleged "sale" items – they've got you.

2. Stay alert.
Sometimes we're all in a hurry and it's easy to react to a cashier's monotonous questions with knee-jerk answers. The typical cashier protocol goes something like this: "Will that be on your [enter store name here] card today"? (Notice that they no longer ask if you have a store card or would like to open one – they've turned the question into a shaming question, so you have to correct the cashier to state that you actually don't have a store card). They then quickly ask: "Your phone number"? Notice, again, that cashiers these days no longer ask you, "May I have your phone number please"? Instead, they just say "Your phone number?" as if giving them your phone number is required. (It isn't). Stay alert and make sure not to freely give up information you don't have to give.

3. Create a paper trail.
I obsessively document everything whenever I call any company that I paid money to or that owes me money. I write down the name of every customer service agent I speak to, the date, the time, and everything they tell me. If I'm near a computer when I make the call I type these notes in an email to myself so I have proof as to the date and time of my call. Following the "more bees with honey" philosophy, I start off nice. If the agent is rude or stonewalls (unfortunately a common thing), I ask to speak to a manager and refuse to take "no" for an answer. If you make sure to ask for the agent's name in the beginning of the call (before anything has turned sour) you are more likely to get a truthful answer, so that if the agent is rude or hangs up you know how to report them when you call back.

4. Be informed.
The beauty of the Internet is that we can all be our own detectives. Before using a particular company's services, I read the better business bureau report about them and then google their name with the word "complaint" to see what comes up. If I'm getting the run-around on the phone with a company and they claim that they are "not allowed" to give me a phone number to a particular department, I just go on the company's website and call their corporate number until I can get transferred to the right department. If I'm having a major problem with a particular company, I look to see what others on the Internet have said about how they've dealt with the same problem (for one wireless phone provider that shall remain nameless, there was actually a step-by-step document on the Internet about what paragraphs in the contract you could cite to in order to get cancellation fees waived, etc.). So, surf away.

5. Know what your government can do for you.
With the news full of stories about the government's failures, it's easy to forget that there are some governmental services that can actually help - for free. There are so many examples: you buy a lemon, call the state Attorney General office to file a report and read their on-line summary of your rights; collection agencies are harassing you, call the FTC to complain and learn about your legal rights; you can't figure out whether the food in your pantry is subject to a recall (a common problem these days), call the FDA to find out. Although some think it is futile, calling one's congressional representative and U.S. Senators and/or state representatives can also go along way.


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