Take a breath
It's certainly not a good idea to try to resolve your complaint while you're hopping mad.
"If you are upset, calm down. Talk to a friend. Rant. Rave. Punch a pillow. Eat chocolate in slow motion like they do on commercials," says Meg Marco, executive editor of Consumer Reports' Consumerist website.
It's understandable why you may be upset, says Adrian Swinscoe, a business consultant who advises on strategy, marketing and team performance issues.
"When you're doing something that's more integral to a person's life, people just want that stuff to work, and they want it to work quickly and effectively," he says. There's "a degree of surprise and ultimately frustration" when things don't work smoothly, he says, especially when it comes to something as important as your money.
But Linda Sherry, a spokeswoman for Consumer Action, says that getting angry at a customer service representative makes it more likely that person will respond negatively.
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Do your homework
Once you've calmed down, take time to do some research about your problem, Marco says. She says it's important to know your rights before you call customer service.
Make sure you have the facts straight about your problem, including dates, your account number and erroneous costs. Take a look around the internet, especially the CFPB's website, to see if other people are having the same problems, and how they were resolved, Banks says.
Sometimes, a perceived error may simply be miscommunication on the part of the bank, says researcher Sahm, who's currently a senior business adviser with Arrant Management Group. For instance, she says a consumer may not realize there was a fee tied to a new checking account and may think the charge is erroneous.
Or similarly, she says there are limitations to what a bank can do to modify a mortgage in this regulatory environment.
"A bank may say, 'We've created a solution.' But a customer walks away saying, 'That's no solution,'" Sahm says. She suggests consumers come prepared to propose a solution.
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Be a good customer
This is more of a long-term solution, but Consumer Action's Sherry says there's evidence that banks tend to be more willing to work with good customers.
"They do keep customer profiles," Sherry says. "If you've bounced many checks this year, they might not be as willing to work with you."
Sherry says she has asked banks if they treat preferential customers differently in customer service queues and has gotten mixed responses.
Some banks offer special programs that reward valued clients with better customer service, Sherry says.
For instance, Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program gives a customer access to dedicated customer service specialists. Customers qualify for the program by maintaining an average 3-month balance of $20,000 or more with Bank of America or Merrill Edge/Merrill Lynch and by having a Bank of America personal checking account.
Treat the customer service rep right
Remember: Stay calm. After you briefly explain the problem, ask for advice, Consumerist's Marco says.
"I'd say, 'Can you tell me what you usually recommend in this situation?'" Marco says. "Everything I say should motivate … the representative to join my cause, drop the official script and help me get my problem solved."
Sherry also says it's important to keep records of the customer service call and note the name of the customer service representative. That can help, especially if you need to call back or escalate your concern to another person.
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Call back if necessary
Sometimes you'll get a customer service representative who just isn't helpful. Instead of pounding your head against the wall, take notes and then call back and get a different representative, Marco says.
"There are helpful people, and there are unhelpful people. That's just how life works," Marco says. "Mr. Cranky Bank Man's dog probably pooped in his loafers this morning. Don't let it get to you."
Business consultant Swinscoe says his wife recently was locked out of her bank account. She had to call back multiple times to get a customer service rep who could help her.
Swinscoe suggests that there may be some people with more authority or skill levels than others and that customers may have to "game the system" to get to those people, like moving through an automated system by acting like you want to pay a bill.
Escalate your complaint to a manager
If you're not getting what you need from the customer service representative, ask to speak with a manager or someone else who can address your needs.
"Usually, if you're polite but firm, the representative will suggest this on his own," Marco says.
If you're having trouble going through the bank's customer service department, try reaching out beyond the call center, Sahm says. She suggests filing an "executive complaint" or "presidential complaint," which would be sent to an area that generally handles complaints made to the company's chief officers.
If all else fails, go to an outside agency
If you're really not getting anywhere with your complaint, take all your notes and bring them to an outside agency like the CFPB for help, Marco says. You can file a complaint with the CFPB at ConsumerFinance.gov/complaint.
Banks says the creation of the CFPB has made banks focus more on consumer complaints.
"Now, banks know (consumers) can file complaints with the CFPB," Banks says. "Oftentimes, banks realize that now there's this regulator out there looking over their shoulder, and it helps them to make sure the customer is happy."
However, if that doesn't happen, consumers should not shy away from filing a complaint with the CFPB, Banks says. She suggests going there if 2 calls made to the bank turn up fruitless.
If you bank at a smaller institution, you may have to go to a different regulator for help. The CFPB only handles financial institutions with assets over $10 billion.