I hear from a fair number of folks via Twitter and email asking how to fix mistakes involving a checking or savings account at their bank. That's not really surprising; U.S. banks process millions of transactions a day; messing up even .01 percent of the time amounts to a lot of angry customers.
For some tips on how to resolve issues with mysterious debits, uncredited deposits and other issues, I spoke to Ruth Susswein, deputy director of national priorities with Consumer Action, a consumer advocacy group that, among other things, helps consumers resolve disputes with financial services providers and other companies. She had these tips to getting bank disputes settled quickly.
1. Get your facts straight. Take a minute to write down some notes about the problem in question, and round up any account information you'll need to get access to the account. Preparing a little bit for a customer service call can help you help you explain the problem in a thorough and succinct way and help keep you from getting tongue-tied on the phone.
"It's worth having a cheat sheet in front of you with the key points that you want to make," Susswein says. "Have your account number handy since that will help move the process along."
The most important piece of information to get straight, though, may be what you'd like the rep to do for you; it's no good shooting for a target if you don't know what that target is, she says.
2. Talk to a live person. Some banks make it harder than other to speak to a live person, but it's worth wading through whatever voicemail tree you find to get to them, says Susswein. That's because, unless your issue is very cut-and-dried, it's unlikely you're going to get anything accomplished with the automated options.
"You may be limited by what an automated service can offer," she says.
Some automated phone services give bank customers the option to sign up for a call back from a customer service representative as soon as one becomes available, and that can actually be a useful feature, she says.
Other ways to get to speak to a live CSR include repeatedly hitting zero on your phone, or trying extensions for other departments at the bank that could potentially route you to a real person.
3. Escalate to someone who has the authority to help you. Before you spend time getting into the specifics of your case, it's a good idea to find out if the person on the other end of the line even has the authority to fix the problem, says Susswein.
"The first thing I think you want to know is if this person can help you," she says. "If not, I would ask for their supervisor."
If you climb the corporate hierarchy all the way up to the top supervisor on duty and they still can't help you, Susswein suggests asking to be transferred to the "account retention department," which is sometimes more empowered to help consumers than a bank's regular customer service personnel.
Should you run into CSRs that can't or won't help you, and won't move you further up the food chain, you'll need to get a little more creative. You can try reaching out to bank personnel via social media services like Twitter or Facebook, Susswein says.
Failing that, you can always try to get email addresses of top management, or send an "executive email carpet bomb" as detailed by the Consumerist at http://consumerist.com/2007/05/how-to-launch-an-executive-email-carpet-bomb.html.
Either way, getting your issue in front of someone who can actually fix it sometimes means going outside the CSR framework, says Susswein.
"If you can't get it resolved by customer service, we encourage people to go to the CEO," she says. "No one running a company wants to know that people are unhappy with their company -- that means the next step is lost business and then you have no company. So very often the intention of a company or the policies that are set up are maybe perfectly fine on paper, but may not either have trickled down to those with boots on the ground."
4. Keep your cool. Bank problems can be stressful and frustrating, but Susswein says losing your temper won't help you get your problem resolved.
"It's worth remembering that there is a person on the other end of the line. It's very easy for us -- particularly when we are unhappy -- to vent at that moment," Susswein says. "The more irrational you are, the less you are going to be taken seriously."
That's not to say you shouldn't be firm, though.
"Sometimes you have to be a little more forceful to get what you want," she says. "But you still want to maintain control over what you are saying and remain calm."
Above all, keep your eye on the prize. You're not there to win an argument, you're there to get your problem solved, she says.
"Know what you expect as a solution and explain that to the rep," Susswein says. "Try to engage the CSR to assist you in solving the problem. Give the company a way to offer you the solution you want."
5. Follow up in writing. Regardless of how things go with a CSR over the phone, send an email or a letter to the customer service division of the bank, says Susswein.
That's because, should you ultimately need to file a complaint with a government agency or take legal action to resolve the problem, written records can help you preserve your legal rights under consumer protection laws, Susswein says.
"It doesn't have to be long but I would put it in writing," she says. "You want to have some proof that you complained and you alerted the right people."
Even if a CSR tells you the matter has been resolved over the phone, insist on receiving written confirmation, Susswein says.
"Get your agreement in writing; (email counts); verbal promises are not good enough," she says.
6. Take it to the regulators. If customer service is getting you nowhere, it might be time to take your matter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB is now taking complaints on checking and savings accounts, and Susswein says they have a good record so far of resolving customer disputes with banks.
"We do refer people to them -- my impression has been that they have been very helpful," she says. "Obviously, there is a chance for us to get our problem solved, and on a grander level it alerts the government to some problem that may be systemic."
If you bank with a credit union, community bank or other smaller institution, you may need to look elsewhere for help, though. The CFPB only has jurisdiction over financial institutions with $10 billion or more in assets.
What do you think? Have you ever run into trouble with a bank and won? Any tips for other Bankrate readers?
Follow me on Twitter:@ClaesBell.