Complain to customer service — and win!

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Everyone has to call a customer-service department someday, whether it’s to report a mix-up or register a complaint. It pays to know how to get what you want.

Banks, credit card lenders and mortgage companies use their customer-service departments to “upsell” (“While I have you on the phone, Mrs. Smith, have you considered credit insurance?”) and to shield the rest of the company from grumpy customers.

But what if you’re one of those grumpy customers?

Smile, and the world smiles …

First, don’t act grumpy. A polite, firm and never-say-die attitude usually will get you through an obstructive customer-service department. That and meticulous record keeping.

“I can’t emphasize enough: Always keep a careful record of who you spoke to and what they said,” says Seth Kaplan, a New Yorker who calls himself an independent consumer advocate. He wrestles with customer-service departments on behalf of people who are too busy or too intimidated to do it themselves.

“It’s a little difficult, but you have to ask questions like, ‘Can I have your name? What is your extension?'” Kaplan says. Just say it’s for your records.

My mother violated Kaplan’s first rule and regretted it. Her story is instructive because she confronted a difficult customer-service department when she tried to straighten out a property-tax issue with her mortgage company.

All about my mother

When my mom, Marjory Hiersch, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, turned 65 she became eligible for a reduced property tax. Her birthday is in October and the reduced tax was retroactive to the beginning of the year, so she was due an $800 refund. All she had to do was ask her mortgage company to collect the refund and pass it on to her. She also needed to ask the mortgage company to recalculate her monthly payment because of the reduced property tax.

It sounded fairly straightforward, and Mom figured that the mortgage company dealt with this issue all the time. Instead, Midland Mortgage Co. of Oklahoma City forced her to endure weeks of frustration. Much of it was the fault of Midland Mortgage, but Mom shares part of the blame because her record keeping wasn’t obsessive enough.

As Kaplan says: “If you want them to help you, you have to help them help you. Document everything to the point of being overzealous. If you mailed something, make copies of what you’re mailing. Make a copy of the envelope. I do that — everything. If it’s something you think you won’t need, you probably will.”

Customer service reps get frustrated at customers who don’t have the information they need. “When you have comprehensive documentation, they’re like, ‘OK, you win,'” Kaplan says.

When you don’t have the documentation you need, you lose.

Document ’til you’re blue in the face

Midland Mortgage pays Mom’s property tax through an escrow account. When the county sent Mom a copy of the tax bill in December, she called the mortgage company’s customer-service department to draw attention to the reduced bill. They asked her to mail a copy, which she did.

In February, she received a new coupon book that showed that her payments had increased slightly. Her payments should have decreased.

“It did tell me that from October to late February, they had not addressed the problem that my tax bill had been reduced considerably,” she says.

And she hadn’t received her refund.

She called Midland Mortgage, which told her to call the county tax office, which told her to call the mortgage company.

Midland Mortgage’s customer service rep told Mom that the company had no record of her tax exemption. When she said she had sent her copy of the tax bill at the company’s request, the customer service rep asked what address she had sent it to. Mom didn’t know.

She also had violated Kaplan’s first rule: She didn’t know the names of the first two customer service reps she had talked to.

The phone call got ugly.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you transfer me to your tax office?'” Mom says. “She said she isn’t allowed to do that. I said, ‘Let me speak to the manager of your department.’ She said, ‘I’m not allowed to transfer you to my manager.'”

The customer service rep offered to transfer Mom to the voice-mail of her direct supervisor, a step below the department manager. “I said, ‘What is the name of the supervisor whose voice-mail you’re going to transfer me to?’ She said there are a lot of supervisors and that she had no way of knowing.

“She continued to say she couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. It really made me mad. It sounded like it was just an avoidance technique.”

Mom made another important mistake here. She tried to skip up the chain of command.

Danny Sullivan, the supervisor of customer service for Midland Mortgage, says the customer service representative violated the company’s rules. She could have — and should have — given the name and extension of her supervisor. The company’s quality control team monitors representatives to make sure they don’t violate such rules.

“The policy is that we ask our customer service representatives to handle each call by all reasonable means,” Sullivan says. “Certainly, there’s a process by which they can get a supervisor. As far as it going beyond that, to the manager level, vice president level and so forth, we do ask that the representatives do go through the proper chain of command.”

Take a breather, write a letter

Mom says she was tempted to drive the 200 miles from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City “and find that customer-service department because I was so angry at that firewall. You just can’t get through it.”

She waited overnight to cool down and called the next day and got hold of another customer service representative and had a similar conversation.

“They are impeccably polite, but it’s like talking to a well-trained robot,” she says.

Kaplan approves of a cool-down period. Try not to get angry, he says, and if you do get angry, don’t aim it at the customer service representative. “I think people have forgotten in this day and age that when you call somebody on a customer service line, that person is a person. too,” he says.

Kaplan suggests saying, “Hi, how are you?” when a customer service rep answers the phone because few callers offer that kind of greeting. “You’ve just put yourself at the top of the pack,” he says. “That person is answering calls all day long, and believe me, they will help you more.”

Of course, no matter how pleasant you are, you sometimes need to speak with a supervisor. You might have to ask three or four times and then you might have to wait. Make sure you get the supervisor’s name and phone extension, even if you have to wait for the supervisor to answer your voice-mail message.

If that doesn’t work, Kaplan says to “never underestimate the power of sending a letter to a top corporate person.” He sends a letter to the chief executive officer.

“It’s so rare at that point to not be able to solve the situation,” Kaplan says. “Sometimes, unbeknownst to you, companies have an executive customer service office, and suddenly you get a call from someone who knows what they’re doing.”

That’s sort of what my mom did, with the help of the Internet. Instead of writing a letter, she called on the phone and reached a department that few outsiders are able to reach.

Finding the right extension

Midland Mortgage doesn’t have a Web site and it doesn’t give out much information about itself — the coupon book lists a post office box for an address and gives only a toll-free customer service number. But by typing “Midland Mortgage” into an Internet search engine, Mom found quite a bit of information.

Her search led her to a Web page about a charity ball that listed the name and business extension number of a Midland Mortgage executive. She looked up the company’s main number on the Internet, called the extension, asked the secretary to be transferred to the president and got his phone extension.

Now that she had breached the customer-service department, things got done. Mom didn’t talk to the company president, but she talked to a couple of assistants who told her that her case had been flagged as a “president’s file” and that it would be resolved. A month later, Mom got a new coupon book that reflected her lower tax bill. And eventually, her property tax refund.

Keep on documenting

Mom made another mistake when she was dealing with Midland Mortgage: She assumed that the company was logging its calls. When she talked to the fourth customer service representative, she assumed that the company’s computer system would have a notation about her previous call.

Kaplan says, “It helps to ask the person, ‘Can you make a note of this in your computer file?’ Most people assume that’s being done, but assume that it’s not. There are so many times I would hear, ‘I don’t have any note of that,’ and I think, ‘This is the computer age. That’s impossible.'” So he asks twice — once at the beginning and once at the end of the conversation.

Even when you follow all the advice, sometimes you just want to jump past the customer-service department and talk directly to the person who can solve the problem.

“I don’t understand why they can’t refer you to the department that is at issue,” Mom says. “In this case, it was their tax department. They have one. I would have felt that they were trying to solve this problem if they had let me talk to someone in that department.”

Sullivan says it doesn’t work that way at Midland Mortgage, nor should it. Customer service reps are trained to work with customers, he points out. Other employees are not trained to deal with customers, a policy many companies have.

“The way our structure works at our company, each area, such as the tax department or the escrow department, those people are hired to be processors,” Sullivan says. “They’re not trained, nor were they hired, to handle customer issues. In order to keep a control on what actually is occurring on the customer level, we keep that in the customer-service department.”