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5 Things Buyers Can Do When Purchases Go Bad


Bad customer service happens to everyone, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it.


Remember that old maxim, "The customer is always right"? Me neither. Maybe I was born too late, but I don't ever recall an era in my lifetime that wasn't guided by the "buyer beware" principle. If there ever was a golden age of shopper deference, it certainly didn't survive the now-great epoch of Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC) et al. Here are a few tricks to help you pull out of this thing with your dollars and dignity intact.

1. Gripe smart.

No one wants to listen to a whiny baby. Not parents, not innocent grocery store bystanders, and definitely not call center reps working for an hourly wage. When a company does you wrong, your approach should be measured and your demands reasonable.

Open with a compliment about the company's solid reputation for good products and services and entertain the notion that your damaged whoozywhatzits must be an anomaly. Pleasant and charming can go a long way in getting the customer rep on your side, and that's right where you want them since, according to Ladies' Home Journal, they often have "considerable leeway in interpreting the return policy to keep customers satisfied."

If sweet talk doesn't do the trick, you can always take a cue from the president's bastardization of the sci-fi genre and do a Jedi mind meld.

2. Harness the power of social media.

Have you noticed that corporations seem to be on better behavior lately? They're more apt to own up to mistakes, offer public apologies, and even make concerted efforts to appear less bigoted.

It's not that the powers that be have all experienced some collective spiritual awakening. It's not even that they've gained a newfound respect for their customers. It's that, thanks in large part to social media, when they screw up, we the people now have the chance to make a big, fat, lingering stink.

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter are a real double-edged sword for corporations. While they've proven to be effective (and cheap) marketing tools for reaching the masses, that line of communication goes both ways -- and it's always open. It has given the public a voice that amplifies all over the world -- inviting assurgent digits and commiserative comments that can even splinter off into brand new boycott pages.

This instant avenue for recourse translates into serious power for the cheated consumer. Take my experience with a wholly unresponsive and unapologetic Pottery Barn (NYSE:WSM) customer service rep and her manager who refused to compensate me for what was to be a roughly 10-week shipment delay on a sectional sofa. Once I took to Facebook with my trouble, the home furnishing chain not only applied a 30% discount to my order, but it magically arrived as originally scheduled.

Likewise, when the Kitchen Aid (NYSE:WHR) vent cover spontaneously broke off my microwave and cracked my glass cooktop on its way to the floor (a product defect noted by many Kitchen Aid consumers), the company completely ignored my request for free replacement parts -- that is, until I tore them a new one on Facebook and Twitter.

3. Shop big.

As much as I'd like to toe the lefty party line and "act locally" when it comes to purchasing, going with the little guy isn't always the safest bet. In theory, shopping at the neighborhood mom-and-pop store over the faceless, mega-monster chain is a no-brainer. You're doing your part to keep the doors open and awnings hanging over Main Street while taking your carbon footprint down a size.

The lamentable reality, however, is, often, the less known the outfit, the more easily it can eschew its burden of accountability to customers. When smaller companies don't have a Web or social media presence, wronged consumers have to work much harder to be heard and taken seriously. Making a public complaint isn't a simple Facebook post or Tweet. With the exception of local outlets like Yelp (NYSE:YELP) and Angie's List (NASDAQ:ANGI), we actually have to put forth real time and energy to spread the libelous word. Fortunately for these businesses, very few of us are willing to take the kind of action that can't be done between commercials and from the comfort of the couch.

4. Pay with plastic.

After a New York metro area kitchen and bath outfit called Coastal Plumbing sold me a cracked air bathtub and flatly denied me a refund, I called my credit card company to bail me out. Much to my relief, even the bottom-tier American Express (NYSE:AXP) card can get you off the hook for the full purchase price when a retailer is being an unethical jerk. AmEx does exclude some items like antiques, perishables, vehicles, and vehicle parts from its purchase protection program and pulls the plug on coverage after 90 days.

MasterCard (NYSE:MA) and Visa (NYSE:V) cards offer similar programs but leave the specific benefits and conditions up to the issuing bank.

Admittedly, running to the credit card company does feel a bit like having your mom go to the principal to get the school bully off your back. I'd have felt far more satisfied giving it to Coastal Plumbing on my own in the parking lot, Three O'Clock High-style.

(Note: Beware of PayPal's (NASDAQ:EBAY) purchase protection. The company may ballyhoo a "from click to doorbell" guarantee, but scores of bad reviews cry otherwise.)

5. Don't be an early adopter.

Sometimes you can head off buyer's remorse at the pass. As agonizing as it may feel to wait for a new gadget or highly anticipated upgrade, it behooves us all to stick it out at least four to six months before closing the deal. Let all of the reviews come in and the inevitable patches be released. Otherwise, you might be left with a costly piece of clutter you can't pay someone on Craigslist to take off your hands.

Such was the case with the Boxee Box media center that snookered my otherwise judicious, techie husband when the start-up's promising take on the DVR was first released. Now, having lost support from YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), Adobe Flash (NASDAQ:ADBE), and overall Web browsing, and being discontinued and all but abandoned by the company without any essential firmware updates in sight, Boxee TV is his patience proverb in an oddly shaped effigy.

There are myriad examples of consumer gadget grief. Despite the hype, Nintendo's (PINK:NTDOY) Wii U came with a clunky controller that tears through a battery charge and the device has been left to languish without any new releases. Until recently, Motorola and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) seemed to have left their flagship Droid Bionic for dead. Its hapless owners are still twiddling their typing thumbs just to get a nearly year-old OS. Only now is the Jelly Bean software in early testing.

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