How to be taken seriously when you complain

I get emails every day from people who have been wronged. They want an apology, a refund, compensation — and sometimes, they want revenge.

I help them reach the right executives at a company who will listen, take action and find answers. This usually ends in a settlement.

Here’s my frustration. Some people aren’t good at advocating for themselves. They commit self-sabotage.

I have some tips on how to get better results.

Be professional and businesslike.

You’re talking to busy executives, so don’t waste their time. Cut to the chase. Summarize the problem and say what you want the company to do for you.

Many of the complaints I receive are WAY TOO LONG. People spend a lot of time talking about what happened and when. That’s tedious.

You’re not writing a book. One to two pages is enough.

Don’t get angry or use insults.

Be calm and courteous. Start by saying how much you like doing business with the company. Get the executives on your side and they’ll pay more attention.

Even when you’re frustrated, try not to let it show. Never use threats. Don’t swear.

Finally, accusations aren’t helpful. Avoid using words like fraud, theft and deception. You may end up with a legal letter telling you to cease and desist.

Focus on your priorities.

Don’t talk about every little thing that went wrong during a bad trip or home renovation. Edit yourself. Pick the top two or three issues and ignore the rest.

I’ve seen some people write lists, pinpointing as many as 15 things they want fixed. That’s overkill. Five should be the absolute maximum.

Make sure to give your contact information.

If you send an email, don’t just give your email address. Companies want to see your home address and phone number, with details on how to reach you during the day. They often prefer to call you back, rather than write to you.

Use short paragraphs.

When I forward emails from readers to companies, I break them up, using a sentence or two at a time. That’s easier to read than long paragraphs.

Bullet points work well in making your points. So does bold print. Always leave some white space on the page.

This advice will improve your chances of getting what you want. I wish you success in your communication campaigns.

Protect your car from diminished value after accident

I wrote a Toronto Star column about problems getting the full resale value for a car that has been repaired after an accident.

In the column, I said that Viraf Baliwalla of the Automall Network in Toronto had come up with a diminished value calculator that could help you decide whether to sue the other driver for your loss.

Until now, there have been no court cases in Ontario to test this approach. But Baliwalla told me about one of my readers, for whom he acted as expert witness in court. Here’s how he described it in his blog.

Mary bought a demo SUV in 2010 from a new car dealer. The vehicle was a manufacturer’s executive-driven vehicle for approximately 15,434 km before the dealer bought it for sale. Since then, the dealer added about 1,300 km.

Mary used her vehicle for work, as well as carting her kids from place to place. She was adamant the vehicle be accident-free. The salesperson assured her it was.

She didn’t feel the need to have the salesperson’s assurance put in writing, nor have it inspected independently. The bill of sale said the balance of factory warranty was in place.

After driving it for two years, Mary noticed rust developing on one of the body panels. When she took it in for repair at a different dealer, she was told the warranty would not apply because the vehicle had been in a previous accident.

She contacted the original dealer to lodge a complaint, but felt she was not getting much satisfaction. She took the vehicle to a body shop to identify the damage and started a small claims court claim against the dealer.

The dealer said the accident must have happened while the car was in Mary’s possession. Mary said neither she nor her husband had ever been involved in an accident.

Further, the vehicle’s history report showed no claims, estimates or accident repairs against the vehicle, meaning it would have been fixed “on the sly” without reporting it to the insurance company or police.

The judge felt both sides were genuine in their belief they did not cause the accident. He suggested the dealer repair it at an estimated cost of $2,239.

The dealer obliged and fixed the car. Mary attempted to settle with the dealer for diminished value as well, but the dealer was not willing to entertain her request.

At the hearing on diminished value, Mary had a paralegal representing her. I was her expert witness to discuss how much less the vehicle was actually worth when she purchased it.

The judge said Mary had sustained diminished value. He felt both sides were innocent and the vehicle was probably involved in an accident before the dealership received it.

He awarded Mary $2,750 in diminished value and $600 in costs. But when her legal fees were factored in, she more or less broke even.

Mary pushed this issue to the limit out of principle. Thanks to her efforts, there is now a court case in Ontario where a judge has accepted the notion of diminished value and awarded accordingly.

After a long break, I’m back

I gave a speech last September to a group of personal finance bloggers. I said having a blog was like feeding a hungry bear that never got satiated. Then, I took a rest from feeding the bear.

Though I stopped posting new material, I never stopped moderating comments at my blog. I want to let readers know they’re not alone with their complaints.

I’ll try to keep the momentum going in the future. Meanwhile, you can always send messages through my website and get a response.

February is a busy time. I’ll be speaking at four Toronto libraries this month, so please drop by if you can.

There’s the Barbara Frum branch on Feb. 19 (at 2 pm), Richview on Feb. 20 (7 pm), Don Mills on Feb. 26 (6.30 pm) and St. Lawrence on March 1 (2 pm).