How I resolve consumer issues for readers

April 14 2013 by Ellen Roseman

I love my job. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping people fix problems that weigh them down. My daily thank you notes are fun to read.

In case you wonder how I can turn a corporate No into a Yes, here’s a guide.

What is the first step when readers ask for help?

I ask them to send me an email with all the details, including their contact information. Then I forward it to my contacts at large companies, asking them to review it.

What is the key to writing an effective email?

Keep it short. Use bullet points. After a few sentences, start another paragraph. Be clear what you want the company to do. Put your demand right at the beginning.

What if you prefer to call or meet in person?

I find talking on the phone is time-consuming. I rarely do face-to-face meetings for the same reason. Forwarding emails is fast and effective. That’s how I work.

How can I persuade companies to reconsider how they treat people?

I work for Canada’s largest newspaper, where I’ve been writing three columns a week for 15 years. My contacts know there’s a good chance I’ll write about them in the Toronto Star or my blog (or both).

Are there some kinds of complaints I don’t handle?

I’d love to help everyone who asks for help. But my email load keeps growing and I have to set limits.

I don’t handle complaints about workplace issues and landlord-tenant matters.

I don’t handle complaints about small companies. I look for household names.

I rarely handle complaints about new or used cars that don’t work. They require a technical expertise I don’t have.

Can I resolve problems with companies that are going under?

An insolvent company is a nightmare for consumers. Any remaining assets go to the landlords, the tax department and large creditors. There’s usually nothing left for customers who are owed money. You can’t expect me to perform miracles.

What is the secret of my success?

I focus on companies with a strong brand to protect. They advertise like crazy and want to be seen as good guys. They don’t like to be the subject of a critical column in a big daily newspaper.

When forwarding emails, I try to be friendly, courteous and respectful at all times. Insults and sarcasm don’t work.

How can you do better with your own complaints?

Start by saying how much you admire the company. You’re a loyal customer and you want your loyalty to be valued. You’ll consider leaving if you can’t get satisfaction.

Keep your emotions under control. Always be polite. Don’t use threats or confrontation. Stay calm.

How can you get companies to pay attention to you?

Try to escalate your complaint to a higher level. If you’re stuck in a call centre, hang up and start using Google.

Search for phone numbers and email addresses of company executives. Check the Better Business Bureau, which often has contact information.

Send emails to others outside the company, such as government, nonprofit groups and the media. The company should know that others are watching to see how it responds.

“Create a circle of eyes for the problem you’re trying to solve,” says Franke James, who wrote a chapter for my book on how to fight a company in the court of public opinion. “Increase the number of eyes dramatically by using the power of social media.”

Where can you learn more about how to fight back?

I’d love you to read my book, which has step-by-step instructions on mounting effective arguments in all kinds of transactions.

Here’s a brand-new review in a blog I like a lot, Canadian Mortgage Trends.

“The book is pretty inexpensive,” says blogger Robert McLister, “so the odds are good you’ll find one tip out of 81 that will offset the price.”