Thu, 17 Jan 2013 20:30:00 GMT | By Jason Buckland, MSN Money

How to complain effectively

Knowing how to navigate customer service departments can pay off in spades for upset consumers.

In the fall of 2011, shopping specialist and founder of Michelle Madhok went shopping.

A noted expert of all things retail, Madhok visited her local New York City Apple Store for a new phone. She bought the iPhone 4S, and it took just two days for her to break it.

With no insurance, and no real case for forgiveness, Madhok took the pricey touchscreen back to the store.

"I pled with them," Madhok says. "I said, 'I can't believe it fell out of my pocket. I should have gotten the insurance. I should have gotten the case.' I played on their sympathies."

And it worked. The Apple Store clerk typed a few strokes into his computer, offered a "just this once" disclaimer and handed Madhok a brand new phone.

It's the kind of story that seems to never happen, the type of fortuitous break that always rewards a friend of a friend but never real, everyday shoppers.

But inside of Madhok's tale of Apple Store luck — she lauds the retailer's customer service to this day — is a lesson: sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Certainly, as long as there has been shopping there have been shoppers’ complaints, but broaching a problem is not always easy. When should you complain? What should you complain about, and how should you go about it?

There are no blanket rules, of course, but what's clear today is that in spite of alleged dips in customer service quality, returns have never been easier.

Major retailers often have their return policies clearly defined on the back of receipts, and even outside those rules some will grant customers with late returns, or those without receipts, with store credit.

In cases where there seems to be no opportunity to complain, the Consumers Council of Canada recommends starting at the beginning. Always approach someone at the first place you had a problem, and be clear. Bring documentation where possible. Know what you want resolved, and what you want upon resolution.

Many times, customer complaints can be solved at the base level. Other times, shoppers will need to navigate to higher levels of management.

While the Consumers Council of Canada notes that shoppers should always speak first with the initial line of customer service representatives, contacting management is how many real complaints are addressed.

* Gallery: Success stories of customers who fought back

"Get them to relate to you," Madhok says. "Always ask for a superior within the company, and don't settle for someone that has a bad attitude. I've frequently hung up on a call where someone wasn't helpful, and simply called back and asked for someone else."

Shopping experts contend there's always a way to get through to someone who can help you. And, since we live in a time of increased visibility due to the Internet, your options aren't limited to in-store conflicts and toll-free complaint lines.

Late last year, you might recall, customers at Shoppers Drug Mart objected to Christmas music being pumped through its store speakers. Why? Because the stores began playing the tunes just days after Halloween.

Miffed shoppers took to the drug store company’s Facebook page and responded in real-time. Shoppers was compelled to postpone playing the music until later in the year.

Social media has evolved into a shopper's best friend, Madhok says, because it's such a public platform. On Twitter and Facebook, it's no longer a matter of an upset customer cursing into a telephone receiver. Instead, now the whole world can see your interaction, and so companies may be much readier to resolve a complaint

Madhok similarly complained to a rep for an electric vacuum company, after hers stopped working. The shopping expert threatened to post a negative review on the company's Facebook page, and — voila — within two weeks a new vacuum was shipped right to her door.

Ultimately, the responsibility to address problems falls on the consumer, and there may be plenty we don't know.

"Canadian consumers often do not know about the opportunities they have for redress," says Ken Whitehurst, the executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada. "Many consumers do not know, for example, they can take some complaints against telephone and cable companies concerning service contracts for cable, Internet and wireless — including cellphone services — to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services."

Whitehurst says that Canada lags other developed countries when it comes to consumer advocacy groups, and places the blame for that on diminished funding from government, both provincial and federal, for advocacy groups (the Consumers Council of Canada is a non-profit organization and rarely receives direct government funding).

So, it comes down to the will of the shopper. Whitehurst urges Canadian consumers to know their rights.

Shoppers can fight for what's right. They just have to know how to win.

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