How to make customer service actually respond to you

Force them to pay attention.

frustrated man on phone
Please...just let me talk to a human being.Depositphotos

You probably know the basic steps to getting good customer service: Be polite, keep your requests reasonable, and ask for a manager if things don’t go your way. But what happens when you’ve asked nicely, but a company still won’t refund your purchase—or worse, refuses to answer the phone in the first place? These tips will help you make customer service hear your claim.

Document everything

If your first round of calls bounces you from robot to robot, or the customer service representative you do reach turns down your refund request, your next step is to do some research and take stock of your case.

"Make sure the facts are on your side," says Michelle Couch-Friedman, Executive Director of Elliott Advocacy, a consumer advocacy organization. "Read the terms and conditions of the company you're contacting. If the terms don't support your claim, then you're wasting your time."

If you've read up on the company and still believe you have a strong case, skip the phone. Instead, find the email address for customer service. This usually appears on an organization's website, but if not, you can check out Elliott's company database to dig up the right contact.

“As soon as you find out that the phone customer service representative is not going to help you, stay off the phone for the rest of your problem solving,” says Couch-Friedman. “You need to develop a paper trail.” That way, when you escalate the problem, you’ll have documented evidence that you started at the bottom, reaching out to the official customer-service channel, rather than jumping straight to emailing the CEO (which will rarely get you anywhere).

Couch-Friedman recommends sending the listed email address a short, polite message explaining your problem and the specific, reasonable resolution you hope to achieve. If you can, cite the rule or rules in the company’s terms that support your case.

It may also help to have a friend look over your message before you hit send. “We see people who are so angry that they're sending out lots of extraneous information, with the complaint hidden somewhere inside that letter,” says Couch-Friedman. If you have a lot to say, then put it in bullet points—the more concise you can be, the better.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably reached out to customer service already. But if you did so over the phone, or with a too-long letter, you may want to repeat the process using the above recommendations. This will give you solid documentation, which will help once you move up the chain.

Escalate the right way

Everybody has a boss. Even if you've already asked to speak with a manager (or a phone representative who claimed to be the manager), there's someone further up you can also talk to.

The most obvious method is to ask the current tier to refer you to their supervisors. But sometimes, the key to escalating is to reach out to a higher tier directly.

Once again, this is where third-party databases like Elliott's come in handy. Look for the "Primary Contact," usually with a title like "Communications Director" or "Vice President of Customer Relations." If you can't find an executive email address, Consumerist has a good guide to figuring it out. Send this person an email describing the problem you're having, the resolution you're hoping to achieve, and the trail you've followed so far.

With any luck, they’ll help you—or hand you off to someone who can. Again, if you’ve read up on the company policy and it’s on your side, you’ll probably get the result you want. However, that’s not always the case.

“Once in a while, you may find an unreasonable company that doesn’t really have an interest in customer service,” says Couch-Friedman. “That’s when you might have to escalate to a consumer advocacy organization.” Institutions like Elliott and Consumer Action might be able to check your work and tell you where you went wrong with your letter. Or, if they conclude you’re in the right, they can help publicize the issue and find a solution.

Just remember to start at the bottom and work your way up, rather than immediately trying to email executive customer service as your first step. If you have a paper trail showing you followed the proper channels first, you’re more likely to get the result you want. If you abuse those executive email addresses, you’re doing yourself—and everyone else—a disservice. Some companies have even been known to change those email addresses regularly to keep abusers of the system at bay.

Most important, keep your seething rage under control throughout this process. “It’s never good to unload your anger at a company if you’re hoping for a positive resolution,” says Couch-Friedman. “Telling a customer service representative that they’re a horrible company, you hate them, and you’re going to shame them on social media or go to a lawyer doesn’t propel your case in the right direction.”

Speaking of social media, we've all heard stories of tweets that have drawn immediate responses from brands on Twitter. True, reaching out to the company on social media isn't bad—in fact, it can sometimes garner results! But unless you have enough of a following, you'll get mixed results from shaming the organization. That threat, especially if you have a small list of followers, won't convince most companies to help you.

If all else fails, dispute the charge on your credit card

If customer service won’t help, or proves to be non-existent, you may have another avenue available to you. In some cases—if you made a purchase and were billed incorrectly, or the product was not delivered as agreed upon—you can dispute the charges with your credit card company.

"The Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers who use credit cards, but chargebacks are a last resort," says Couch-Friedman. "If you do it too soon, you could end up ruining your case, especially if the bank sides with the company—which happens." Similarly, if you abuse this too often, your credit card issuer will take notice, and it can even harm your credit rating.

That means you should only try to use a chargeback in cases of billing errors and fraud—not when you had a bad experience. For example, if you were charged twice for an item, or received your purchase in damaged condition, this is one way to get your money back. Even then, you need to make a good-faith attempt to resolve the issue with the company before you start disputing charges.

You can read more about the criteria for chargebacks at the FTC's website. To file a dispute, you either call your credit card issuer or log into your account on their website and find the Dispute option.

Just remember that chargebacks aren’t foolproof either. Even if you win, it just means the charge disappears from your bill. But if a company that thinks they have a strong case, they can take your charges to collections.

At a certain point, you need to ask yourself whether the issue is worth your time, money, and energy to solve. Remember, your time has value, and if you’ve spent hours arguing over a $75 item, it might be time to fold and move on with your life. Of course, if you’re talking about thousands of dollars, you can always file a small claims lawsuit and keep pushing forward—but in most cases, you should be able to resolve your issue with these steps.