After asking his satellite company to change his TV service from wired to wireless, Scott M. Broetzmann spent months trying to get the job done. First, technicians failed to show up for scheduled appointments. Then, when one finally did, the work wasn’t done correctly and caused even more problems. Broetzmann eventually decided to take his business elsewhere but had to spend more time getting a refund for services he’d already paid for. He estimates that the whole ordeal took more than 20 hours—and that’s not counting all the time he spent getting up to change TV channels because his remote wouldn’t work.
"It was the most horrific customer care experience I’ve ever endured," says Broetzmann, who as president and CEO of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting in Alexandria, Va., knows a thing or two about how it’s supposed to work. "In fact, the money involved was negligible. For me, it was more a matter of principle."
Chances are, Broetzmann’s experience sounds familiar. More than 60 percent of people report feeling really angry when they run into a problem with a product or service, and about two-thirds aren’t satisfied with the action that companies take to resolve their issues, according to the 2023 National Consumer Rage Survey, which Broetzmann’s company conducts every few years.
1. Check Service Ratings Before You Buy
The first and best way to reduce your chances of having a poor customer experience? Whenever possible, get products and/or services from companies that have a reputation for taking good care of their clients.
Shep Hyken, a customer service expert and consultant in St. Louis who has written several books on the subject, does an annual survey that asks consumers which companies deliver the most satisfying customer service experiences. For 2023, his survey found that the top six are Amazon, Walmart, Target, Apple, Chick-fil-A, and Costco.
Consumer Reports also includes customer service experiences in the overall satisfaction ratings for things like appliances, mattresses, luggage, and eyeglass retailers, as well as for tire stores, insurers, and cell phone service and telecom providers. So be sure to check our ratings for those products and services when you’re deciding whom to give your business to.
Looking for intel on a provider in a different category or for a local shop? Do a quick search on social media. Nearly a third of all complainants in the Consumer Rage survey posted about their most serious problems on Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly known as Twitter), or elsewhere. Most companies get at least one or two complaints from customers, but if you see many of them or detect a pattern of dissatisfaction, those could be red flags—and a good reason to make your purchase elsewhere. Also, pay attention to the dates of reviews because a company’s approach to customer service may change over time, so older reviews may have less relevance.
2. Try Self-Help
Depending on your problem, you may not have to contact customer service at all. The websites of many companies have information about their policies for returns, exchanges, and refunds, with instructions on how to start the process. More complicated questions can sometimes be resolved by using Google or YouTube. For example, if you’re having internet troubles, before getting into the cable provider’s phone queue, try typing "my internet connection is slow" into the search bar. You might find articles and videos that you can follow to troubleshoot and potentially solve the problem.
3. Use a Chatbot
The next easiest and fastest solution is using the chat feature if the company has one on its website. (If it does, you’ll probably see a pop-up alerting you to it.) Again, this is often best for simple problems and common questions, because you’re usually going to be talking to a robot programmed to help solve a limited number of issues. But a shortcoming of chatbots, according to DigitalGenius, a company that designs products that provide customer service using artificial intelligence, is that many of them can’t take action for you. They can, however, get you answers to questions they’re programmed to answer with almost no wait time, and sometimes patch you through to a human agent.
4. Make a Phone Call to Get a Rep
One of the top customer service complaints in the Consumer Rage survey was about how some companies deliberately make it difficult for consumers to figure out how to contact them. And when you do find a number, you may be forced to navigate an aggravating phone tree system to get to the department you want. Save yourself some trouble by typing the company’s name into the search box at GetHuman.com, which offers customer service phone numbers for more than a thousand companies (and whether they have callback systems), along with phone tree hacks. Typing "[company name] customer service" into Google can also help you get the right number.
Another fast way to reach a rep: "In most cases, if you keep saying ‘representative’ or pressing ‘0’ long enough, you’ll probably finally get a human being," because that can bypass the automated system, says Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts who now runs ConsumerWorld.org, an online consumer resource guide.
If you can, avoid making customer service calls on Monday morning. That’s when everyone who’s been stewing over an issue all weekend calls in, jamming phone lines and overwhelming representatives. Call centers tend to be easier to get through to on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, says Brad Cleveland, author of "Leading the Customer Experience: How to Chart a Course and Deliver Outstanding Results" (Kogan Page, 2021).
The effort may be worth it. According to a Consumer Reports nationally representative survey in August of 2,062 U.S. adults, about half said that talking to a person worked better in all customer service situations than using automated systems like chatbots.
5. State Your Case, Calmly
When you get someone on the phone, remember that "being huffy and argumentative and demanding is a mistake," Dworsky says. "These people are human beings, and when you’re yelling, they’re not going to be predisposed to give you anything you want."
Instead, clearly outline your problem in a calm and friendly way, and let the service rep know how you’d like to resolve it. "Be persistent about stating what you want," Broetzmann says. If you’re looking for a free replacement part, waived fees, or a partial or full refund, directly ask for it. And repeating the request over and over can help the service rep get on the same page as you.
Cleveland agrees. "Listen to the customer service representative’s solution, as they often have guidelines they must follow," he says. But if their initial offer doesn’t strike you as fair or good enough, continue to push and try to negotiate a more satisfactory solution, he advises.
6. Speak to Someone Else
If you strongly believe that you deserve what you’re asking for and that the customer service rep isn’t being helpful enough, "thank the person, hang up, and call back," Hyken says. "A different agent might see things differently. I’m amazed at how often I call a company and talk to two or more people, getting a different answer each time."
You can also ask to speak to a supervisor. That person may have more leeway to help you.
7. Consider Raising the Stakes
Your next steps depend on the kind of company you’re dealing with. If you’re complaining to a neighborhood store or small business, such as a home or auto repair shop that has a local reputation to protect, making a gentle threat, such as saying you’re going to complain to the Better Business Bureau or post about your ordeal on social media or simply tell all your friends about it, will probably carry some weight, Broetzmann says. Bigger companies may not be as sensitive to these kinds of ultimatums. But if you have an ongoing relationship with the company, as you likely do, say, with your cable or cell phone provider, ask to speak to someone in what’s called the "customer retention" department. "That person is incentivized to try to have you not leave in a huff," Broetzmann says, so you might have more success.
8. Complain Publicly
If all of your efforts have still netted you nothing, sometimes going on a social media channel to broadcast your complaint can be effective. (Just be sure to use the @ symbol before the company name.) Doing this is better than writing a letter to the CEO of the company, Broetzman says, because at many companies the resources once allocated to reading paper correspondence are now put into social-media monitoring duty. Some companies may be inclined to respond to public criticism if they think their reputation is on the line. Be brief and to the point. You can say something like: "XYZ Company promised next-day delivery, then delayed my package for a week! Now refusing to refund overnight shipping cost. Won’t shop there again!" You might find a response from the company asking you to direct message it some info so that it can solve the problem.
9. Take the Post-Service Survey
Not only will this provide feedback for the company to potentially improve their customer service policies in the future, it may also result in an additional response from the company.
That was the case for Dworsky when he filled out a survey from a home maintenance company in which he let it know that he thought the tech did only a superficial job on an HVAC tuneup.
After receiving his response, the company called Dworsky to ask whether he wanted a senior tech to come out to do a more thorough inspection.
"Sometimes filling out an evaluation can lead to a company wanting to make a poor experience right," he says.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.