Up until a few months ago, my mother had never been one to complain about anything. It was the phone company that broke her.
Mail had begun arriving from a competitor promising much cheaper service. She clutched each new letter with a growing anger, the paper crumpling in her clenched fist. By about the third letter, it was time to take action. Rather than switching companies, however, she called her current provider and asked why, as a loyal customer, she wasn't getting these kinds of deals from the company she had been with for so many years?
In taking just that one step she had gone further than most people with an axe to grind.
"For every complaint that gets fielded, there are 10 people who don't complain," says Eric Fraterman, a Toronto-based customer-service consultant. "Most people think nothing will happen anyway, so why bother."
Complaining, however, whether about an undercooked steak or a monthly phone bill, about bad service at a hotel or high credit-card interest rates, can often save you a significant chunk of change. It just has to be done effectively.
First and foremost, be polite. No one in customer service is going to go out of their way to help a shrieking maniac.
"There's no point giving a sermon to anyone," says Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada. Also, make sure you actually have a legitimate complaint.
"That's an absolute requirement," says Mr. Cran.
This was my problem with the gas company. I had called my heat-providing overlords to complain that my bill was simply too high and asked what could be done to lower it.
Resisting the urge to call me a puny idiot - who dares to challenge the mighty gas company! - the woman on the other end of the phone informed me with bureaucratic efficiency that there was nothing I could do to get a better rate and that if I wanted to lower my bill I should have my furnace serviced.
The most annoying part of the process, however, wasn't being told nothing could be done. It was the difficulty of even trying to reach someone to lodge the complaint in the first place. The company's automated phone service had no option for making a complaint, and after clicking the number to reach a customer service agent I was kept on hold for more than 10 minutes.
Success came when I called the bank to complain about the high interest rate on my credit card (19.75 per cent! What do I look like, Scrooge McDuck swimming in a vault of gold coins?). I was told I could switch to a different card with a rate of just over 9 per cent. This option was always available, it just took complaining (or, ahem, a little research) to find out.
Usually, however, a general rule seems to be that the larger the organization, the less chance there is that your complaints will go anywhere, says Mr. Cran.
"With a lot of companies these days, their favourite thing is to not return calls that they know are complaints. That's their first avenue of defence," he says.
The most successful complaints are face-to-face, adds Mr. Cran.
If you complain to the hotel manager that the radiator in your room is too loud, for example, chances are you will get a free upgrade. Complain to the waiter that your food is undercooked and you may not have to pay for it, or at least get a free desert. Call some corporate monolith about poor service and chances are you're going to get the runaround.
As for my mother, she managed to get herself a better long-distance package. It wasn't huge savings, she told me, but it was at least something.
When, inspired by her example, I called the cable company to see about getting a better monthly rate in light of a competitor's offer I waited on hold for a customer-service representative who then referred me to the customer-relations department where I was again put on hold and then finally told that if I wanted to lower my bill I could downgrade to a less expensive package. By that point I had a big vein throbbing in my head and a strong desire to kick something. I suppose I could have threatened to cancel my service, but I was sick of the whole issue.
Sometimes, it's better just to spare yourself the headache.
"You should figure out the aggravation factor and what that might be worth to you," says Mr. Cran. "If you reach the stage where you feel you've got to complain in some fashion, you've got to have the fortitude to deal with it."