SMART BUYING


Bring in a Third Party to Get Customer Service Satisfaction

If you've run the customer-service gamut but haven't received satisfaction, consider taking your case to a consumer-protection or advocacy agency, or a regulatory commission. You need to pick your appeal route carefully. Some agencies don't offer resolution services -- they collect complaints to study trends and decide how to direct advocacy for better service overall in the areas they cover. Others provide mediation to help you get a result. For a listing of state and federal agencies, regulatory groups, and other organizations, see the 2011 Consumer Action Handbook at www.consumeraction.gov.

The Better Business Bureau accepts complaints about any business, whether or not the BBB has accredited it. The BBB sends your complaint to the company within two business days, waits two weeks for a response, and tries again if there is no answer. Companies that are consistently uncooperative get black marks on the BBB's records, which future customers can see.

If you can't resolve a problem with an airline, FlyersRights.org has a hotline (877-359-3776) for passengers. The group has contacts at many airlines and can take passenger complaints to those individuals to help nail down a resolution. The Web site lists phone numbers of the major airlines, relevant media contacts and the Department of Transportation's complaint line -- especially useful to have stored in your phone if you're stuck on the tarmac.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's Mediation and Arbitration department manages disputes among investors, securities firms and financial representatives. In the less-formal mediation process, a neutral person steps in to help you negotiate and resolve the problem you're facing. If the disagreement involves your brokerage account, you'll likely be required to take the case to an arbitrator and show that your broker engaged in misconduct.

As a final resort, you can take your case to small claims court if the compensation you're seeking is generally between $3,000 and $7,500 or less. Rules vary from state to state, but the fees for going to small claims court are not high.

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