How to handle consumer complaints

After centuries of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”), the law now offers the consumer better protection. Products must be fit to be sold and used in the conventional way as well as in a particular way that you describe to a merchant. A merchant must understand a product well enough to know whether it will suit your purpose. The exception is when a merchant or manufacturer makes a clear disclaimer and you buy the product anyway.

If a product is defective, the seller or the manufacturer must fix it provided you have used it properly. If after several tries it still isn’t fixed, you can choose to get a refund or a free replacement. The law further mandates that professional services must be performed in a reasonable way. For example, doctors, dentists, and lawyers must explain possible choices and difficulties and give you time to decide if you want to go ahead. How to complain effectively Your first recourse should be to the seller of the defective item or service. To retain your goodwill, a store may exchange an item or give a refund even for a trivial complaint.

If a store refuses to make good on an item, complain in writing to the consumer affairs department of the item’s manufacturer. Briefly and unemotionally give all pertinent facts:
dates, an exact product description with model and serial numbers, where and when you bought the product, the nature of the problem, and your name, address, and business and home telephone numbers. Include copies of sales slips and other relevant documents. State how you would like the problem remedied and by what date. In some cases, especially if a large sum is involved, have a lawyer write your letter.

If you still get no satisfaction, try writing to a company officer (president, vice president). Where to complain If you get poor service from a local business or store, complain to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Write a letter giving all particulars; send a copy to the dealer. The BBB may contact the merchant directly. Although the BBB has no enforcement power, no business wants to be listed by it as a company that renders poor service.

To complain about professional or personal services, look to a licensing agency. Most medical societies, bar associations, and state boards (real estate, for example) have grievance committees and are eager to root out problem professionals.
Consumer’s Resource Handbook, a publication of the federal government, lists corporate consumer contacts, industry groups, trade associations, Better Business Bureaus, and government agencies that can help in resolving your complaint. For a free copy, write: Handbook, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.

Other sources of information and help are state and local consumer affairs offices. Congressmen and state legislators can direct you to consumer groups and agencies. Contact your municipal office or the office of the district attorney, the state attorney, or the state attorney general. Arbitration and mediation Many communities sponsor mediation centers where citizens can take disputes with local merchants. The usual format is a face-to-face meeting, with a mediator present to help work out a solution. Look in a telephone directory for names like Neighborhood Justice Center or Community Mediation Center.

Many trade associations, consumer action groups, and advisory panels offer mediation and arbitration services. Consult your local consumer affairs office or ask the public library for HELP.’ The Useful Almanac or the Consumer Federation of America’s Directory of State and Local Consumer Groups.

One possible way to draw attention to your complaint is to send it (with full details, plus your name, address, and telephone number) to an “action line” of a newspaper or of a radio or TV station. Or look in your telephone directory for the nearest office of Call for Action, a national, nonprofit organization with affiliates in about 25 locations, mostly major cities. It dispenses advice and referrals and serves as a consumer advocate, all free and confidential. If you find no local listing write Call for Action, 575 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022.