You've just made a large purchase-say a computer, a television, or a couch. A few days later, something horrible goes wrong. The product doesn't work or turns out to have a fatal flaw. As your blood pressure start to soar and your emotions spill over, you try to start figuring out how you're going to deal with this situation. Your first impulse is to call the retailer. Angrily, you pick up the phone and start to holler at the first person who answers, probably after going through a lengthy phone tree. Your frustration makes it impossible for you to carry on anything approaching a reasonable conversation, and after a few minutes, you hang up in even greater frustration.

Scenarios like these occur constantly. Whether it's a big ticket item or just a small overcharge on a credit card bill, when something goes wrong involving money, many of us go ballistic. You need to talk to someone to help fix the problem, because there's nothing else you can do to fix it, making you even more frustrated (especially if you're a control freak). Similar situations take place even more frequently when it comes to travel. Your flight is canceled or your train is ridiculously late, and your only available course of action is to enlist the help of an overworked and probably equally frustrated reservation agent.  A hotel has given you terrible service, overcharged you for the minibar, or inconvenienced you by placing you in a drafty room next to an elevator with a noisy party inhabiting the neighboring room.

These situations don't have to have unhappy endings.  You can get satisfactory results if you just apply some very basic principles of psychology.  The first is to calm down. Relax and take a few very deep breaths and clear your mind. The wrath you're feeling now is due to that surge of your brain's chemicals that arise when you feel threatened.  Obviously, the money is important.  At a deeper level, when you feel ripped off, a primitive instinct sets in that causes you to seek retribution. You start to exhibit signs of regression, one of the most unproductive defense mechanisms.  It's exactly that instinct which will thwart your ability to get the results you want.  Let the angry feelings subside by channeling that energy into a productive strategy.

Now that you've turned down the heat and your brain has stopped boiling, you can start to take action by following these five simple psychology-based steps:

1. Assemble all of your documentation. This step takes a dose of the personality trait known as conscientiousness. You have to be a bit of pack rat to succeed in the consumer world. Get together your receipts and any emails relevant to the situation. Be sure to read the fine print on any of the documentation you have to be sure that you're entitled to a rebate, refund, or exchange. If you're not, this is going to make the situation more difficult, but not impossible.  At least by knowing what your rights are in the situation, you will be better prepared to overcome any obstacles the retailer throws at you. For example, if the retailer had a "no exchange" policy that you didn't see when you purchased the item, you might be entitled to merchandise credit instead.  For your retribution to be successful, you do need your receipts. If for some reason you tossed it out, you may still be able to have the merchant or your credit card company produce some form of documentation. Next time, be sure you don't throw out your receipts or documents.

2.  Figure out who to speak to, and do it nicely. Here's where social psychology comes in particularly handy. The way you approach the customer service representative will determine the subsequent outcome of your interaction.  It's most likely that the first person you speak to is probably not the person who can give you satisfaction. Explain your situation, nicely, and then ask for a supervisor or specialist who can deal with your problem.  The "nice" part of this step is crucial. You want to enlist that person's sympathy and support, and you won't do it if you've ticked him or her off. Speak with a smile on your face; you'll sound nicer. Even your first words of the interaction should be pleasant. If you're asked "How are you?" say "Fine, how are you?" A civil opening is the best way to enlist a great response from a customer service agent.

3.  Know what you want. Enlist your frontal lobes to make concrete plans for what you see as the desired outcome of the situation. If an airline has completely messed up your travel plans, caused you aggravation, or given you bad service, for example, figure out what is a reasonable solution they can offer you.  Do you want a $200 travel voucher? How about extra miles in your frequent flyer account? If you go into the negotiation with a clear set of goals rather than just wanting to vent, you'll emerge with something tangible from the situation even if it doesn't make up for your original inconvenience.  In the case of a retailer who's treated you unsatisfactorily, again, decide what you would like in return. Perhaps you can get extra loyalty points (if it's a merchant that offers this), or credit on a future purchase. It's important that you have a goal in mind, but try to keep it reasonable. 

4. Be persistent.  The psychology of motivation comes in handy here. It's easy to feel discouraged, so do whatever it takes to keep from getting discouraged. You may feel like there's nothing you can do in waging your war against the retailer, and you may feel like the effort starts to be not worth the potential results. At some point, yes, you have to figure out when to cut your losses. However, many retailers, hotels, and travel companies count on defeating the consumer through a war of attrition by throwing up silly obstacles.  It takes surprisingly little effort for you to win the war, though, because many of those obstacles are, in fact, silly. For example, they may demand that you produce your original receipt.  If you took advantage of step #1, you have your receipt or something like it, so that problem is easily solved.  Take each obstacle, one at a time, and figure out the best approach to overcome it. After a few tries, you'll wear down the opposition.

5.  Show your gratitude. Now it's time for another dose of social psychology. When you get your desired outcome, let the retailer know that you are thankful. This will make both of you feel better. You, because expressing gratitude is good for your mental health.  The customer service specialist, because his or her job is probably not all that rewarding. Perhaps you have a job like this now, or did in the past. Even if you didn't, imagine what it's like to spend your entire work day listening to angry people. Expressing your thanks for a successful outcome will spread a little cheer into that person's day. Even if the outcome wasn't successful, though, don't make that person feel miserable. Who knows? You may end up needing that person's (or company's) help in the future.  In any case, ending a bad situation on a positive note will help your own mental health by allowing you to move on and chalking it up to experience.

Consumer satisfaction is all about psychology. Turning a bad customer experience into a successful one only takes a few smart moves on your part.

Learn about how to protect yourself from retail sales tactics, check out my posting Discounting the Discount: How to Avoid Retail Traps.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Please check out my website, where you can get additional information on personality, self-tests, and psychology-related links.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

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