How to Resolve Christmas Shopping Complaints

Do a little homework before you do a lot of shopping.

Posted Dec 16, 2010

Given how many individual items we buy each holiday season, something is bound to go wrong with at least one of them. If problems do occur, we have a variety of complaint venues from which to choose. More importantly, by doing a little homework before we do a lot of shopping, we can assure any complaints we do pursue will be far easier and more pleasant to resolve.

Avoid street vendors and pop-up stores
Last Christmas a friend of mine purchased a cool looking robot dog for his son from a street vendor. It barked once, wagged its tail, took three steps and froze, never to bark, wag or walk again. My friend admitted the street vendor had a folding table, minivan and a police look-out. "But he put batteries in and showed me it worked!" he insisted. "I figured I couldn't go wrong with a cheap robot puppy." I tried to sound sympathetic, "That's the problem with those vendors. It's really hard to know when a cheap robot puppy is actually an expensive robot turd."

Buying merchandise from unauthorized street vendors is always risky and pop-up stores are problematic for the same reason-they disappear as soon as Santa's boots hit the chimney. If anything goes wrong it is practically impossible to return the item or get a refund.

Check return and exchange policies before buying
A colleague of mine loves to exchange holiday gifts. Every present I give her she exchanges for something else. At this point, I just get stand-in gifts (which are like seat-fillers on award shows), gift receipts and a card that says, "I hope you enjoy this gift-to-be-determined-later." Then I thank her for the lovely socks.

Most of us do our Christmas shopping in the weeks leading up to the holidays. But if the gift I purchased in early December has only a 14 day return window, my colleague would not be able to exchange it come Christmas. Some companies have a no refund policy and give store credit (even if an item was defective) and others have refund windows that run anywhere from 10 days to 3 months. A select few companies give customers a full year to make returns. In almost all cases, an original receipt is required.

Know whether a company's customer service is naughty or nice
Knowing whether a merchant or businesses has decent customer service will help us avoid major headaches if we need to complain later on. Great customer service also makes for knowledgeable staff and a more enjoyable shopping experience overall. It could also make things more tolerable for shopping-phobic spouses who wish malls came with escape pods and eject buttons.

But how are we to know if a specific company's customer service is naughty or nice?

Every year, Business Week and American Express conduct polls to assess which companies have great customer service and which have employees that excel at blank stares and eye-rolling. This year, the top retailers for customer service (in alphabetical order) were: Amazon.com, Apple, Barnes & Noble, JC Penny, Kohl's Department Stores, Land's End, L.L. Bean, Newegg, Nordstrom, Overstock.com, QVC, & Zappos.com.

On the other end of the spectrum, MSN and Zogby International's poll announced their customer service Hall of Shame which this year, was dominated by big banks (Bank of America, Capital One, HSBC and others) who apparently decided their best public relations strategy was, "Let's get the public so angry at our customer service, they forget how pissed they are about our lending practices!"

Choose the right complaint venue
Even if we take all the necessary precautions, avoid street vendors, purchase from companies with award winning customer service and check their return policies, we can still find ourselves in a squeaky-wheel-worthy situation. One of the primary reasons people do not complain (when they should) is they are unsure where or to whom their complaint should be addressed. Today, we have four main options from which to choose when complaining about a product or service:

1) The store or point of purchase.
Tip: We should arm ourselves with receipts, patience, civility, and authentic smiles (read how authentic smiles elicit help and cooperation here).
2) Toll-free & customer service hotlines for the product, company or vendor.
Tip: We should place our irritability on hold (even if we are placed there too), remain calm and present the facts simply. Those with less patience for automated menus can try Get Human for a list of company phone numbers with real people on the other end of the line.
3) Escalate the complaint to company headquarters.
Tip: Contact information for most companies and their top executives can be found on the Better Business Bureau's website.
4) Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
Tip: Many companies now monitor Twitter and Facebook for complaints and have customer service representatives standing by to respond. Since I believe in complimenting as much as I do in complaining, I recently tweeted some kind words about Zappos' customer service I received an "Aw shucks, thanks!" tweet from them within 5 minutes. They often respond to complaints just as quickly. If you do tweet a complaint about a company, be fair, especially if you have oodles of followers. Remember, frustration fades but tweets are forever.

Join my Email list and receive an exclusive gift: How to Recover from Rejection

Follow me on Twitter @guywinch

Many happy returns!

Copyright 2010 Guy Winch