The Art of Complaining

Being vigilant and making gripe calls can pay off.

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Companies have over-charged me $1,100 during the past year. My health insurance provider rejected a $200 claim because it erroneously determined that I had visited an out-of-plan doctor. My flex spending administrator mistakenly said it would not pay for my $600 prescription eyeglasses. And my doctor performed an unnecessary diagnostic test, without asking or informing me, which landed a $300 bill in my mailbox.

Each year, millions of consumers are bombarded with these kinds of payment problems. One industry group estimates billing errors involving health insurance alone exceed $100 billion a year. It’s not just with healthcare. Consumers report that they often find mistakes on credit cards, cellphone bills, and government benefit checks. At the Social Security Administration, the inspector general found that between 1990 and 2006, over 90,000 Social Security recipients were underpaid a total of $120.4 million—some by as much as $25,000.

Those startling numbers show the importance of checking up on how companies and agencies determine what you owe them and what they owe you. Sometimes they make mistakes, and being vigilant is the only way to make sure you get your money. But many people never see their cash again, because they don’t notice the problem, they don’t have time to call, or, worst of all, they don’t feel they have the right to complain.

Costly silence. In fact, Bob Sullivan, the author of Gotcha Capitalism: How Hidden Fees Rip You Off Every Day—and What You Can Do About It, estimates that most people don’t call companies about errors, often because they blame themselves for the problem, something he sees most commonly in older generations. In addition, people with limited English skills or hearing difficulties are less likely to contact companies, which puts them at a financial disadvantage. “I worry about those folks,” he says.

Women are also more likely to overpay, because they tend to be less comfortable with the idea of lodging complaints, says Linda Babcock, coauthor of Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, out this month. She says that negotiating for a fair price or complaining about a charge need not mean conflict, which is what scares some people off. Instead, think: “We have an issue...and we can work to fix the problem together,” she says. If a company has made an error, it will also want to find a solution and ensure the customer is satisfied, she adds.

According to a survey Sullivan conducted for his book, those of us who make our voices heard have a decent chance of getting the desired results: Complaints to credit card companies and airlines had a success rate of over 60 percent. (If you’re calling to complain to your cable provider, however, you may want to first hone your debating skills: Only 20 percent of consumers got the response they were looking for.)

Despite their sometimes impenetrable automated phone lines, companies are not the omniscient, technologically advanced entities they often present themselves to be. They aren’t even that smart sometimes. (When I called Aetna to point out that the insurer had rejected a claim for a visit to an emergency care facility even though the facility said it accepted Aetna insurance, the rep told me that I should have asked the facility if it “participates” with the provider, not if it “accepts” it. Seriously.)

In all three cases mentioned above, I contacted the companies and eventually got my money back. Sometimes, making the call is worth the inconvenience and stress. You could find yourself over a thousand dollars richer.