How to Solve Any Customer Service Challenge

The Chicago Tribune’s master problem solver explains how to act like a pit bull to get results.

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Jon Yates wants to help you. As the official problem solver at the Chicago Tribune, he specializes in getting companies—and government bureaucracies—to do what customers want. Whether you’ve been over-charged by a credit card company or are still missing a tax refund from last year, Yates can probably help.

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Not surprisingly, Yates is inundated by requests and can’t solve all consumer crises on his own. That’s why he wrote his new book, What’s Your Problem? Cut Through Red Tape, Challenge the System, and Get Your Money Back, which is designed to help frustrated consumers fix their own problems. With dozens of strategies to overcome even the most stubborn customer service representatives, Yates argues that we can often win the fights we have with companies, as long as we’re persistent—and willing to take our business elsewhere, if necessary. U.S. News asked Yates about his top tips and how he applies them to his own life. Excerpts:

How have you applied your problem solving techniques to your own life?

People ask me all the time if I can simply call a company that has wronged me and tell them who I am— the Problem Solver for the Chicago Tribune. I wish I could. It would make my life a lot easier. But the newspaper's ethics policy strictly prohibits me from using my position for personal gain, so when a company or corporation treats me badly, I use the techniques I've outlined in my book without mentioning my job. And make no mistake, they work.

Recently, my AT&T modem broke, and the telecommunications company wanted to charge me $83 for a replacement. I told the customer service agent that unless they removed the charge, I would take my business to a competitor. When they realized I was willing to cancel service on the spot, they caved, and gave me a credit for $100 to buy a replacement modem of my choice.

It's my cardinal rule of problem solving: always threaten to take your business elsewhere, and follow through if the company doesn't respond. As consumers, we should never reward bad customer service or uncaring corporations. In the book, I relate several other personal consumer triumphs, including one with a local plumber and another with my former health insurance company, which unfairly tried to bill me $14,000 after my daughter was born. It took months to win that battle, but I didn't have to pay a dime.

Have you ever utterly failed at getting the response you want from a company, even after trying your hardest?

Unfortunately, I have failed from time to time. My success rate as the Problem Solver is well over 90 percent, but there are times when a company or contractor simply is not persuaded by the threat of bad publicity. The most frequent example is with companies that have gone out of business. Sometimes, they simply don't have the money to refund customers, or they're knee-deep in litigation that prevents them from issuing a refund.

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What are your top tips or strategies for someone who feels like they are really not making progress with a customer service rep?

If you're not making progress, I always suggest hanging up and calling back. Almost always, you will get another customer service rep, hopefully one who is more understanding and willing to help. I've spent time in a customer call center, and the reality is not all customer service representatives are created equally. Some are really good at what they do, others simply aren't. If you call enough times, you'll eventually get a good one.

If you don't, my advice is to skip the customer call center altogether and go straight to the top. Find a number online for the company's corporate headquarters and call there directly. Ask to speak to the chief executive. If you can't get through, write the chief executive a letter. It works way more often than you'd think. Often, a company's leaders have no idea that customers are being treated poorly, and are so appalled by a disgruntled consumer's letter that they help almost immediately.

What are some common mistakes people make when dealing with companies?

The most common mistake people make is giving up too soon. Often, I talk to people who get frustrated after one or two fruitless calls. Persistence pays off—and so does being a pain the rear. You have to make it clear that you won't stop fighting for yourself, and that not helping you will cost the company more in the long run. I think people often get intimidated and think they can't fight a big corporation, or city hall, or whatever entity they're fighting. It's simply not true. If you have the truth on your side and a willingness to battle, you can almost always win.

Do companies respond quickly to you because you are a reporter, or could the average person without a platform also get those results by applying your strategies?

I definitely have an advantage when I call as a reporter. Companies absolutely hate bad publicity. But you don't have to be a reporter for a major newspaper to get results. The average person who applies good consumer strategies can and will win their battles, if they're prepared, persistent, and willing to do the required work. Besides, you don't need to be a reporter to wield the power of the press. Often, all you have to do is threaten to go to the media, and a company will do the right thing. I get letters all the time from people who say they dropped my name and an erroneous bill was immediately fixed. The power of the press works, even for non-journalists.

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What's your favorite problem solver story?

My favorite story was one I worked on several years ago, about two individuals—one from India, the other from Poland—who had written me separately saying their applications to become U.S. citizens had become gummed up in the federal immigration office. They had both passed their naturalization tests, and had been told they would be sworn in as citizens within months.

Instead, they had waited years to clear the final hurdle, which was a seemingly innocuous FBI name check. Both were extremely hard-working and patriotic. They wanted nothing more than to become Americans. I called the federal immigration office, and within weeks, the logjam was cleared. Turns out, both has simply become "stuck" in the system, a spokeswoman for the federal government told me. Both were scheduled to become naturalized on the same day, and I attended the ceremony.

It was truly inspiring and humbling. It's the type of problem I like tackling the most—the problems that have deep impacts in people's lives, and also shed light on needless corporate or governmental bureaucracy that needs to be corrected.

You write that you only help people who first tried to help themselves. What do you do differently than they did on their own that makes that difference?

People sometimes become frustrated too quickly and give up before the battle is truly over. As a consumer advocate, once I take on a "problem," I'm like a pit bull. It's not in my nature, but I've learned that such an attitude is often what it takes. I think we could all use a little more pit bull in us.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer