How to Complain to Companies (and Get Results)

It’s up to consumers to hold companies responsible for costly mistakes.

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As all of us inevitably experience at some point, companies make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are costly. From erroneous health-insurance claim rejections to double charges on credit cards, consumers who aren't paying attention can end up forking over more money than they should. One industry group estimates that billing errors involving health insurance alone exceed $100 billion a year. Consumers also report that they often find mistakes on credit cards, cellphone bills, and government benefit checks.

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That's why consumer vigilance is so important. 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.

In fact, Bob Sullivan, 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. He sees this 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, co-author of Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, out this month. She says negotiating for a fair price or complaining about a charge doesn't have to 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.)

Here are seven expert tips on how best to lodge complaints and get your money back:

Just do it. The most important lesson is to actually take the time to a lodge a complaint in the first place. Many customers don't, and that's why they end up being overcharged or unsatisfied.

Don't exaggerate the problem. Greg Brummer at Planet Feedback says companies don't respond well to threats or embellished stories about the harm they have caused. One consumer, for example, said his son's Christmas was ruined after a company canceled his order.

Always contact the company first. Brummer says consumers have a good chance of resolving their problems with just a quick call to the company. So before involving others, such as his website, make the call.

Check your bills. Many people don't notice that they are being charged for a monthly service until they've been paying it for months, and companies often resist refunding months' worth of services, Brummer says. He recommends taking responsibility for the accuracy of your billing statements.

Review receipts before you leave the store. Max Spankie at My3Cents adds that mistakes caught at the point of sale are much easier to resolve on the spot than after you leave the store. One consumer contacted him after a typo by a sales associate at Home Depot led him to pay for 1,058 pieces of molding instead of 1.58. He signed for the transaction before noticing the mistake.

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Count your money—it's not rude. Spankie says there's no need to be self-conscious about making sure you were given the correct amount of change, whether it's at a bank or a store. It's better to check than to go home and realize there was an error.