The RV Consumer

How to be a successful advocate when things go wrong with a product.

Don Cohen Don Cohen  |  12.11.2016

Sometimes what seems like the simplest of issues to solve suddenly turns into a chamber of horrors. As an RV owner you own a product that has a lot of different systems all with the possibility of developing a problem.  Nine times out of ten, you either self-repair or get service.  But what about those rare times where something simple morphs into a life-consuming quest for resolution?

From specialized technology, to consumer products and services, to my own RV, I’ve had a lot of experience and success in getting stuff fixed.  Here’s what I’ve found what works. . .and what doesn’t.

Phone Calls

Before you call to report or resolve a problem, get a notepad out.  Also take a moment to rehearse in your mind how you can most clearly explain the problem.  Make sure you have the model, serial number, or any other descriptive information so you won’t have to hunt for it in the middle of the call.  I also like wearing a headset or speakerphone so I can sit comfortably (many times in front of my computer) and hear well while I either type or write notes.

Keep your watch handy so you can keep track of time.  Note the time of your call.  If you hit a menu tree, make a note of the progression of numbers you need to push.  This might come in handy if you need to repeat a call so you can quickly hit the numbers to move you back to the right agent or department.

Keep an eye on your watch if you’re placed on hold.  Documenting your initial hold time can be an important piece of data if it takes multiple calls to resolve your problem.

When the agent/representative answers, start pleasantly.  I usually say, “Hi I’m Don calling from Denver.”  I make sure I get their name, write it down, and I use their first name occasionally when appropriate during the call.  All of this helps humanize your interaction.

Don’t immediately wade into your problem.  Listen (or ask) if there’s preliminary information they need from you.  Get that out of the way first.  Then start by describing your problem.  Stay pleasantly clinical.  Do not wander off topic.  Do not editorialize.  Stick to the facts.  Here’s two examples:

Bad:  We left the campground at eight and have been driving for three hours when we decided to pull off the freeway for lunch.  After lunch we came out to the rig and saw the “blank” flashing.

Good: Our “blank” is flashing.  This is the first time we’ve encountered the problem.

From there you’ll need to manage the call based on your own skills and the interaction of the person you’re talking with.

Most times when you talk with an RV component or RV manufacturer you will be calling directly into the company.  Whoever you’re talking to may be one of just a handful of people in customer service, so keep your conversation focused and polite.  You need to sound reasonable, not adversarial.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be upset that there’s a problem, you simply need to recognize that it will take two of you to work through the issue. If you’re having a difficult time with the customer service person not understanding or helping with your problem the traditional, “can I talk to your supervisor” line, which may work with a large corporation’s call center, may not apply if you’re calling into a smaller business — so you’ll have to work that person to keep things pleasant.

If things aren’t going well, no matter how angry or frustrated you are don’t yell or swear at whoever you’re talking to.  More than likely they’re only empowered to do a few things.  Deflect your anger by saying something like, “I know you’re not personally responsible for the problem, but I’m sure you can understand my anger and frustration.”

I seems so elementary that I’m suggesting this, but I’ve lost count the number of agents and customer service representatives I’ve talked to over the years that, by acknowledging their humanity and making a little appropriate small talk (ex. how’s the weather in your part of the country?), have THANKED me for simply being nice.  Day-in, day-out customer service representatives generally hear people at their worst.  People say things over the phone (and on the Internet) in ways they would never dream doing either in person or publicly.  By working hard to make myself the pleasant exception and getting a service rep on my side, I’ve sometimes gotten a larger credit, their direct call back number, or the name and number of the key person who can really solve my problem.  When someone is being helpful I often offer up power praise terms like, “rock star” or “customer service goddess.”  Corny?  Sure.  Effective?  Absolutely.

Make sure you fully document the call, get a reference number and note how long the entire call took.

And here’s a critical point:  all of us start with the general belief that our problem will be solved on the first call.  We’re expecting a good outcome and, because of that, aren’t yet in defensive strategy mode.  That defensiveness (and anger) usually kicks in by the third call.  And that’s where it is actually very useful to say that, “I first called in on Tuesday the 12th at 11:15 AM.”  My second call was Wednesday the 13th at 9:00 AM and this time I spoke with George. . . .”

Believe me, when a customer service person hears this level of careful documentation, he or she clearly knows that the stakes have risen.  Companies are very, very sensitive to careful documentation.  It gives them no place to hide.  At the same time, should your problem escalate to a senior manager, a good manager will not be defensive, but appreciative of seeing the flow of contact.

On those times when I’ve had to go through several steps of escalation, it’s the careful documentation that ultimately effects the desired result.  If some of your interactions are through e-mail, make sure you save them.  Better yet, create an “incident” folder and keep all pertinent e-mails in that folder.  If you have a reference number from a phone call or e-mail response, always include it in the e-mail subject line (ex.  Broken lever in 2015 Weaselnator Ref# 123-4567A)

In Person

In person interactions in effecting a repair are usually easier to handle.  You have the richer bandwidth of humanity to read visual cues, listen carefully to voice inflection, and physically see and hear an issue.

Generally, the worst challenge you have is that maybe the noise you heard, or the light that came on and was serviced once re-appears two blocks from the dealer — or worse — two hundred miles away.

Even if everything is amicable on a return visit for a re-repair, it’s often helpful to have a spouse/partner/friend as a second set of eyes and ears.  Where things have a tendency to go south is when personalities start to conflict.  Again raising your voice, swearing, or threatening will only exacerbate the situation.  To gain control of a potentially volatile moment your most effective tool is silence.  Instead of an escalating argument, sitting or standing quietly and looking at the individual without saying anything is a true conflict-judo move.  It puts the weight of the decision moment back on your interlocutor.  Situations and people are all different and while I can offer you no guarantees, I have found over the years, that stony, uncomfortable silence has more often than not helped me avoid nasty conflicts and gotten me the solution I was seeking.

The thing about documentation

Documentation is the number one most powerful tool you have to convince, shame or litigate a solution.  As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.”  While there is a super small chance you’ll find yourself in court, if you do, documentation from the warranty language in your product documents, to your own detailed account will be the only factual basis of how a claim is litigated.

Things you might want to say or do. . .but shouldn’t.

The most common threat one hears raised in a consumer conflict battle is, “I’m going to call my attorney.”  It’s an empty threat that won’t scare anybody who’s been in business for any length of time.  An experienced business owner or a large corporation is going to shrug their shoulders at that one.  Nobody is going to litigate a $5,000 claim.  Small claims courts vary from state to state, and even if you win a judgement — it can be hard to force a collection.  Unless you or a close relative is an attorney who will work for free, just writing a legal demand letter can cost $200+ dollars and really won’t do much to persuade.  Bigger claims usually get directed to the business’ insurance company to battle out in court or settle.

On the vehicle side there are lemon laws that vary from state to state.  The overarching federal law is the Magnusson-Moss Act.  Lemon laws can offer some degree of leverage and protection and if you prevail, recovery of attorneys fees.  If you get to this point it’s possible it could take one to two years to win a claim (and there are no guarantees).  And when you retain counsel it most likely will be that you will be up-fronting fees.  It’s a bet you need to think through as you’ll be putting even more of your money at risk.

Here’s my take on litigation:  Years ago I had a solid lock of a restraining order case against a competitor in a trade secrets theft.  There was recent law passed by the state that supported my claim and my attorney had recently easily won the first case tried under the new law which was a very similar situation to mine.  Impossibly, the judge ruled against me and I got stuck with $10,000 dollars of having to cover the competitor’s attorney fees. My attorney was so dumbstruck that he didn’t charge me for any of his billable hours.  Months later, that particular judge received an unsatisfactory rating from the bar association and was not re-elected.  Cold comfort.  So even if you think victory is a slam dunk — don’t count on it.

Now, let’s switch to the “court of public opinion.”  If you’ve spent more an a couple of months failing to get a resolution that it is both fair and proper, consider filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or a state’s attorney general’s office.  It most likely won’t help you, but it could warn others in the future.

In today’s world the nuclear option is social media.  In the Internet world there is a name for this:  reputation management — and there are companies that specialize in helping small businesses and multi-national corporations deal with the slings and arrows that seemly come from every direction.

A TV news reporter I once knew called it “blame and shame.”  While it can be an effective strategy, there’s going to be a lot more broken china in the room before it’s all over and you may find that your kick-them-in-the-shins moment of satisfaction is short lived with nothing else gained.  Truth be told, the “complain on the Internet” strategy rarely works and business and corporations are becoming less and less afraid of the threat.

I’ve seen my fair share of social media postings, video, and even websites that demand some kind of rough justice in calling out a bad product or service.  Generally businesses and companies do care about their reputation, product quality and service.  Some actively monitor industry chat forums.  Occasionally they might reach out to someone who’d complained, but generally will not respond to a complaining post that is not factual, rude, bitter, or hypercritical.

Think about it.  As a consumer you’re probably read plenty of Amazon and Yelp reviews.  You very quickly start to pick up on whether a product or business is good or bad.  And even for highly rated reviews there’s always a few negative ones.  If the majority of reviews and stars are positive you probably end up discounting the yellers.  Don’t be a yeller.

A close cousin to yelling is whining.  Those are the collection of “poor me” leverage statements that people like to embellish their problems with.  Statements like, “I missed my grandmother’s funeral,” or “it ruined our vacation” are all designed to attract sympathy.  They rarely work, because they’re so overused.

Getting to the right person

Sometimes, when you seemingly hit the wall, you might break through by getting your story in front of the right person.  In small businesses it’s usually easy to figure out who the service manager, general manager, and owner is.

With larger corporations if you aim for the CEO or president, you’ll probably overshoot the target.  You’re better to focus on middle management such as VPs, directors, and managers.  Large corporations usually divide themselves into product groups, so you should seek out the more senior people within a product group.

There are many ways of finding out who the right person may be.  You might find them on the corporate side of a company’s web site, through Google searches using the keywords “product manager” and name of the product.

Once you think you’ve found the right person, it’s also likely you may not have his or her e-mail address.  That means you probably will have to call into the general phone number.  In corporate America almost everyone has what’s called a DID (dial-in direct) number.  One strategy that has worked well for me is calling in after hours, working my way through the phone directory, and then leaving a brief, but specific voicemail.  I actually write out my little script so it’s efficient, says what it needs to, and sounds professional.  I always say my name and phone number twice and also give my e-mail address.  Tone is important on voicemails, so keep the anger and frustration out of it.  Stay clinical, firm, and professional.

If you call in during business hours it’s likely you’ll be sent to that person’s department.  I’ve been asked by an assistant if they can take a message.  Instead of dictating or explaining, I often request, “can you just send me to voicemail?”  Almost always they will be happy to do so.

If you have someone’s e-mail address, that’s an excellent point of contact and it starts a great document trail with the built-in time and date stamp.  Again, just like a little voicemail script, write out your complaint, keep it short, and if there’s something like a log of contacts you’ve had, attach it as an additional document.

Whether it’s an e-mail or a letter, keep your complaint focused.  It should be no longer than two pages. There is not problem that can’t be explained in one or two pages.  The rest is simply whining. If there is a longer documentation trail, attach that as a separate report.

For years, when someone wanted to send you something important and document that you received it, they chose registered mail.  I’d recommend you spend the extra money and send an overnight FedEx, UPS, or USPS letter pak.  These document delivery services and add a little more emphasis to the urgency of your claim.

Summing up

If a repair issue turns into a hot mess remember the following:

  • Be pleasant and respectful.
  • Try to draw out empathy from the entity your dealing with.
  • Be pleasantly persistent.
  • Get to the right, empowered person.
  • Document. Document. Document.

I hope it’s always going to be clear skies and smooth sailing ahead for you, but when it’s not, being a thoughtful, organized, and persistent advocate usually will get you safely through the storm.


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2 Comments

  1. Greg Schultz Posted on 12.17.2016

    All good stuff Don. Only additional comments from the peanut gallery would be: 1. If you are presented with the option of “chat” to deal with an issue on line consider using it. Then you have a written record of the exchange. Less personal than an actual call, but nothing gets lost in translation. 2. When we encounter a problem in our RV world many times our first instinct is to head to the Dealer or call the Manufacturer (WGO). But if your issue is with a component – let’s say, the generator. The warranty is with the component manufacturer. There is nothing wrong with going straight to Cummins to resolve the issue. Keep the RV manufacturer in your back pocket to fire additional guns if necessary. (You may want to keep them in the loop of what you are doing so they can keep complete records of service on your RV.). Thanks for your articles Don.

  2. Jerry Matthews Posted on 12.17.2016

    Don:
    Great article on handling complaints…RV Consumer.
    I have learned these techniques the hard way over the years. They work very well. In addition , an other technique with big firms is when you aren’t getting anywhere with an agent, politely thank them for their time and then call back to another agent. Sometimes the next agent will be just the person who is willing to solve your problem.