01/18/2013 12:48 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

How to Be Your Own Consumer Advocate in Pursuit of Products and Services Promised, Speak to the Supervisor, and Still Be Nice

Have you ever gotten nowhere over the phone with a manager, consumer relations person, or an automated help-line and just given up? When you get the urge to hang up and accept defeat when trying to find out why the product you bought has not arrived or is defective, why the service that was done was not done correctly, completely or not at all, take a breath and know that you are not alone. For the most part, products and services live up to their mission and expectations, but some do not. For me, products and services that are either not fulfilled, don't live up to what is promised, or even carry fine print that no one can actually see or understand must be addressed. I am not a professional consumer advocate, nor do I have a degree in consumer affairs. Still, I have found products and services that don't live up to what they or their company's claim and have I found ways to have those companies live up to their products and services.

Just like you, I have better things to do than to sit on the phone for hours, press prompts, listen to bland music, and wait and wait and wait until someone (or an automated voice) asks me a million questions that often don't offer a real solution. It's simple. Hard earned money deserves what it pays for. As the years have gone by, the more problems with products and services I've encountered, the more I've tried to be creative and find a solution along Consumer Road instead of arriving at a dead end.

How did my Mighty Mouse attitude start? When I was a five years old, my mother took me for my first dental check-up before I began elementary school. She was one of those people, I later found out, who had a deep fear of dentists, but she was wise enough to know that it was important for me to see one regularly and was able to hide her fears from me. As I sat carefully in the chair, just before that cone-like apparatus moved towards my cheek to shoot its radiation, the dentist's assistant placed an adult-sized cardboard x-ray square in my mouth (since there were no more child-sized squares in stock). I gagged due to the size of the film and jumped off the chair, somewhat startled. When the dentist saw this, he yelled, "If you don't get back into that chair, I am not going to sign your dental note!" To my own surprise, I stood up tall and replied in a tiny but determined voice, "You're not the only dentist in the Bronx!" My mother was aghast, but smiled as she marched me out of the office. I guess that's when it all began.

Since then, I have always been the first to praise products that I love to those I know, but I am also quick to report to my friends and the company itself when a product or services is a disappointment. Before I even begin my consumer quest, I assess the problem and line up the facts. Then, I get ready to make contact, take notes, be nice, but never give up. I make sure I set aside at least an hour to complete this task. I don't want to rush and not get it all said and done. Fortunately, companies have after-business-hours and on line pursuits can be done at any time. I am always polite and always keep a dated log of my conversation. If possible, I will email the company if I can't get the problem solved over the phone and reference the phone call in the email. On-line chats with companies can be helpful, but those long lists of Frequently Asked Questions that are headlined by asking something like, "Does this list solve your problem?" usually are not.

If you call and you get an automated voice asking you a million questions that you know you will be asked again by a real person for security purposes, just mumble into the phone and the robotic voice will eventually say something like, "Alright, I'll connect you to a representative." Sometimes all you have to say is "representative" as soon as the voice begins to speak and you will be forwarded to a live person. Before you start the conversation, be sure you have the person's name on the other end of the line. If that person can't seem to solve your problem, ask to speak with the supervisor. If he or she tries to avoid your request to speak to the person her or she answers to, say, "I understand and appreciate that you do not have the authority to solve this problem for me, so I would like to speak to someone who does." If the reply is that the supervisor is not in at that moment, ask them for the supervisor's name, location (city, state, and even country since services reps. can be located all over the world) and the supervisor's extension or ID. This will help you pinpoint the supervisor by first name when you call back. At this point, the person on the line may hang up on you. Yet, if you have their name, you can report their actions along with the date and time of day you called. Sometimes the phone number of a company seems impossible to obtain, even from that company's website. Use a search engine with one keyword as the name of the company and the other as phone number. Within a few tries, you will be able to find (excluding sponsored sites) a free site that offers just this kind of information.

I got really good at this advocacy a few years ago when I hired Home Depot at Home Services to install Hardie Plank Siding and gutters on our home. By the time the job was completed (it's still not totally completed; there is a flashing issue that was overlooked but under contact in black and white that I am still in the process of trying to rectify), I could have been hired as a project quality control manager. I know more about siding and gutters than I ever wanted to; I could read and understand the specs by the manufacture of the product they were using; I could see where they were trying to cut corners, not living up to those specs; and I could request that the work be done right. I also became proficient in contacting those higher-ups at the company until someone would listen. Armed with a log an inch-thick of email correspondences with Home Depot at Home Services, most of the problems were solved, but there's still that flashing issue all these years later. There was no reason for me to be the watch dog on site, juggling all of the problems, trying to make sure the contract was being honored with care, concern and integrity in the face and follow-up of every error that took place. What became a day-to-day inspection at the job is not the job of the consumer, but sometimes it has to be in order to get thing done.

It would only be fair to mention what you can do before buying a product or service to lessen the chance of that follow-up for something you are not satisfied with. Ask people you know if they are familiar with a company, product or service and how they feel about these purchases. Research groups like Angie's List, a consumer advocacy resource for services-for-hire, or organizations like Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, an independent, non-profit testing and information organization serving only consumers. On Angie's List, a "subscription-based, consumer-focused service" with a complaint resolution division, you can praise or pan a service-for-hire for other members to see, from doctors to garage door replacements. Since 1939, Consumer Reports has "empowered consumers to protect themselves" through its not-for-profit pursuit of unscrupulous manufacturers, false advertising, and its forum for readers. In your pre-purchase stage, be aware that some companies or sites, unlike the two mentioned above, pay people to praise products, so be careful that the positive review you are reading doesn't turn out to be one that money could buy.

If I'm not making a face-to-face purchase, I'd rather speak with someone for an order rather than order on-line because I have questions and follow up questions, and I want them answered before I put my money down. Especially when you are buying something over the phone, like phone service, or signing up for credit card offer, you can prepare yourself by making a long list of questions so you don't forget them in amidst all of the technical quick-talk on what's offered and how it's warranted. When the person you area speaking with seems to want to move on and make the sale, I sometimes say, "I hope you don't mind all of my questions. Think of me as the customer making up for all the questions others have never asked." I want to know when the promotional offer will expire, and if and when it does, when in time I can call back to see if there are any other promotions to keep me with the company. What can they offer me besides what they just did to close the sale?" I received a $300 cash gift card within minutes after I made that statement just before sounding like I was thinking of hanging up. Lastly, I ask, "Can you please put in simple, brief terms all of the fine print that is difficult for anyone to understand?" If I have the fine print in front of me, I ask about anything that is not clear. Once it is offered on record as part of my deal, I may wait a day, mull over the terms and conditions, and make comparisons before calling back and moving forward on the deal.

But let's get back to that moment when a product or service goes wrong. You're angry and frustrated that a company is giving you the run-around or has not lived up to all that you expect and deserve. Without facts and paper work to back you up, you just can't go trashing a company. The truth, it is said, is the ultimate defense. If you do voice the facts of your experience, be sure you stick to the matters at hand, what you have proof of, and keep your tone a respectable and not libelous one. A consumer recently made a valid public complaint about a construction company's work, and in doing so, also accused the company of theft of personal items. This was brought to court by the contractor and he won against the theft accusations and the person who made them since the judge agreed that these unsubstantiated statements had hurt his business. So, express what you know as fact, state your opinion as such, but don't say anything you can't back up.

The realm of social media and the web is another place where voices of consumers can be heard.
Websites such as The Consumerist (a subsidiary of Consumer Reports) and others help costumers to voice their experiences. You can share your experiences on Facebook, Twitter, etc. and sites specifically made to gather positive and negative complaints in the social media universe. YouTube has numerous consumers and media reports discussing bad experiences with even the biggest companies, including Home Depot at Home Services, and other product giants. There are even petition sites where you can start a do-it-your-self petition on a practice that urks you by a company you have used and have others with similar experiences sign on for strength in numbers.

Will my issue with Home Depot Home Services be resolved? Will your issue with that company you are disappointed with be rectified? Business is the backbone of our economy, and companies deserve accolades when they live up to a brand's products and services as promised. Of course, many companies reach out to make a consumer happy. Still, others have clearly shown not to have their customers' best interests in mind. Above all, a company should stand by its mission and promises, products and services, for all of its consumers, keeping in mind that profit isn't everything. Doing right by the consumer is.

So, the next time the cold light of product or service disappointment chills the warm afterglow that comes with a purchase, grab your phone, computer, and even a pad and pen, and be nice but determined to start your quest for quality on the road to consumer power. Hang in there!