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When a recent flight to Chicago was cancelled, the airline automatically rebooked me on the next available flight. A nice thought in theory, but it was days later. Since I needed to be in Chicago ASAP, I decided to scrap my plans. So you can imagine my surprise when the customer service representative in India tried to charge me a hefty cancellation fee.

Pay a fee to cancel a flight that I never asked to be placed on? After my original flight got cancelled by the airline? After I have been waiting in the airport for what seemed like an eternity? I don't think so.

The kind customer service rep in India agreed, noting she would make me an "exception."

The lesson here is it's never too late to brush up on your negotiation skills, especially when there's money involved. You deserve to be compensated if things you paid for don't meet your expectations. When the going gets rough, businesses should make customers happy. Word of mouth is everything.

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With the right panache, you can get out of paying for sub-par service, and maybe even score a couple freebies. Your food’s undercooked or it came a half hour late? “Talk to the restaurant manager right on the spot and make a stink then,” says Walter Brewster of the Better Business Bureau in New York. If that gets you nowhere, follow-up with a formal letter cc’ing the industry enforcers (e.g. the health department, the Better Business Bureau etc.) and see if that does the trick. Internet’s been down for hours? “You’re entitled to a partial refund,” says Ben Popken, editor of, a consumer advocacy blog. Make a phone call immediately to customer service. When possible, speak with the manager or CEO in person. “You want to make sure you’re talking to someone who can actually fix your situation,” says marketing consultant Ami Woods.

And finally, remember to thank them ahead of time for helping you out. Never underestimate the value of charm!

And from my book, You're So Money, I offer the following added advice.

1. Act Fast and in Person. A nasty letter or e-mail usually gets ignored, and it can take forever to reach the right person by phone. The face-to-face complaint usually works best because you're not as easy to get rid of.
2. Shoot For the Top. Keep going up the chain of command until you reach someone helpful. If it's a franchise or a branch and the head manager is being stubborn, make it clear you will contact HQ and file a complaint. Some companies have "quality control" or "quality management" units that step in when customer service goes awry.
3. Put on a Smile. People hate being yelled at - especially when they're not the ones who overcharged your phone bill or forgot to heat your soup. Instead express your unhappiness in a calm voice. Also don't make false claims or exaggerate how much you deserve to be compensated.

Catch more of Farnoosh’s advice on Real Simple. Real Life. on TLC, Friday nights at 8 p.m.