By Rick Kahler
NEW YORK (AdviceIQ) -- The car under warranty whose engine freezes up. The valuable lost airline baggage that never shows up. The malfunctioning cable box that doesnt get fixed or replaced. What if you, the customer, complain but get no satisfaction? Sometimes big companies with near-monopolies seem indifferent to customer service. The answer? File a small-claims lawsuit. This last-ditch action gets results.
Every business, no matter how good, now and then fails to deliver on a promise. Conscientious companies quickly admit to the failure and do whatever is reasonable to make things right with the customer. Sometimes, their responses strengthen the complaining customer's faith in and loyalty to the company.
Not all companies, or their employees, are this sensitive to customer service. If the company is small with plenty of competition, customers can express dissatisfaction easily by voting with their feet and their mouths. That is, they can take their business elsewhere and tell others (typically around 200 people) about their bad experience. If a business makes a habit of offending customers, it will fail eventually.
Unfortunately, it isn't this simple when a large company has a near-monopoly on the service you need. The most obvious examples: governmental agencies, public transportation or utility companies. Less obvious examples are phone companies, airlines, cable TV operators or Internet service providers. Even with two or three competitors from which to choose, I frequently find my specific needs limit me to dealing with only one. Of course, a lot of big companies make a point of delivering great customer service. When they dont, though, you have a problem.
These corporations can easily develop a culture of "you need us more than we need you." I find few experiences more frustrating than dealing with an unconcerned, uncaring, impotent employee of such a company. They often deny wrongdoing, refuse to make things right and imply you are the real problem.
Once you've appealed to every level of customer service with no resolution, filing a small-claims action against the company is a good course of action. I've found myself in a frustrating situation a handful of times. In every case got satisfaction from a small-claims judgment.
A small claim is a lawsuit for just what the name implies, small-dollar disagreements. In Pennington County, S.D., where I live, the maximum claim amount is $12,000. Filing a small claim is easy and inexpensive. You don't need a lawyer.
In my county, the employees at the clerk of courts office walk you through filling out the simple form, calculating the fee (usually less than $100) and contacting the defendant. All you need is a written statement of what happened and some written proof of your loss. When your day in court comes, the judge guides you through the informal hearing. You just need to tell your story and produce paperwork supporting your claim.
When you file a small claim against a large company, though, chances are you won't ever get to a hearing. The point in filing such a claim really isn't to have your day in court; it's to get your grievance switched from the ineffective customer service department to the much more responsive legal department. Since they don't want to pay a local attorney to show up at a small claim hearing, it's likely they will negotiate a satisfactory settlement with you.
If they don't settle with you, be sure to show up at the hearing. I once sued an airline that denied my claim, but never made an effort to settle. On the day of the hearing, it was just the judge and me, because a representative for the airline never showed up. The judge ruled in my favor. Within a month, I got a check for the full amount of my claim.
So it makes sense, when all else fails, to try a small claim. It's an easy, fast and often effective way to make sure you are compensated fairly for a loss. Even more, it's a way to have your grievance heard.
-- By Rick Kahler, CFP, president of Kahler Financial Group in in Rapid City, S.D.
AdviceIQ is a network of financial advisors that writes insightful articles for the public about investing and wealth management. All articles are edited by AdviceIQ's editor in chief, Larry Light. AdviceIQ certifies that all its advisors have no regulatory infractions.
To subscribe to AdviceIQ's RSS feed for personal finance articles written by financial advisors and AdviceIQ editors, click here.
Follow AdviceIQ on Twitter at @adviceiq.