April 4, 2007 -- Who hasn't spent an hour on the phone complaining about a service that hasn't performed up to par? Whether it's about a credit card, cell phone or airline, complaining is almost always frustrating, and often, unfruitful.
But there are ways to complain and win. Wendy Bounds, senior editor of the Wall Street Journal, visited "Good Morning America" to share ways consumers can get what they want by complaining.
Whatever your gripe, Bounds said, you have to make a decision to make some noise if you want things to change.
"First, you're not going to get anything unless you ask for it," she said. "The key is to ask for what you want. It pays to make some noise."
Arm yourself with information so that you're as knowledgeable, if not more so, than the person at the other end of the phone.
"Know all the details of your problem, the fine print, and also know who the competitors are and the best deals they are offering," Bounds said. "That way, you can say, 'but company X is offering this.' Let that ammunition rain on them."
Complain and Win: Cell Phones
When trying to wiggle out of a long-term contract, Bounds said it's important to look for loopholes -- otherwise, you could pay fees to end a contract early which can range from $150 to $300.
"Contracts often have a loophole that says that if there are changes that adversely affect your plan, then you can end the contract early," Bounds said. "Look for that clause in your contract and then look at your bills. Are there any fees that have been added or gone up? If so, that's grounds to cancel the contract."
Keep your contract handy so that you can refer to it throughout the duration of your plan. Read it carefully so you know what it'll cost to end your plan early.
Bounds said that cell phone companies are starting to change their contract policies to benefit consumers.
"Because of the intense competition, cell phone companies are starting to prorate the cancellation penalty instead of charging you the full penalty no matter when you cancel," she said. Also, some companies now offer a 30-day initial grace period during which you can cancel your contract."
Another option is to get your contract reassigned to someone else. There are Web sites that match people who want to get out of their cell phone contracts with those who want to buy them. Two sites are cellswapper.com and celltradeusa.com. When you find a buyer, you pay a fee -- a fraction of what the cancellation penalty would be -- and the cell phone company handles the transfer.
Bounds also suggested getting out of a contract by making yourself an undesirable customer.
"When you go out of your coverage area and go into "roaming" mode, that costs your cell phone company money because they have to pay another carrier to transmit your call. So if you have a lot of time on your hands, take a trip, make a lot of calls. Your cell phone company will drop you like a hot potato," she said. "Obviously, this is not a very realistic option for most people, but it's fun to think about."
Complain and Win: Airlines
Bounds said that the key to complaining to airlines is not to make threats. A lot of people want to say, "I'll never fly with you again," but that's not usually the right course of action.
"Threatening you'll never fly with them again just removes a major incentive to help you, which is to keep you as a customer. If you're so angry they think they've probably already lost you anyway, it's less likely they're going to try to satisfy you," Bounds explained.
In fact, the more you fly with the same airline, the more attention they're likely to pay to your complaints: the more you spend, the more valuable you are as a customer.
Bounds suggested flying with one airline as much as possible, so that if you ever have a problem, your complaints will have more weight.
"When it comes to flying, it pays to put all your eggs in one basket. Airlines work hardest to satisfy the people who spend the most money with them," she said.
With airlines, be specific about what you want and ask for appropriate compensation for your complaint.
"Don't just say, 'what can you do for me?' Suggest yourself what they can do for you," Bounds said. "Let's say your flight was delayed and it was their fault and you missed a meeting that cost you money. You could say, '10,000 frequent flyer miles and some drink coupons would go a long way to making me feel better.'"
According to Bounds, your chances of winning by using these strategies with airlines are pretty good, if you're willing to put up with the hassle of getting your complaint resolved, like sending e-mails and being put on hold.
Complain and Win: Credit Cards
Bounds said that late fees are one of the easiest fees to waive, and consumers should always try to get rid of them.
"They'll often take it off your bill if you just call and ask politely: 'I was on vacation, I'm a good customer,'" Bounds said. "This has a good chance of working if you really are a good, reliable customer. This isn't going to work if you do often pay your bill late. Just as with airlines, the better a customer you are, the more likely they'll try to satisfy you."
If you see something on your bill that simply doesn't look right, Bounds said your first line of action should be to call the company and ask what's going on.
"It may be a mistake and they'll correct it on the spot. Again, be polite. Say you're a good customer and you just don't understand what's going on here," she said.
Bounds explained that in terms of credit cards, the political climate is working in consumers' favor right now.
"Timing is ripe to complain about insidious credit card fees and win. The pressure is on in Congress right now to come up with a bill that would regulate some of the harsher fee practices, and banks are starting to alter their practices as a result," she said. "Consumers can use this to their advantage."
Unlike airlines, with credit card companies, threats can work if all other types of complaining fail.
"Ask for a waiver for fees and hint that you know other credit card companies are loosening rules," Bounds said. "Threaten to switch banks. Consumerreports.org lists the top 10 consumer-friendly credit cards by fees; use those as a bargaining chip when on the phone with a customer service rep. Shop for low-rate, low-fee cards at Web sites like bankrate.com and cardweb.com."
If all that doesn't work, you can register a complaint with your state attorney general and with the office of the comptroller of the currency, at www.occ.gov.