NEW YORK -- Consumers are demanding better service in unprecedented ways.
In the past several months, public outrage has helped beat back efforts by Bank of America, Netflix and Verizon to raise fees or significantly alter services. The victories come at a time when money is tight all around and consumers are tapping into social media to air their frustrations with like-minded individuals.
"In the past, people would be angry, but they'd be all over the country talking to their neighbors," said Kit Yarrow a professor of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University. "Now they can connect online and they have power."
For example, petitions on Change.org were instrumental in convincing Bank of America and Verizon to drop plans for new fees. "Bank Transfer Day," which sprang to life after Bank of America's announcement, called on Facebook supporters to move their money to a credit union or community bank.
Not every issue demands a mass call to action. But consumers bask-ing in their newfound sense of empowerment should keep their expectations high going into 2012. Here are some strategies for making sure you get the service you deserve.
Work the chain of command
Before you switch into outrage mode, give a company a fair chance to right any wrongs. It may be that the issue can be easily resolved with a simple email or phone call to customer service.
But if the customary means aren't helpful, one strategy is to reach out to the company CEO or another high-ranking officer. Most major companies have "executive resolution teams" that field correspondence from customers who take their complaints to the top, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, which features news and tips on deals. And these teams generally have a lot more leeway to appease customers.
To get your message in the right hands, start by searching under the "About" section on the company's website. Even if executive contact information isn't listed, you can usually figure out their email addresses based on the contact information listed for other employees. Otherwise, try mailing a letter to the corporate headquarters.
"Really boil it down," Dworsky said. "If it goes on and on, they're not going to have the time or patience to read it. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient of the letter."
Make it easy for the company by quickly spelling out the resolution that you're seeking. And don't forget to include any relevant information, such as order numbers or purchase dates.
Reach out and tweet
You don't have to be Alec Baldwin to have your complaints heard on Twitter.
Most major companies have a social media presence by now. And since they don't want negative mentions turning up in search results, any reasonable question or complaint is likely to get a response.
Even if you don't hear back from anyone, it's likely that companies are taking note of any comments about them.
At JetBlue, for example, a few customers recently tweeted about a crowded gate that only had one agent. That triggered the airline's social media team to contact staff at the airport to find out if any additional agents were available to help out, said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's social media strategist.
But he noted that Twitter is more commonly used to request time-sensitive information that can be conveyed in 140 characters -- such as connecting flight or gate numbers. The company monitors its Twitter account around the clock and tries to respond within a few minutes.
"It's more of an information booth than a traditional customer service channel," Johnston said.
Twitter isn't only for basic information requests, however. Citibank also monitors the site and tries to respond to any questions within an hour, said Frank Eliason, who heads the bank's social media strategy. If customers need to share personal account information, they're sent a link to a private page on the bank's website where they can continue the exchange in the same Twitter-like format.
Call for backup
If you're not getting anywhere and feel your complaints are being brushed off, it can help to get a third-party involved.
If you paid with your credit card, you can always file a claim to have a charge removed from your account. Keep in mind that you need a concrete reason, such as a product defect or missed delivery, to make such claims. Your card issuer isn't going to investigate a dispute just because you were unhappy with a rude waiter.
Another option is to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org/complaint. The local BBB office will contact the company within two days and ask for a response to the complaint on your behalf.
The vast majority of complaints are resolved this way, said spokeswoman Katherine Hutt. That's because businesses know their ratings are affected by whether they respond to complaints.
For more serious situations where you suspect fraud or feel your rights were violated, consider filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or your state attorney general's office. You likely won't get a speedy resolution but at least those agencies will be on notice in case other customers are reporting similar abuses.
Stay connected online
In rare situations, you may feel a company policy calls for a broader action. In the case of Bank of America and Verizon, online petitions were key in quantifying the public's widespread distaste for new fees.
"It's an incredibly efficient means of customer feedback that's not controlled by the company," said Ben Rattray, founder of the Change.org, which hosted the petitions against both companies. "It's customer feedback that's controlled by customers."
Your issues don't necessarily have to be with a big national company either. Change.org plans to roll out localized versions so users can voice concerns about businesses in their communities.