Editorial Policy

Don’t give up when trying to get a refund

Allie Johnson

August 19, 2013

Are you losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars by forgetting to return unsuitable items, just throwing away defective products or failing to contact the company if you’re not happy with a product or service?

Personal finance blogger Collin at Hip2Save recently wrote about accidentally purchasing expired grocery items and the fact that some consumers waste money by simply tossing the food. He printed a letter from a reader who asked, “Why would anyone ‘waste’ their money? Why wouldn’t they just return the bad or expired product for a good product?”

I agree: I’ve probably saved — or at least not wasted — more than $1,000 in the past few years just by returning items, asking for refunds or letting a company know when something went wrong. For example, in the past few months I’ve gotten refunds or exchanges for flowers my husband sent that arrived wilted, a manicure that started peeling after less than a day, and some Tidy Cat I ordered online that was damaged during delivery in the pouring rain, which split open the cardboard boxes and made a mess all over my porch. Those items alone add up to more than $200.

But returning purchases or complaining to a company can be a hassle, a time suck or just plain intimidating. I know some people — my husband, for example — who’d rather lose $100 than contact customer service. A December 2012 survey by RetailMeNot.com showed that only 31 percent of consumers would consider returning an unwanted gift. If you dread trying to get your money back, these eight tips will help you stay focused when pursuing refunds or exchanges:

1. Handle it right away. It’s important to return an item or contact the store as soon as possible, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer information on merchandise returns.  Return policies vary by company, but returns typically go much more smoothly and quickly when your return falls within the time frame outlined in the store’s written policy. If you’ve waited too long, though, contact the store anyway. I recently was able to return a quilt I never put on my bed (I didn’t like the colors) about eight months after I bought it from an online store.

2. Know what you want. Before you take any action, decide what the company could do that would resolve the situation to your satisfaction. Do you want to exchange a defective item? Do you want a refund so you can go purchase another item from a different seller? Do you want a discount coupon to partially make up for a bad experience?

3. Gather your documentation. When you try to get a refund, have the date of purchase or service, a brief description of what went wrong, your receipt or order number and any other available information on hand. In some situations, consider taking a photo. To get a coupon for a redo of my bad manicure, I snapped a picture of my raggedy, peeling nails the morning after the service and emailed it to the salon.

4. Be calm and professional. Yes, dealing with companies when something goes wrong can be frustrating: Who doesn’t have a horror story about being routed to call centers all over the world but getting nowhere in resolving an issue? But getting rude won’t help at all. It’s important to be polite, remain calm and professional and keep the focus where it belongs: On the problem with the product or service.

5. Be persistent. In some cases, you won’t get what you want on the first try. Don’t give up. You might need to repeat your request a few times. I’ve found that if you happen to get a customer service representative who insists the problem can’t be solved, isn’t knowledgeable or is just plain grumpy, you might have to say “goodbye,” call back and get a more helpful representative.

6. Go up the chain. If you get nowhere with customer service reps, ask to talk to a supervisor, the FTC recommends. I’ve had a lot of luck with this tactic. At times, if a supervisor has been unhelpful, I’ve even asked to talk to their supervisor. I’ve found that the higher you go up the chain of command, chances are good that you’ll eventually get someone with the power and willingness to help you.

7. Consider using social media. I’ve never used this strategy, but the FTC recommends trying social media if other avenues fail. Social media guru Chris Pirillo suggests using Twitter or Gripe, an online service dedicated to getting consumer complaints resolved, if speaking to a supervisor doesn’t work.

8. Turn to your credit card company. If you have no luck trying to resolve the issue with the merchant, you have a few options. If you purchased the item with a card that has a benefit called purchase protection (which may reimburse for damaged goods within a certain time frame after the purchase), you might be able to get a refund or replacement by filing a claim, depending on the item and the situation. Or, you can file a dispute with your credit card company and see if it will take up your cause.