bureaucracybusters

Posts Tagged ‘SELF-HELP’

A TAXING PROBLEM

In Bureaucracy, Business, Law, Law Enforcement, Self-Help on November 4, 2016 at 12:23 am

“We’ll try to cooperate fully with the IRS, because, as citizens, we feel a strong patriotic duty not to go to jail.”
–Dave Barry

Several years ago, a private investigations agency found itself in serious trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

One of its employees had suddenly quit the company–leaving behind a major financial disaster.

That employee–whom I’ll call Pete–had been tasked with sending payroll tax records to the IRS. The company’s owner, Bill, assumed he had carried out his assignment.

Until he learned from the IRS that they had never received the records.

Consider the potential consequences:

  • Failing to timely and properly pay federal payroll taxes results in an automatic penalty of 2% to 10%.
  • Similar state and local penalties apply.
  • Failing to properly file monthly or quarterly returns may result in additional penalties.
  • Failing to file W-2 Forms results in an automatic penalty of up to $50 per form not timely filed.
  • A particularly severe penalty applies where federal income tax withholding and Social Security taxes are not paid to the IRS.
  • The penalty of up to 100% of the amount not paid can be assessed against the employer entity as well as any person (such as a corporate officer) having control or custody of the funds from which payment should have been made.

About 70% of the annual revenue collected by the IRS comes from payroll taxes. Under-reported and unpaid employment taxes account for about $72 billion of the United States tax gap. So the IRS makes the collection of payroll taxes a high priority.

No doubt about it–Bill was facing serious trouble.

What to do?  

Fortunately, Steve, one of Bill’s employees, had a B.A. in Communications and had worked as a newspaper reporter.

When Bill told him of the calamity he was facing, Steve offered his best advice: Immediately contest the charge that he had been delinquent in providing the records. And explain to the IRS–in writing–what had happened.  

Bill agreed.

First,  Steve interviewed him at length to make certain he fully understood the circumstances leading up to his present crisis.

Then Steve sat down and typed up a letter–on office letterhead stationery–to the IRS. Letterhead would give it an official appearance–and Steve wanted every advantage he could get.

Steve offered a straightforward presentation of what had happened: Pete, the number-two man in the company, had been entrusted with submitting payroll tax records to the IRS.

Apparently nursing a grudge against the company, he had, in fact, done nothing of the sort.

Instead, he had dumped the records in a box and stashed this in a locked filing cabinet.

Then he had given notice and left the company. Later, an investigation of his office computer revealed that it had often been used to access pornography.

Steve emphasized that Bill’s company had previously had an unblemished record for meeting its payroll tax obligations on time. And he stated that the newly-found records had been sent to the IRS by registered mail.

Finally, Steve wrote that Bill was prepared to fully meet his financial obligations  to the IRS. But he asked that Bill not be penalized for the irresponsible actions of a single, malcontented employee.

The result? 

Bill ended up paying only those monies that he legally owed.  He was not forced to pay a penalty.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this episode?

  • In dealing with an agency as powerful as the IRS, don’t ignore its letters and/or phone calls. 
  • You have nothing to gain by pretending it will go away.  It won’t.
  • If you owe money, don’t deny it. 
  • Remain calm, even if you feel angry or afraid. 
  • Don’t use profanity or insults. 
  • Don’t try to play tough-guy with the IRS.  Even the Mafia fears this agency.

  • If you have a legitimate reason for having missed a payment, say so. 
  • Remember that everything you say to the IRS–verbally or in writing–is considered evidence given under oath. 
  • If you lie and get caught, you can face perjury charges as well as those for failing to comply with tax laws.
  • Offer to fully pay any monies that you legally owe.
  • If these amount to more than you can meet in a single payment, say so. Ask the agency to set up a plan by which you can pay it off in installments.
  • If the agency balks at cooperating with you, contact a veteran tax accountant or attorney.
  • The best accountants or attorneys for dealing with the IRS are former agents now working in private practice. They not only know the tax laws; they know the best ways to short-circuit an IRS audit and/or penalties.

WHY AMERICANS HATE CABLE COMPANIES

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on July 29, 2016 at 12:17 am

In 1970, Robert Townsend, the CEO who had turned around a failing rent-a-car company called Avis, published what is arguably the best book written on business management.

It’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation From Stiffling People and Strangling Profits.

Though published 46 years ago, it should be required reading–for CEOs and consumers.

Don’t fear getting bogged down in a sea of boring, theory-ridden material.  As Townsend writes:

“This book is in alphabetical order. Using the table of contents, which doubles as the Index, you can locate any subject on the list in 13 seconds. And you can read all I have to say about it in five minutes or less.

“This is not a book about how organizations work.  What should happen in organizations and what does happen are two different things and about as far apart as they can get.  THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HOW TO GET THEM TO RUN THREE TIMES AS WELL AS THEY DO.”

Comcast is the majority owner of NBC and the largest cable operator in the United States. It provides cable TV, Internet and phone service to more than 50 million customers.

So you would think that, with so many customers to serve, Comcast would create an efficient way for them to attain help when they face a problem with billing or service.

Think again.

Consider the merits of Townsend’s short chapter on “Call Yourself Up.”

Townsend advises CEOs:“Pretend you’re a customer. Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help. You’ll run into some real horror shows.”

Now, imagine what would happen if Brian L. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, did just that.

Brian L. Roberts

First, he would find that, at Comcast, nobody actually answers the phone when a customer calls. After all, it’s so much easier to fob off customers with pre-recorded messages than to have operators directly serve their needs.

And customers simply aren’t that important–except when they’re paying their ever-inflated bills for phone, cable TV and/or Internet service.

Comcast’s revenues stood at $19.25 billion for the fourth quarter of 2015.

In 2015, Roberts earned $36.2 million in salary, options and other compensation, a 10% increase from 2014.

So it isn’t as though the company can’t afford hiring a few operators and instructing them to answer phones directly when people phone in.

But instead of being directly connected to someone able to answer his question or resolve his problem, Roberts would hear:

“Welcome to Comcast–home of Xfinity.”

Then he would hear an annoying clucking sound–followed by the same message in Spanish.

“Your call may be recorded for quality assurance.

“To make a payment now, Press 1.  To continue this call, Press 2.”

Then he would hear: “For technical help, press 1, for billing, press 2.  For more options, press 3.”

Assuming he pressed 2 for “billing,” he would hear:

“For payment, press 1  For balance information, press 2.  For payment locations, press 3.  For all other billing questions, press 4.”

Then he would be told: “Please enter the last four digits of the primary account holder’s Social Security Number.”

Then, as if he hadn’t waited long enough to talk to someone, he would get this message: “Press 1 if you would like to take a short survey after your call.”

By the time he heard that, he would almost certainly not be in a mood to take a survey.  He would simply want someone to come onto the phone and answer his question or resolve his problem.

Then he would hear: “At the present time, all agents are busy”–and be electronically given an estimate by when someone might deign to answer the phone.

“Please hold for the next customer account executive.”

If he wanted to immediately reach a Comcast rep, Roberts would press the number for “sales.”  A sales rep would gladly sign him up for more costly products–even if he couldn’t solve whatever problem Roberts needed addressed.

Assuming that someone actually came on, Roberts couldn’t fail to notice the unmistakable Indian accent of the rep he was now speaking with.

Not Indian as in American Indian-because that would mean his company had actually hired Americans who must be paid at least a minimum American wage for their services.

No, Comcast, like many other supposedly patriotic corporations, “outsources” its “customer service support team” to the nation, India.

After all, if the “outsourced” employees are getting paid a pittance, the CEO and his top associates can rake in all the more.

Of course, the above scenario is totally outlandish–and is meant to be.

Who would expect the wealthy CEO of a major American corporation to actually wait in a telephone queue like an ordinary American Joe or Jane?

That would be like expecting the chief of any major police department to put up with hookers or panhandlers on his own doorstep.

For the wealthy and the powerful, there are always underlings ready and willing to ensure that their masters do not suffer the same indignities as ordinary mortals.

Such as the ones who sign up for Comcast TV, cable or Internet services.

STOP INSURANCE RIP-OFFS

In Bureaucracy, Business, Law, Law Enforcement, Social commentary on January 6, 2016 at 1:58 pm

An insurance company suspends your medical coverage for months—or longer.

You’ve faithfully paid all premiums for your medical insurance—and have the records to prove it. But the company doesn’t care.

Think it can’t happen to you?  It did to a couple I’ll call Diane and Mike.

Mike worked as a paralegal for a Los Angeles law firm. He was getting health insurance for himself and his wife, Diane, under a COBRA arrangement.

COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. It’s a Federal law that was passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan.

One of its provisions creates an insurance program giving some employees the ability to continue health insurance coverage after leaving employment.

But a COBRA can sometimes act the same way the deadly poisonous snake does—with unpredictable and lethal results for those depending on it.

In this case, after Mike left his law firm to work at another, he found the COBRA didn’t operate as it was supposed to.

A snafu developed, involving

  • the COBRA management company,
  • the hospital where Mike and Diane had long been patients, and
  • Mike’s former employer.

Each of these institutions blamed the other for failing to provide appropriate information.

So the insurance company suspended Mike and Diane’s health insurance–completely ignoring their medical needs.

Of course, for most people who have dealt with an insurance company, this won’t come as a surprise.  Insurance companies aren’t in business to do good. They’re in business to make money.

Then, one day, Diane called me on an unrelated matter. During the conversation, she let slip the suspension of her medical insurance.

I was stunned at the news–and outraged when she said this had been going on for six months.

At once, I offered my services as a troubleshooter. She accepted.

I decided to call the office of my State Assemblyman. In California, the 80 members of the Assembly serve two-year terms, and are limited to being elected three times.

The 40 members of the State Senate serve four-year terms, and can be elected twice.

Because they face re-election sooner, members of the Assembly must stay closely attuned to resolving their constituents’ problems. That’s why they employ staffers who are experts at navigating through the maze of State agencies.

California State Capitol Building

And State Senators make certain their offices are equally well-staffed with such experts. 

When I called my Assemblyman’s office, I didn’t ask to speak with him. I knew I was too politically unimportant to rate a direct chat at that level. And I didn’t need to talk with him, anyway.

I simply told the secretary that I wanted to speak with the office’s specialist on insurance.

California has an Insurance Commissioner who directs the state’s Department of Insurance. The mandate of this agency is to license, regulate and examine insurance companies.

Soon I was speaking with Frank, the Assemblyman’s expert on insurance matters. I quickly explained the problem my friends were having. And, to my surprise, I found that he and I hit it off right away.

Frank said he had a friend–Steve–who worked as an investigator for the Department of Insurance. Then he generously offered to put me through to him. I thankfully accepted.

Soon Steve and I quickly found ourselves getting along well. Then he asked me: “What’s your friend’s number?”

Diane hadn’t authorized me to give her number to anyone, but I decided to forward it. If Steve was that interested in examining their problem, I wasn’t going to throw a damper on his enthusiasm.

Soon Steve and Diane were discussing the situation.

The insurance company Mike and Diane were relying on was, like many such companies, registered in Florida.  But, in order to legally do business in California, it had to obey the laws of the State of California.

And California laws forbade exactly the sort of behavior this company was engaging in.

And shortly after that conversation, Diane’s insurance company got an unexpected call from the Insurance Commissioner’s office.

The message was simple–and blunt: Restore that coverage–now.

And, within 48 hours, it had been fully restored.

There are several important lessons to be learned here:

  • Maintain accurate records of all your premium payments. And keep them accessible–as in file folders, a safe deposit box or an online file.
  • Don’t let your insurance company victimize you. Once you’ve paid your premium, you’ve lived up to your part of the arrangement. Now it’s their obligation to provide the medical care you need.
  • Know the names, addresses and phone numbers of your representatives–at local, state and Federal levels. Websites such as http://www.govspot.com/ and http://www.capweb.net/ will instantly provide this information–and a great deal more.
  • Know the name, address and phone number of your state Insurance Commissioner.
  • If your elected representatives can’t or won’t assist you, complain to the news media. Start with the local newspapers and TV stations. If that doesn’t work, try the Internet.
  • If the agencies that are supposed to help consumers won’t aid you, make them part of your complaint to the media.
  • If you’re disabled and/or have children who are affected by the insurance cut-off, play up this angle in your contacts with public agencies and/or the media.
  • If all else fails, consider filing a lawsuit against the insurance company.

MOVING A BUREAUCRACY: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Self-Help on September 23, 2015 at 10:33 am

On Friday, September 23, 2005, my phone rang at 5 a.m. The caller was James McCoy, a White House liaison specialist.  He had gotten my message last night but had refrained from calling me until he had something to report.

Now he informed me that my request for military honors for my late father was being processed.

But he warned me that the records needed to secure an honor guard might not be available at the U.S. Military Records Center in St. Louis.

A 1973 fire had destroyed many of these records, and if my father’s was among them, it would take too long to “rebuild” a new one for him to get an honor guard within three days.

Later that morning I got a call from the National Personnel Records Center.

A woman named Connie asked me to type up and submit, via fax, a twice-signed statement declaring that, under penalty of perjury, the information I had provided about my father’s military service was true and correct.

Upon receipt of this, she would fax to the funeral home a copy of my father’s service number and Separation Document.

Shortly after faxing this off, I got a call from Ursula, another employee of the National Personnel Records Center.

She said that the above-mentioned items had been faxed to the Richard Pierce Funeral Service Chapel in Napa. All that I now had to do was arrange for the Chapel to make the arrangements with the military.

I called the Chapel around noon and was told that the documents had arrived, but that all of the home’s funeral directors were comforting grieving families.  I said I would call back later.

When I did, at about 1:45 p.m., I was told that the home’s director had been informed. Messages had been left with several military institutions, requesting an honor guard.

The question was: Would they call back in time?

So I called several numbers at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, finally reaching a chaplain at the Chaplain’s office.

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Travis Air Force Base

He promised to do what he could for me.  He warned me that it might not be possible to assemble an honor guard on such short notice.

The reason: This was hurricane season, and many soldiers had been deployed to the Gulf Coast area to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

His parting words were an expression of sorrow for my loss, and “God bless you.”

Next, I spoke with Jacob Bergholtz, a senior airman at Travis Air Force Base.  He promised to make some calls on my behalf.

He also gave me the number to the Army Honor Guard and I put in a call.

Finally, in late afternoon, I got a call from Tina Patterson, with the Army at Fort Lewis in Washington State, and she assured me that “it’s a go.”

The military has a proud tradition of honoring its dead. Those who have died in combat are held in a special reverence. But even those who have died in peacetime still command respect for having served their country.

It was that tradition that, above all else, I had counted on to make this possible.

I was so caught off-guard by the unexpected good news that at the end I thanked “Miss Lewis” for all her help, then corrected myself and thanked her again.

At about 1:40 p.m. on Sunday, September 25, 2005, the front door to the funeral home opened and in walked three men wearing green military uniforms.

One was a bugler, who held the rank of sergeant.  The second was a sergeant, who would take part in the actual flag-folding.  And the third was a sergeant-major, who wuld preside over the ceremony.  A fourth sergeant was scheduled to arrive, and he soon did.

At 2 p.m., the memorial service began.

When the tributes ended to my father ended, the funeral director introduced the honor guard.  The buglar remained in the back of the chapel, as the other three strode to the front.

The bugler launched into “Taps” and gave it a melancholy feel, letting each note linger.

When the last notes died away, the sergeant-major ordered the two other sergeants to unfold the tri-cornered American flag that had been placed on a stand at the front of the chapel even before the ceremony had started.

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A flag-folding ceremony

They did so, and then slowly re-folded it, in a process that took longer than I had imagined.

The flag folding ceremony now over, the sergeant-major accepted the flag, walked to my sister, Erica, leaned forward slightly, and presented it to her “on behalf of a grateful Nation and the Army” in recognition of the service of her father, Technical Sergeant Gerald A. White, for services to his country.

Erica accepted the flag, and I–sitting on her right side–saw her show emotion as she did so.

At 2:45 p.m., the four sergeants then strode out of the chapel, and the memorial service was over.

MOVING A BUREAUCRACY: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Self-Help on September 22, 2015 at 11:53 am

It’s widely assumed that bureaucracies are so cumbersome they simply cannot be managed–by their own members or by anyone else.

But this isn’t always true.

The key ingredients to obtaining what you need from a bureaucracy–whether a public or private one–are:

  • Patience;
  • Perseverence;
  • Professionalism; and
  • A wilingness to go to the top of the organization’s hierarchy.

On September 21, 2005, I learned that my father, Gerald White, had died at 83, less than a month short of his 84th birthday.

He had been an artist, photographer and art director, including work for Playboy in the 1950s and the Mondavi Winery in the 1980s and 90s.

During World War 11 he had been posted in the Pacific Theater, serving in Burma, China and India.  He had held the rank of technical sergeant and worked as an official U.S. Army photographer.

On Wednesday, September 21, my sister, Erica, called me to say that Jerry had died of natural causes in a nursing home at 1:57 a.m.

She was driving up on Saturday to pack up his belongings and to preside over a memorial service for him in Napa. I told her that, as a veteran (1942-1945) he was entitled to a military funeral, or at least an honor guard.

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World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I expected Erica to object–she tended to do that reflexively when I made a suggestion.  To my surprise, she didn’t, and she and I set out separately to explore the process of obtaining proof of his military service in time to qualify him for an honor guard.

But here we faced two problems:

  1. Neither of us had his Army serial number; and
  2. Neither of us had a copy of his Document of Separation, which all those leaving military service receive.  This lists all their ranks, postings and honors received.

Complicating matters still further: He had died on a Wednesday–and the memorial service was to be held that coming Sunday. That gave us only two days–Thursday and Friday–to try to arrange such honors.

Erica soon found the process a waste of time.  Calling the Veterans Administration (VA) she was told that there wouldn’t be time enough to get the paperwork approved.

I reached a different conclusion–after repeatedly getting only recorded messages when calling the VA. Even the office of my Congressman failed to get any closer to success than I had.

I decided that it might still be doable–but not through conventional channels. The next day, I would fall back on what has always been classic Standard Operating Procedure for me.

Tomorrow I wouldn’t waste any more time on going through regular channels.  Instead, I would create my own, starting at the very top–the White House.

The White House

I called the White House at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, September 22. I was quickly put through to the Military Office, which referred me to the office of the Army Chief of Staff.

This, in turn, referred me to the Human Resources Casualty Assistance Department. But this got me nowhere–I was urged to call the VA office in Napa and ask them to deal directly with the funeral home.

This would ensure that the required documents reached the mortuary within the next 12 days!

Reflexively, I found myself quoting a favorite line of my father’s: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”  The woman on the other end of the line wasn’t thrilled, but that was the least of my concerns.

Next, I called the U.S.National Personnel Records Center, where records are held for all current and former members of the armed services.

National Personnel Records Center

An official there was so empathetic that I took heart.  Only later did I blast myself for having failed to ask for her name or extension, so I could reach her again.  As the day wore on, I assumed this would prove a lost cause.

In the evening–Washington, D.C., time, that is–I again called the White House Military Office. A Marine gunnery sergeant said that someone was trying to process a records request, but he didn’t say specifically that it was my case being worked on.

He gave me the name of James McCoy, a White House liaison specialist, and I tried to reach him before 5 p.m. closing time at the White House.

Unfortunately, my call wasn’t returned, and, once again, I assumed the effort was almost certain to end in failure.

On Friday, September 23, my phone rang at 5 a.m. with word from the White House Military Office that my request was being processed.

The caller was McCoy, who had gotten my message last night but had refrained from calling me until he had something to report.

But there was a possible catch: I was warned that the records needed to secure an honor guard might not be available at the U.S. Military Records Center in St. Louis.

A 1973 fire had destroyed many of these records, and if my father’s was among them, it would take too long to “rebuild” a new one for him to get an honor guard within three days.

FIGHT AIRLINE ARROGANCE!

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on August 3, 2015 at 10:33 am

It’s the height of the summer vacation season.  A time when air travel–and airline arrogance–are at their annual height.

Consider the following real-life scenario:

  • You’re vacationing in Denver and must return to San Francisco for an urgent-care medical appointment
  • You’re disabled but nevertheless arrive at the airport on time.
  • The airport–in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act–doesn’t have anyone assigned to help disabled passengers get onto departing planes.
  • As a result, you arrive at the gate–just as the plane takes off.
  • The airline informs you that if you want to board a plane, you’ll have to pay for another ticket.
  • You can’t afford to buy another ticket–and your urgent-care appointment is tomorrow.

What do you do?

In this case, the stranded passenger–a friend of mine–called me: Bureaucracybuster.

First, I instinctively called the airline company. And that meant starting at the top–the president’s office.

I punched the name of the airline–and the words, “Board of Directors”–into Google. This gave me several websites to click on to obtain the information I needed.

I started dialing–and quickly hung up: I had just remembered the day was a Sunday. Nobody but cleaning crews would be occupying the airline’s executive offices that day.

I had to start all over.

Next, I decided to call Denver Airport and find an official who would help Rachel onto another flight–without charging her for it.

I didn’t know where to start, so I decided that starting anywhere was just fine. As I was routed from one person to another, I would develop a sense of who I needed to reach.

Some of those I reached seemed genuinely concerned with Rachel’s plight. Others gave me the “that’s-life-in-the-big-city” attitude.

One of the latter felt I wasn’t deferential enough in my tone. He threatened to notify the chief of airport security.

“Go ahead,” I said. “I once worked for the United States Attorney’s Office. I’ll be glad to talk with him.”

He backed off–just as I had assumed he would.

Usually the best way to deal with threats is to directly confront the person making them.

(A friend of mine, Richard St. Germain, spent part of his 11 years with the U.S. Marshals Service protecting Mafia witnesses.

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Witness being protected by deputy U.S. marshals

(Many of them didn’t like the places where they were to be relocated under new identities. “I’m going to complain to the Attorney General,” some of them would threaten.

(St. Germain would reach for his office phone, plant it before the witness, and say, “Call him. I’ll give you his number.”  The witness always backed off.)

Eventually I reached the Chief of Airport Operations.

I outlined what had happened. He didn’t seem very sympathetic. So I decided to transfer the problem from Rachel to the airport.

Without raising my voice, I said: “It isn’t her fault that your airport was in non-compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and she missed her flight because there wasn’t anyone to assist her.”

Suddenly his tone changed–and I could tell I had definitely reached him.

No doubt visions of federal investigations, private lawsuits and truly bad publicity for his airport flashed across his mind. And all this had been achieved without my making an overt threat of any kind.

He said he would see to it that she got onto another flight without having to buy a second ticket.

I called Rachel to give her the good news. But a few minutes later she called me back, almost in tears.

The airline official at the departure gate was giving her a bad time: “If we have to choose between you and another passenger who has a ticket for this flight, he’ll go, not you.”

She laid out a series of other scenarios under which Rachel would remain stranded in Denver.

So once again I called the Chief of Airport Operations: “I just got a call from Rachel. She’s being hassled by an official at the gate. Can you please send someone over there and put a stop to this nonsense?”

A few minutes later, I got another call from Rachel–this one totally upbeat. She said that a man who identified himself only as an airport official–but wearing an expensive suit–had visited her at the gate.

When the ticket-taking airline official had protested, he had cut her off. The official had then walked Rachel and her baggage onto an otherwise fully-loaded 777 jet bound for San Francisco.

Soon she was en route to San Francisco for her urgent-care medical appointment the next day.

Related image

So if you’re having troubles with an airline:

  • Start by calling the highest-ranking airline official you can reach.
  • You may be able to find this out by punching the name of the airline in Google
  • If the official isn’t available or sympathetic, call the airport.
  • Be persistent–but businesslike.
  • Don’t let yourself be bullied.
  • If you can cite a legal violation by the airline and/or airport, don’t hesitate to do so.
  • But don’t make overt threats: the official will get the message
  • Don’t hesitate to play for sympathy: “This is a woman has an urgent-care doctor’s appointment….”

Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.

FEAR WORKS: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Law, Self-Help, Social commentary on April 21, 2015 at 12:43 am

Ralph bought a computer security program from SUX.  But then he found he couldn’t download it.

So he contacted the company—whose customer service representative told him: You’ll have to buy another of our products to make the first one you bought work properly.

At that point, Ralph had had enough.

He sent SUX an email via its own website, outlining his problem and asking that the $60 charge on his credit card be removed.

Six days later, Ralph called his credit card company, to see if SUX was still charging him for an item he hadn’t received.

It was.

It was time to play Machiavellian hardball.

Ralph once again dialed SUX to speak to one of its customer service reps.

Calmly–but firmly–Ralph identified himself, then quickly summarized the problem he was having with the company.

Then he said:

“I suggest you contact someone in management and tell them this: I want this charge off my credit card in 24 hours.  If it isn’t, here’s what’s going to happen:

“One: I’m going to file a criminal complaint with the local office of the United States Attorney [Federal prosecutor] for fraud against your company.

“When a company does business in more than one state, that brings it under Federal jurisdiction.  And there are Federal penalties for charging people for products they didn’t receive.

“Two, I’m going to make this situation very well known on social media sites.  That’s going to cost you bigtime on future customers.

“Again, I’ll wait 24 hours.  Pass this on to your management.”

Then he hung up.

Slightly more than 24 hours later, Ralph got this email from SUX:

“Thank you for ordering from SUX.  At your request a return has been initiated.”

In short: The charge would be removed from his credit card.

There are several important lessons to be learned here.

First, before you call to complain, make sure the product isn’t working.

Read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter.

If you can’t understand the instructions, or if you feel you do and the product still isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, call the company.

Second, when you reach the customer service rep, be patient and polite.

At best, getting angry and offensive wastes valuable time which could be better spent outlining the problem you’re having.

At worst, the tech might hang up on you, which means you’ll have to go through the whole telephone-tree exercise again.

Third, explain precisely what has gone wrong.  If the tech gives you instructions on how to resolve the problem, follow them to the letter.

Fourth, if you’re sure you want to return the product, say so.

Find out the company’s preferred way to do this.

Fifth, if you’ve paid for it by credit card, state that you want the charge removed from your bill.

You may have to wait until the company receives the product before they take the charge off your bill.  To make sure they get it, send it signed-receipt-requested.

Sixth, wait five to ten days to see if your credit card has been charged. 

Ralph waited six, which is a reasonable number.

Seventh, if the problem hasn’t been resolved, call the company again and ask to speak to someone on its corporate headquarters—the higher up, the better.

You can often find out the names of the top executives of a company by checking its website.  Or by going to a business-rating website, such as that of Standard and Poor’s.

Eighth, be polite but businesslike as you outline your problem.

If you can’t outline it in one or two minutes, ask for an email address where you can send a detailed email.

Ninth, state clearly what you want the company to do for you.

Often, people get so angry at the frustration they’ve endured that they forget to say what action they want the company to take.

Tenth, if the company rep makes it clear they won’t take back the product, give you a substitute, or refund your purchase, it’s time to play hardball.

Eleventh, if you believe the law has been broken, say so. 

And say which agencies you intend to contact—such as the local District Attorney’s Office, Federal Trade Commission, United States Attorney or Federal Communications Commission.

Twelth, have at least one or two consumer complaint websites ready to cite—and contact.

A

Among these:

Businesses fear bad consumer reviews–especially on Yelp! and Facebook.

When I once visited a local animal shelter, a receptionist told me: “If you have a problem with something, please see me.  Don’t go home and post it on Yelp!

Thirteenth, tell the company official what action you intend to take unless your demands are met. 

Offer a deadline by when you expect that action to be taken.

Fourteenth, if that doesn’t prove enough, consider filing a private lawsuit.

FEAR WORKS: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Law, Self-Help, Social commentary on April 20, 2015 at 12:13 am

So you’ve just bought something online, with a credit card–and the item never arrives–or proves defective.

Even worse, the online company insists on charging your credit card for the item.

What to do?

Here’s what a friend of mine–Ralph–recently did when he faced just that problem.

One night, while surfing the Internet, he saw an ad for a new computer security product.  For him, its biggest selling point was: “Make yourself invisible to the bad guys with just one click.”

An even stronger selling point for him: The product was being offered by SUX, the company whose anti-virus software he had subscribed to for the last three years.

And, so far, he had never had any trouble with the company.

SUX offered several options for subscription:

  • One month
  • One year
  • Two years

Ralph decided that one month was too short, and two years were too long.  He chose a one-year subscription, intending to renew at the end of the year if he liked it.

He typed in his credit card number and clicked on “Download.”

Soon afterward, he received an Order Confirmation email from the company, outlining the product he had just purchased and the amount he had just paid for it.

He then got into the anti-virus security item on his desk.  A few clicks later a new screen popped up–and the message: “Disconnected.”

Even worse, the screen warned: “Your license has expired.  Renew now.”

The product he had just paid $60 to download hadn’t downloaded.

So Ralph called SUX–and explained to a technician what had happened.

And the tech responded: “We don’t offer phone support for that product.”

Nothing Ralph said could elicit the help he needed.  Furious at the man’s arrogance, Ralph hung up.

To avoid accidentally reaching the same worthless technician, Ralph decided to wait several hours before again calling SUX.

When he did, he reached a technician who was willing to provide help.  The tech said that he would like to run a remote scan on Ralph’s computer to try to find out what was causing the problem.

Ralph agreed.

For the next five minutes he could see his cursor moving around his screen, as the tech checked first one file, then another.

Finally, the tech said that Ralph needed to “clean out” his computer before the SUX product he bought would work properly.

“OK, how do I do that?” asked Ralph.

“You need to buy our BS2U product,” said the tech.

Now Ralph was really steamed.

He had just spent $60 on a product he couldn’t download.  And the tech was telling him he had to spend even more money on a second product to make the first product work properly.

Ralph then said he wanted to contact someone in an executive positon at SUX.  But the rep said he would have to call outside the United States to do this.

Ralph hung up, then got back onto his computer and onto the SUX website.  He drafted a short but detailed message on the problems he was facing with one of the company’s products.

And it ended:

“Frankly:

(1) I am UNABLE to make use of the product I paid $60 for; and

(2) I am UNWILLING to pay MORE MONEY FOR ANOTHER PRODUCT in hopes that this will enable me to use the one I just purchased.

“Therefore, I am requesting that the credit card transaction I had with your company on —- be canceled.  If it is not, I will dispute this via my credit card company when I receive my next statement.

“To enable you to quickly locate this transaction in your files, I am enclosing the Order Confirmation Number:  #———-.

“I am making a copy of this email, so I can establish, if necessary, that I have notified your company that I am NOT receiving the product I paid for.

“I have already contacted my credit card company and informed them that I will contest this charge if your company does not make good on this refund.”

Six days later, Ralph called his credit card company, to see if SUX was still charging him for an item he hadn’t received.

It was.

Luckily for Ralph, he had been a longtime student of Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of political science.

Niccolo Mchiavelli

In The Prince, his treatise on how to gain and hold political power, Machiavelli raises the question: Is it better to be loved or feared?

And he answers as follows:

The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved….

“Men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared.  

“For love is held by a chain of obligations which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

It was time to invoke the spirit of St. Niccolo.

“YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US”: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help, Social commentary on December 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

So you’ve spent the last half-hour or more on the phone, listening to one recorded message after another (and probably a symphony of bad music).

And you’re no closer to solving the problem that caused you to phone the company/agency in the first place.

What to do?

  • Go on the Net and look up the company’s/agency’s website.  Look for links to their Board of Directors.  Often enough you’ll get not only their names but their bios, phone numbers and even email addresses.
  • Start looking at the bottom of the website page.  Many companies/agencies put this information there–and usually in small print.
  • Look for the names of officials who can help you.  That means the ones at the top of the  company–or at least high enough so you can be sure that whoever responds to your call, letter and/or email has the necessary clout to address your problem.
  • If you call, don’t ask to speak directly with Mr. Big–that’s not going to happen.  Ask to speak with Mr. Big’s secretary, who is far more accessible.
  • Keep your tone civil, and try to make your call as brief as possible.  Don’t go into a lot of background about all the problems you’ve been having getting through to someone.
  • Give the gist and ask for a referral to someone who can help resolve your problem.
  • If the secretary needs more time to study the problem before referring you to someone else, be patient.  Answer any questions asked–such as your name, address, phone number and/or email.
  • State–specifically–what you want the company to do to resolve your problem.  If you want a refund or repairs for your product, say so.
  • Too many consumers don’t specify what they want the company to do–they’re so caught up in their rage and frustration that this completely escapes them. 
  • Be reasonable.  If you want a refund, then don’t ask for more money than you paid for the product.  If you want to return a product for an exchange, don’t expect the company to give you a new one with even more bells and whistles–unless you’re willing to pay the difference in price.
  • If you want an agency to investigate your complaint, don’t expect them to drop everything else and do so instantly.  Give them time to assess your information and that supplied by others.
  • It’s usually possible to get one agency to sit on another–if you can make a convincing case that it’s in that secondary agency’s best interests to do so.
  • For example: If you’ve been roughed up by local police for no good reason, you can file a complaint with that department–-and the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutor) to investigate.
  • That doesn’t guarantee they will resolve your problem.  But if you can show that the cops have violated several Federal civil rights laws, the odds are that someone will take a serious look at your complaint.
  • If a company/agency official has acted so outrageously that the company/agency might now be held liable for his actions, don’t be afraid to say so.
  • But don’t threaten to sue.  Just point out that the employee has acted in such a way as to jeopardize the company’s/agency’s profits and/or reputation for integrity/efficiency.  Make it clear that the organization is not well-served by such behavior.
  • Don’t try to win sympathy for yourself.  An agency/company doesn’t care about you.  It cares only about its profits and/or reputation.  So if you got a raw deal, but don’t have the means to threaten either, its top executives won’t lift a finger to help you.
  • If you can make it clear that the profits and/or reputation of the agency/business have been compromised by the actions of its employee(s), your letter/email will instantly catch the attention of Mr. Big.  Or one of Mr. Big’s assistants–who will likely take quick action to head off a lawsuit and/or bad publicity by trying to satisfy your request.
  • Give the CEO’s secretary at least one to two days to get back to you.  Remember: Resolving your problem isn’t the only task she needs to complete.
  • If you’re writing the CEO, make sure you use his full name and title–and that you spell both correctly. People don’t get to be CEOs without a huge sense of ego. Nothing will turn him off faster than your failing to get his name and title exactly right.
  • As in the case with his secretary, be brief–no more than a page and a half.  Outline the problem you’re having and at least some (though not necessarily all) of the steps you’re taken to get it resolved.
  • Then state what you want the company to do.  Again, be fair and reasonable.
  • If your main problem is simply getting through the phone system of the business, point out that most customers won’t put up with such rudeness and inefficiency. They will take their business elsewhere.

“YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US”: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help, Social commentary on December 14, 2014 at 9:08 pm

How many times have you called a government agency or company and instantly found yourself put on hold?

To add insult to injury, you usually wind up serenaded by recorded music that would be totally forgettable if it weren’t so unforgivably irritating.

And every 30 seconds or so a recorded voice comes on to assure you: “Your call is very important to us.”

Have you ever wondered:If my call is so important to you, why aren’t you answering it? 

The truth is that most companies and government agencies don’t want their employees speaking with the customers who make their existence a reality.

Having your questions answered by another human being requires the company/agency to assign–and pay–people to do just that.

Most hiring managers don’t want to hire any more people than they absolutely have to.  Assigning people to answer customers’ calls means that many of those calls will take time to answer, because some problems can’t be solved in a matter of seconds.

This is especially true when the problem involves technology.

(Technical support employees of computer/software companies are notorious for advising customers to “just put the Restore Disk back into your computer and restore it back to default.”

This wipes out your problem–and everything you’ve saved on your computer.  It also gets you off the phone quickly with Tech Support.)

To a bean-counting executive, time is money.  And that’s money that won’t be going into the pockets of some already overpaid CEO.

Even government agencies like police departments don’t want to spend any more time than necessary taking the calls of those who need to reach them.

Even calls to 911 can leave you talking to no one, with only a recorded message telling you to wait until someone deigns to speak with you.

That’s why many bureaucracies arrange that when you call for help, you’re fobbed off with a recorded message telling you to visit the company’s or agency’s website.

This assumes, of course, that

  1. You have a computer;
  2. If you do, you also have Internet access; and
  3. All the answers to life’s problems–including yours–can be found on that website.

If you

  • Don’t have a computer;
  • You have a computer but don’t have Internet access;
  • You do have Internet access but the service is down;
  • Can’t find the solution to your problem on the agency/company website

you’re flat out of luck.

And the agency/company couldn’t care less.

But it need not be this way.

Companies and agencies can treat their customers with respect for their time and need for help.

That’s why companies that genuinely seek to address the questions and concerns of their customers reap strong customer loyalty–and the profits that go with it.

One of these is LG, which produces mobile phones, TVs, audio/video appliances and computer products.

LG actually offers an 800 Customer Care number that’s good 24-hours a day.

Its call center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people who are willing to take the time to answer customer questions and guide them through the steps of setting up the appliances they’ve bought.

Another company that dares to have human beings stand behind its products–and explain how to use them–is The Sharper Image.

Recently, Dave, a friend of mine, bought an electronic alarm clock that allows you to wake up to a variety of exotic sounds–such as a thunderstorm, the seashore, chirping birds or foghorns.

A brochure on how to set the alarm and sounds came with the clock, but Dave couldn’t make sense of it.  Luckily, there was an 800 number given in the brochure for those who needed to be walked through the necessary steps.

Dave called The Sharper Image and quickly found himself connected with a friendly and knowledgeable customer care rep.  She clearly and patiently explained what he needed to do to choose which sounds he wanted to awaken to.

And then she just as patiently repeated that list of steps while he quickly typed them up for future use if he forgot what to do.

Such an approach to customer service is not new–just extremely rare these days.

In his 1970 bestselling primer on business management, Up the Organization, Robert Townsend offered the following advice to company CEOs: “Call yourself up.”

“When you’re off on a business trip or a vacation,” writes Townsend, “pretend you’re a customer.  Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help.  You’ll run into real horror shows.

“Don’t blow up and ask for name, rank and serial number–you’re trying to correct, not punish.  Just suggest to the manager (through channels, dummy) that he make a few test calls himself.”

So how do you cope with agencies/companies that don’t care enough to help their customers?

I’ll address that in my next column.

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