Listen, I want to cut my workload. So my first action in 2011 is to show you how to avoid problems or quickly solve any you have. You won't need The Watchdog.
My methods are free and take mere seconds. The trick is to remember to do them. Here are my five core principles of Watchdog Nation.
1. Check it out.
The single most important piece of advice. If you do your homework before you sign a contract, hire someone or buy something, you dramatically decrease the chance you'll find yourself in trouble.
Never miss a local story.
Always remember to take advantage of the greatest research tool ever: the Internet search box. Check the reputation of a company or person and look for any obvious problems through a quick online search.
In the search box, simply type an individual's name, the company's name or the product you are considering, along with the words rip-off and scam. Learn in seconds if angry customers can alert you to past problems. Why do I recommend those two words? When Americans get angry, those are the keywords they most often use to complain.
If you find a few negative comments, they could be from disgruntled customers with an ax to grind. But if there are hundreds, you found what you needed to know. If you don't have an Internet connection, contact your local librarian for help.
2. Hold customer service people accountable.
When you have a problem with a company, don't speak to nameless people in customer service on the other side of the world. They know who you are, so find out about them. On a blank sheet of paper -- your "power sheet" -- record the name, employee ID number and location of the person on the phone. Jot down the date and time of your call.
After getting this information, say the following: "Before I tell you my problem, I want to let you know as a courtesy that I am taping this call for customer-quality control."
They are already taping you. Now they believe you are taping them. Suddenly, it's an equal relationship.
You don't have to tape the call. Just the idea is good enough. But if you want, go ahead. Taping a call is legal in Texas.
3. Find the company's point of vulnerability.
If you have a problem, use a search engine to learn about how others are dealing with the same problem. You are not alone. Usually, someone else has already found and posted a possible solution that the company doesn't want you to know.
Usually, it's one of four possibilities:
A class action lawsuit you can join.
An attorney general in one of the 50 states who is investigating.
A regulatory agency in Texas looking into the problem.
A TV or newspaper reporter who has covered the problem.
Call the company and ask for a supervisor. Share with the supervisor the details of your power sheet (whom you previously spoke to and what they didn't do). Tell the supervisor you are taping the call because if he or she can't resolve your problem, you will take it to the regulator or TV reporter. In other words, serve up the company's point of vulnerability.
Supervisors can make problems go away. You just gave them the reason.
4. Ask a bunch of questions.
Americans are usually two questions shy of getting the information they need. Sometimes, out of embarrassment (we seem pushy), we stop asking questions too soon.
Ask two more questions and find out what the salesman isn't telling you. Penetrate the secrets, the fine print details, the good, the bad and the ugly.
5. Find their pressure point and squeeze.
The Watchdog doesn't believe that anyone should complain to a company with more than three phone calls or one letter. Your first two calls can go to customer service. Then comes the supervisor. If that fails, move on to the pressure point.
Nearly everyone we deal with today has to answer to somebody. Businesses are audited, licensed, regulated, inspected, certified, registered or approved by some state or federal agency.
In the pre-Internet days, you needed to know your way around a law library to figure out who regulated what. Now all you have to do is ask a search engine.
Example: Let's pretend a home warranty company won't fix something it's supposed to. A search shows that in Texas, these companies are regulated by the Texas Real Estate Commission. Every two years, the commission audits the financial records of each company and then renews its license. And hey, the commission also takes complaints.
Some companies are good at ignoring irate customers. Getting rid of a government overseer? Not so easy.
These principles are included in my book, Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong (watchdognation.com).
If you'd like The Watchdog to visit your community group in 2011 to share these lessons in detail, all you have to do is ask. My resolution for 2011 is to show you how to be your own watchdog.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043