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I pride myself on being an effective complainer. But AT&T almost brought me to my knees.

The details are too convoluted (and boring) to dwell upon at length, but the short version is this: My home office phone number got swiped by another carrier. For three long weeks, AT&T promised, and repeatedly failed, to get my number back.

I spent hours with AT&T's call-center representatives in the Philippines, all of whom cheerfully assured me they could solve my problem. None actually did.

Social media came to my rescue. I finally blogged about the matter and sent a link to an AT&T media representative who deals with bloggers. At the same time, my blog post went out on Twitter. Shortly thereafter, I heard back from both the media rep and one of AT&T's Twitter specialists.

It took a few more days, but I got my number back.

Getting a problem fixed shouldn't be so hard, but that's life in this modern world. Corporations pour millions of dollars into advertising campaigns to lure new customers, then fumble the follow-throughs. Customer service doesn't directly create revenue, so too many companies tighten the purse strings and cheap out on the call centers that have to deal with people when the product or service malfunctions.

Some companies are even learning how to use social media to thwart, rather than help, complainers. Tweet or post about a problem, as I did, and their social media representatives will publicly apologize, promise to help -- only to do nothing. The idea is to shut up the complainer rather than solve the problem.

So how do you get a problem solved? You need to complain effectively and tenaciously follow through even when companies drop the ball. Here's how to do it:

Pick your battles. In many cases, you'll have to invest considerable time and effort to wring what you want out of a dysfunctional customer-service system. It may not be worth the stress. If you're on the fence, review your own role in the mess. Did you expect five-star service from a two-star hotel? Or order something from an online retailer without checking its reputation and return policies? Sometimes it makes more sense to chalk up a bad experience as a lesson learned and move on.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Know your rights. If the product or service involves a contract, warranty or guaranty, scour the fine print that came with it. You aren't required to limit yourself to the remedies prescribed in these documents, but you should at least know what the company promised. You also should find out who regulates the company, and whether you have additional consumer rights under federal or state law. If you're dealing with a collection agency, for example, you should check out the Federal Trade Commission's summary of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as well as your state's laws regarding collections. If you used a credit card for the transaction, you may have additional protections, such as extended warranties, and at the very least you'll have a third party that may be able to help you resolve a dispute.

Get a human. Serious customer-service problems can't be solved by computers, yet companies increasingly try to foist you off onto their automated systems because it saves them money. Many of these systems are poorly designed, and some are downright hostile. I recently ran into one of the latter -- a billing service for physicians called Consultants for Pathology and Laboratory Medical Services that hangs up on you if you dial "0" trying to connect to a human being. I had to call back several times and try different options until I hit on one that connected me to a person. Websites such as GetHuman can help you do an end run around bigger companies' customer-thwarting phone systems.

Be concise, clear and calm. The company may have ticked you off seven ways from Sunday, but enumerating each and every one of its faults will make you sound like a crank. So will overt displays of anger, including cursing, yelling and calling the rep names. Find your inner happy place, stay calm and get to the point. State precisely what the problem is and how you'd like it fixed. If you're writing an email or letter, use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation; if you can't manage that, ask a friend who's a good writer to do it for you. A communication filled with misspellings and typos is a lot easier to dismiss than one that looks as if it came from an educated person who appears reasonable and sufficiently intelligent to cause real trouble if not placated.

Enlist the rep. Call-center workers get yelled at -- a lot. Stand out by being nice, and you may well get better treatment. Sometimes just asking, "What would you do if you were in my situation?" is enough to trigger the reps' helper instincts, since you've appealed to them as the experts rather than treating them as part of the problem. But don't hesitate to move on if it becomes clear the rep is a powerless or incompetent drone -- just do so nicely. "I can tell you're doing everything you can to help me, but we're not making much progress. Is there another department that might be able to solve this?" I've found that asking for "another department" works better than asking for a supervisor, since many call-center workers get punished for turning too many calls over to their bosses.

Don't go straight to the top. Writing the company's CEO is often touted as an effective way to get a problem solved -- and at some companies, it may be the only way. Going over people's heads is going to tick them off, though, and that can be counterproductive if the head office turns out to be indifferent. So it makes better sense to work your way up the food chain, giving each level a chance to fix the problem before you move on to the next. I tend to get much more sympathy from people who can actually get things done if I've tried to resolve a problem through lower channels first.

Take good notes. Write down the names and call-back numbers, if possible, of each person you talk to about your problem. Make a note of the time of day, and keep track of any account, case or claim numbers you might need later. Better customer-service departments track each communication so you don't have to start at the beginning each time with your tale of woe, but many firms seem to be dealing with antiquated systems that don't communicate properly, or your last rep might not have entered the notes properly. Taking good notes also can help if you wind up taking the company to court.

Get important stuff in writing. Most problems can be handled over the phone, but there are times when you want your communications to be immortalized using paper and snail mail. If the matter involves a lot of money, legal issues, taxes or your credit report, put everything in writing, and send the letters certified mail, return receipt requested. If the company makes promises -- such as removing an erroneous entry in your credit report -- get those in writing, too, since these promises can shorten the credit repair process if the bogus entry shows up again.

Don't be shushed. As noted above, some companies are using their social media to try to shut people up rather than help them. That's long been the case with call centers that monitor how long reps spend on a call, which leads to workers who are far more eager to get you off the phone than they are to solve your problem. Once you're clear about what you want to happen, don't rest until you get the result you want or at least a reasonable proxy. The system is designed to beat you down until you give up and go away; if you're going to be a ninja, you must persevere.

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On the other hand . . .

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. If you let a dispute go to collections, you're the one who will ultimately pay. Collections can seriously damage your credit scores, and getting them removed can be an uphill battle. A better course, if things go this wrong, is to pay the disputed bill and then sue the company in small claims court.

Finally . . .

Lavish your business on companies with good reputations. If price is all you care about, you deserve the customer service you get. If you want decent help, look for companies that invest in systems that promote repeat business.

J.D. Power regularly singles out companies in various industries with above-average customer service (you can find the latest winners here). So does the National Retail Foundation, which co-sponsors a survey with American Express that interviews 9,200 people about which companies stand out for their customer service.

The federation's 2010 winners, in order, were:

  3. L.L. Bean
  5. Lands' End
  6. J.C. Penney
  7. Kohl's
  8. QVC
  9. Nordstrom
  10. Newegg

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.