How to profit from persistence

I will never be an Olympic champion, an opera singer or a crack poker player. I just don't have the skills.

But I am a world-class complainer.

I kvetch, moan and gripe with the best of them — and I am surprisingly effective.

I am the person who politely sends back the steak that was ordered rare and delivered well-done. I call the credit card company when their statement is late and they charge us interest and a penalty as a result. I send back defective mail-order items, and I insist on getting an actual refund — not vouchers for money off future flights — when the airline mistakenly charges us for checking our bags.

I don’t do it by yelling or screaming or by saying nasty things to innocent customer service representatives. I succeed through strategies that anyone can use.

Step 1. Be clearly in the right.

If the steak is just a little more done than you like it, eat up. No one takes pity on a person who makes a big fuss about not much. When PayPal quotes you a transaction charge of $50 and then charges you $150, on the other hand, you have a case.

When the situation permits, it can be helpful to research the laws around whatever problem you're confronting. Federal law, for instance, forbids expiration dates on most gift cards that are less than five years from the purchase date. Federal laws also govern compensation for passengers who are bumped from their flights.

The rules tell companies what they must do for you, at a minimum. You're always free to negotiate for more.

Step 2. Make allies, not enemies.

When you're pleasant and polite, people want to help you. When you curse, make unrelated accusations or call the customer service person ugly names, people want to get rid of you.

Do not complain about things that are simply different than what you're used to. Assume the person you're talking to wants to help.

Further, explain your problem clearly and concisely. Rambling isn't helpful.

Step 3. Let the most conventional, middle-aged person in your party do the complaining.

I'm amazed by the difference between how companies treated me in my 20s and how they treat me in my 40s. Older people get better service because we're assumed to have more money. Heterosexual, light-skinned, well-dressed and conventionally attractive people sometimes also get a disproportionate amount of cooperation in this world. It's not fair.

If solving the issue at hand is your priority, do not make an issue of the other person's bias. Keep the focus on the problem. If the situation lends itself to email or telephone communication, use it. On the Internet, no one knows that you're a cat.

Step 4. Own your part of the problem.

Other people are more likely to help when you let them save face. Acknowledge the possibility that you didn’t speak very clearly when you ordered your drink.

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Step 5. Know what you want, but be reasonable.

Don't just tell the seller about the problem. Tell that person what will make the problem go away. The steak arrived overdone? You want a new, properly cooked steak. No one wants to guess at what will make you happy, and no one is going to give you the waiter's head on a platter, no matter how much the waiter deserves that demise.

Step 6. Be willing to compromise, particularly if you helped create the issue.

I recently returned some shirts that didn't fit, but I waited until after the company's 30-day return window to do it. The compromise: They took the shirts back but charged me a small restocking fee. I can live with that.

Step 7. Don't take sympathy as payment.

Customer service representatives are trained to handle unhappy customers in part by sincerely, deeply regretting the problem. Thank the representative for the good wishes and continue to politely insist the company fix the issue.

Step 8. It's company policy, until it isn't.

You'll hear that whoever answers the telephone or email is powerless to help you or that it is "company policy" to do this, that, or the other. These things may or may not be true.

Here is something that is always true: There is someone at the company who has the power to give you what you want, as long as you have a good case and are not asking for the moon. Sometimes that person is a supervisor; sometimes she or he has a different title.

Ask to speak with that person. Repeat if necessary.

Step 9. Politely persist.

No, you probably shouldn't spend three weeks of your life picketing the Delta ticket counter. Still, reaching a satisfactory resolution often takes more than a minute. Junior people have to get solutions OK'd by senior people. Don't give up when someone says they can't help you. Someone can help you. You just have to find that person and make your case.