Chatbots and hotlines: How best to register a complaint

For simple questions, like finding the right section on a company’s website, it’s often easiest to use the chatbot. However, experts recommend that you contact customer services directly with more complex issues. — dpa

BERLIN: Contacting and communicating with companies when you have a complaint is often anything but easy. Before being able to talk to an employee you usually have to make it past endless contact forms and chatbots, while helplines can leave you on seemingly endless hold.

“Complaints about customer services can be put into three categories: accessibility, quality, and documentation,” says Carola Elbrecht from the Federation of German Consumer Organisations.

The body recently conducted a study on the quality of customer services among different companies.

“There were companies that were difficult or impossible to reach,” Elbrecht says. “There was no response to emails and the telephone numbers that were provided led nowhere. Sometimes they used stalling tactics, with customer service saying they would take care of something and then nothing happened.”

Elbrecht advises documenting communication attempts with companies, for example by taking screenshots of chatbot conversations or noting down when you called a hotline.

Even if you’ve reached someone by phone, Elbrecht says it’s best to take notes during the conversation and have agreements or promises confirmed again by email, especially when it comes to contractual issues.

If the company fails to do that, "you should record the result of the conversation again yourself by email or even letter and send it to the contractual partner with a request for confirmation," the expert advises.

Different contact methods are suitable for different issues, according to Elbrecht. Even though it's often easiest to send a complaint via the company website, if it's a matter of getting help as quickly as possible, the expert recommends picking up the telephone.

If you need to meet a deadline, for example when cancelling a contract, it's better to play it safe and send a letter by registered mail.

According to Simone Vintz from Stiftung Warentest, a German consumer protection organization, people often put off ringing customer support hotlines because they fear being put on hold or fobbed off, but nevertheless, many problems are best solved in direct contact with an employee, the expert says.

Chatbots are best suited for help with simple questions, but when it comes to complicated issues, they are often completely overwhelmed and customers quickly become frustrated, according to Simone Vintz.

Companies run the risk of alienating and losing customers with poor chatbots, she says. This is especially true if the chatbots aren't of the learning kind, but rather have a fixed collection of predefined answers onboard.

Venting your anger at a company on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook sounds tempting and it can help to build up public pressure. However, it's something you should consider carefully.

"It would be more important for me that my problem is solved than that the company is properly denounced, and the individual problem will most likely not be solved by a post on Twitter," Vintz says.

Carola Elbrecht warns that pillorying campaigns could even backfire if a company sends a cease-and-desist letter to the social media platform.

"We've been told by consumers that companies have reacted rigorously to this kind of thing," she says. "These people were locked out of using the platform, comments were simply deleted, and one consumer even had his customer account deactivated at one point."

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