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Going to the Top

Andrew Forsythe

WE INCREASINGLY DO business with gigantic impersonal companies: banks, insurers, credit card issuers, cable and phone companies, utilities, and huge retailers like Amazon, Home Depot and Walmart. Often, we deal with them at a distance—by phone, mail, and especially online or via email.

When disputes or problems arise, we’re typically forced to contact their so-called customer service departments, which are often sorely lacking in service. Even before getting to a human, we have to run the gauntlet of an annoying robot, and once we have a human on the phone, the canned response tends to be, “Sorry, but our policy is….”

I’m not interested in what the usual policy is. What I want is to speak to somebody who has the power to ignore it. And what I’ve learned from many experiences over many years is the benefit of going to the top.

My eyes were first opened in the prehistoric early days of cellphones. I’d been convinced by my wife and teenage daughters that the latter each needed a cellphone “for emergencies.” This was way before “unlimited” plans. You were billed—and a goodly amount—per minute. It was hard enough dealing with all the “emergencies” that our dear girls racked up, but I also got hit with some big charges that I truly thought were a mistake.

After the usual frustrations trying to straighten things out with Verizon, I decided on a Hail Mary pass and made my first serious attempt to go to the top. I managed to find an email address for Verizon’s chief executive and sent a long, detailed (and courteous) message to him explaining the problem. To my surprise, shortly thereafter, I received a telephone call from an extremely nice man in the “executive escalations” department. Not only did he fix my problem, but also he invited me to keep his contact information and let him know of any future issues. He probably regretted that. I contacted him several times over the next few years, but he always graciously came to my aid.

This was a lesson I didn’t forget. In the ensuing years, I had similar experiences with Home Depot, Honda, Chase, Bank of America, Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum), our local water utility and many others. I wasn’t successful every time, but often enough I was and, on occasion, the results were head spinning. A few years ago, PayPal was driving me crazy with something. I found an email address for the chief operating officer. I sent him a message on a Saturday morning. Two hours later, he personally replied, offering to intervene. I gladly accepted. He assigned someone on his team to help me, and help me he did.

You’ll seldom get a reply from the chief executive or chief operating officer him or herself, of course. More often, it’s from a member of some type of executive escalation team. These folks tend to be pretty good. My guess is that it’s a plum assignment, and I’ve generally been impressed with the people from that group. In fact, the Bank of America team member I dealt with on a small matter was so good that now I ask for him by name—and usually get him.

Often, the hardest part of this whole process is kicking it off. You need a good email address for the brass. There are some websites that can help, such as this one, this one and this one. But often, the best method is simply to locate the corporate officers on the company website and then figure out the email structure the company uses, such as Bob.Smith@xyz.com. You may have to guess how the executive lists his or her name for email purposes. Is it Bob.Smith or Robert.Smith, or does the executive have a middle name or use an initial? One method is to send the same email to every possible variation. Some will bounce back, but the one that doesn’t probably got through.

Another key: Once you get through to someone in the executive suite, keep his or her contact information—forever. I prefer an email address because of the value of having a paper trail. If someone calls, I’m usually cheeky enough to ask for one. Recently, I emailed a gent in HP escalations, who had assisted me almost four years ago, and asked for his help with a current laptop issue. He had left HP, but another team member promptly responded. Even though my computer was three years out of warranty, I ended up with a generous gift card to use on my next one.

I likewise had kept the email address of the chief executive of our local PBS channel. When the sound and picture scrambled during a recent NewsHour, I shot him an email. To my surprise, I had an almost immediate reply—at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday—from him and from the engineer he’d assigned to the problem.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a world-class complainer. But there’s an important flip side: If a team member is helpful to me, especially if he or she goes above and beyond the call of duty, I make a habit of singing his or her praises to the higher ups in the organization. If I’m going to complain when something is done wrong, it’s only fair to praise and say “thank you” when something’s done right.

Andrew Forsythe retired in 2017 after almost four decades practicing criminal law in Austin, Texas, first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. His wife Rosalinda and he, along with their dogs, live outside Austin, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Their four kids are now grown, independent and successful. They’re also blessed with four beautiful grandkids. Andrew loves dogs, and enjoys collecting pocketknives and flashlights. Check out his earlier articles.

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