Only amateurs used to complain.
You know them: In-laws, downstairs neighbors, back-seat drivers, new ex-smokers, picky eaters and taxpayers on April 15.Now you can hire professionals. That's right. Someone to vent your venom. To defy, de-nounce and deprecate the bad guys. To carp and cajole, nag and bellyache. Purely on your behalf.
For $50 an hour, a couple in Somerville, Mass., will listen to your problems, survive phone-tree hell and endure an earful from a dour corporate drone. And thank you for the whole experience.
Gary and Sandy Rattigan run a company called Complain To Us. Its mission: To help consumers extract payback from companies that botch bills, wreck credit histories, screw up mail orders and sell defective wares.
The Rattigans are patient. They write letters. They write follow-up letters. They peck out e-mails. They work the phones - days, nights, weekends - in their climb up the customer-service food chain. And they come with a guarantee: They don't promise a resolution to your problem, but if they haven't complained to everyone who should be nagged, they will return your money.
Since opening for complaints in October, the Rattigans say, they have griped for more than 250 clients, at carmakers, airlines and insurance companies, to credit agencies, department stores and hospitals.
They claim a 65 percent success rate - refunds, apologies, or whatever else the customer failed to get by himself. That's impressive, considering that by the time people resort to the Rattigans they've probably already bombarded the company's customer-service reps with insults.
The Rattigans normally take no longer than two hours on a case because they follow their own best advice: No shouting; no swearing; no threats; and don't give up until you talk with a company president.
"It's easy to get angry," says Sandy, 39. "Most companies try to wear you down so you'll just go away. They make you jump through hoops before listening to you. They treat people like hound dogs."
Sandy knows the dog tricks: She's worked on the Dark Side 13 years as a hospital billing and collections manager.
"You've got to keep your cool, no matter what," says Gary, 40, an expert on historical objects. "When you get off the phone, punch or bite a pillow or something. And keep after these customer service people."
Complainer-for-hire may look a little odd on the resume, but it's not the only career for those aspiring to take the mundane out of other people's lives.
Strangers will do your grocery shopping, car-buying, cat-sitting and dog-walking. They'll shape your eyebrows, stand in line for you, talk to your plants, even change the rainbow-colored sand in your fish bowl once a week.
"Hiring complainers is the logical next step," says Anthony L. Liuzzo, a professor of business and economics at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "It's a sign of the stressful age we live in. Think about it: People don't have time to deal with their own problems any-more."
In the age of instant replay, instant coffee and instant gratification, technology has enabled corporations to reach larger and larger audiences. But the price is a huge loss of human contact.
"With all the mergers, businesses are getting too big to keep in touch with consumers," says Michael Robinson, a professor at Texas Christian University in Forth Worth who teaches a course in business and consumer psychology.
"The decision-makers are thinking profit only, not how their decisions affect people's lives. When profit becomes more important than people, we need to stop and wonder if the pendulum has swung too far."
And, the Rattigans say, gripe more. Complaining - from the Latin "complangere" for "to beat the breast" - is an art best left to the non-irritable, says Gary. "It pays to be sweet. These companies are experts in blowing off trouble makers."
One technique is to lob a caller from one anonymous customer rep to another. "They don't give out first names, and they NEVER tell you their last name," says Sandy. "Some of these companies let their reps make up names when talking to customers."
Cliff Hanger meets Sandy Beach.
"They also hang you up on phone trees," Gary says. "Sometimes you wait 10 minutes and go through a whole list of options just to find out that you can't talk to a human being. You think they'd let you know that right away."
Some phone trees have extra booby traps: computer voices that give instructions in Spanish; option keys that, when pressed, make the line go dead.
Worst of all is getting jettisoned into an electronic black hole known as "The Space," a line designated to ring and ring and ring.
Sandy tried to call the corporate office of AT&T Net World, an Internet provider, to make a complaint. Her client had been overcharged for a more expensive provider plan he claimed he hadn't ordered.
After getting the phone runaround, she was sent off into The Space.
"It rang 55 times," she recalls. "A Space record."
She called another number, got the president's e-mail address and managed to get a partial refund for her customer four days later.
"They're good - sort of like pit bulls," says Robert H. Reed, 53, an industrial engineer in Columbus, Ind. He spent hundreds of dollars on phone calls in a vain attempt to fix his credit rating - a $7,700 Mastercard and Chase card debt left by a New York man of the same name with a different middle initial.
For three months, Reed couldn't get a loan to pay lawyers for his divorce. "The credit card company and Chase would always switch me to someone else or ask me for my `debt account number.' How could I have a debt account number if I had no debt? Those creeps."
He found Complain To Us on an Internet Web site. The Rattigans solved his identity crisis on March 25.
"No one fights for the little guy," says Richard Hill, 27, a self-employed credit card processor in Deerfield, Fla. "All the Better Business Bureau does is tell you how NOT to get screwed again. Big deal."
The Rattigans went to bat for Hill in January against a cellular phone company that hit him with a $300 cancellation penalty when he changed the name on his account. After a blizzard of faxes and letters, the company returned the money. Later, the Rattigans coaxed Hill's car insurance company into paying a $500 claim.
But they won't grouse for just anyone. Like the woman who wanted Toyota to give her a new car because the vinyl seats of her four-year-old Corolla had a "funny, decaying smell." Or the man who broke up with his fiancee and wanted her to give back the $10,000 engagement ring.
And the 72-year-old man who wanted Complain To Us to get his wife of 30 years to put off the divorce proceedings and go on a cruise with him.
Oddly enough, the Rattigans are still waiting for their first public service complaint.
"Potholes in the road, garbage not picked up, street lights that don't work - we haven't gotten a single one," Sandy sighed. "Either the politicians are doing everything right, or no one out there thinks they can beat City Hall."