Interview With Ron Burley, Customer Service Avenger

There’s only one leverage any consumer has with a company. And that’s financial.” So says Ron Burley, author of UNSCREWED: The Consumer’s Guide To Getting What You Paid For. I got to interview Ron Burley to plumb his brain about his customer satisfaction hacks, and the current state of affairs of customer service. His techniques are bold and make no apologies. We’re not talking letters, and forms, and complaint departments. These are real methods for real people that work real fast. He also goes into the mindset that you need to develop if you’re going to get results. Bookmark this post, it’s an epic barnburner. Transcript, inside…

POPKEN: Would you say that consumers and companies are at war?

BURLEY: Oh yes. The mentality of companies and customer service departments these days is definitely that customers are the opposition. And this is large part due to the new business model that I uncovered at the Harvard Business School. It’s called churn. It’s represented by the fact that the three largest cellphone companies in America last year had 1/3 of their customers leave. Each company, over 1/3 of their customers turned over. How can these be successful companies? So what these companies are looking for is the largest number of sheep possible. It’s astounding, isn’t it?

POPKEN: POPKEN: Definitely, it’s what we hear about all the time, and now we need some of the techniques that you describe in your book to be able to shift the balance. But before we get into those, I think it’s important to set up a preface of who your book is NOT for. Because there’s definitely certain situations and contexts…

BURLEY: I wrote the book for customers dealing with legitimate companies. This is not for scams. If somebody is the victim of a scam, a criminal scam, they need to go to their District Attorney. Because that’s illegal activity. What I’m trying to do is level the playing field between consumers and legitimate companies. Where they’re getting bad customer service, and, as you said, the subtitle of the book is Getting What You Paid For. And it’s not to shake down a company or get revenge or bankrupt a company because that’s not going to happen. It’s not even about getting a letter of apology. Because actually what’s a letter of apology worth from a corporation? I mean, it’s an entity licensed by the state. If you’ve been cheated on a $200 cellphone bill, get the $200 and get it quickly. And that’s what the techniques are designed to do. Level the playing field, show the consumer where their leverage is so that they can get what they paid, they can get their $200, they can get the product they paid for.

POPKEN: So where is the leverage, what is the fulcrum? Because the traditional advice that you might hear on the local news or in the “Consumer Corner” of the local newspaper is various things about “escalating,” asking for supervisors, finding out the regulatory agencies, etc, but it sounds like what you’re saying is there might be a different way of going about it, something swifter.

BURLEY: There’s only one leverage any consumer has with a company. And that’s financial. They don’t care about your personal story, they don’t care about the wedding photos that were missed, they care about the bottom line. And what consumers don’t realize is that they really have a lot more leverage on the bottom line if they exercise certain of their constitutionally protected powers. And it isn’t that they’re going to take away their business. And it isn’t that they’re going to take away the business of their family. Because corporations now are multinational. One consumer, 10 consumers, they don’t matter. But what we have, because of the information age, we have the leverage of hundreds of thousands of consumers, or even at the local level with just a little bit of effort. And this is the first story I tell in the book. Now I know that most people are not going to do this, but actually you don’t have to. And if you read the first true story in the book you realize I didn’t have to either.

POPKEN: I love that story. That’s my favorite story in the book.

BURLEY: This is when I wanted to go out and buy my first new car. And I was so excited about it, and I went to the car dealer and I got a good bargain, and I got the floor mats tossed in. It was a great bargain except that I went home and read the paper on Sunday and realized they had a sale on that car. It was $1200 less than what I paid. And so I went back and said, “You overcharged me.” And they said, “No, no, you didn’t bring in the ad.” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t say I have to bring in the ad, this is just an open sale. Why didn’t you give me the price?” They said, “I’m sorry, the contracts are done.”

Well, of course at that point I wasn’t sophisticated to realize that I had leverage and I went home and I stewed about it. Then I realized I did have some leverage. So I printed off a couple dozen fliers that said, “AKAMI motors doesn’t treat their customers fairly, cheats their customers.” And I put them in a folder, and I went back to the car dealer and put those folders on the desk of the sales manager and said, “Here is the equation. You can give me the $1200 that you owe me fairly.” And this is the thing, it has to be fair, you can’t shake down a company. But they rightfully owed me the $1200. Because they had advertised the car at the price. “You can give that to me or I can stand out in front of your car dealership for a handful of Saturdays. Now it’s not going to give me my $1200, but I’m certainly going to feel better because I’ve exercised my constitutionally protected right of free speech to tell my true story.” And you know that as a journalist we do have that right. Absolute protection against slander or libel is the truth.

POPKEN: What happened next?

BURLEY: I didn’t have to stand out there. That sales manager did the math in his head, simply, talked it over with his managers, came back and said, “Mr. Burley we’ll have a check ready for you in a few minutes.” Because he realized that if I were to stand out there and make one customer go away, just one customer, realized, or believed what I was telling him, and they went to a different dealership, it would have cost him more than just dealing with me. And the rest of the techniques in the book all leverage in one way or another the customer’s right of free speech telling their true story against the company’s desire to do business. And that’s why it has to work that way. But what it does is it does level the playing field.

When I was writing the book, one of my readers told a friend of his about the technique and she made some flyers. She’s a rather quiet second-grade teacher. She made the flyers and she put them in a manila folder and went to a car dealership that had been stonewalling her over a lemon. She bought a car and it was just a lemon and they wouldn’t let her do anything about it. Well she walked into that car dealership went up to the General Manager, and didn’t even have to pull out the flyers. She called me later, and just knowing that she had an option helped her find the words. She got satisfaction just knowing that she had an option.

POPKEN: That’s a great story because one of the things that some of my readers have talked about when I discuss your techniques, and what I have personally wondered, is how does the average person find the courage to stand up like that? There’s the force of the crowd and no one wants to stand out. Do you just have to get angry enough?

BURLEY: As you know, none of the techniques require anyone to scream or yell or spit at great distances. As a matter of fact, those are disqualifiers. There’s an old-school belief, yes, walking into the middle of a showroom and screaming at the top of your voice, “They cheated me!” These days that will get you escorted out by the security guard. A lot of the techniques in the book put a twist on the old techniques of being a squeaky wheel. Such as writing a letter. Writing a letter to the president of the company these days is not going to get you anything. They’ve got legions of people and the president of the company is never going to see that letter. But I have a letter-writing technique that’s called “Spokesperson For The Competition.” You don’t write a letter to the company that’s causing you a problem, you write a letter to the president of the company that is their number one competitor, telling your true story and offering to become their number one spokesperson, and giving them permission to give a copy of your letter to every one of their sales people. Now before you send that letter to the competitor, you send a copy of that letter to the president of the corporation that’s causing you a problem. And now they do the math. They say, ok, instead of losing just that one customer, our competitor is going to have evidence of just how poorly we treat our customers. And since we’re in a highly competitive business, and we’re trying to get those business accounts and fleet accounts or whatever, if every one of their sales people have evidence of how badly we treat our customers, how much business will we lose? You see what’s happened there, it’s the same technique, you’re writing one letter, but you have somehow multiplied the effect, because you’re not now one individual against the company that is causing you a problem. Using this technique of writing a letter to the competition, and offering to become a spokesperson for the competition, you’ve now multiplied your impact, your effect, a thousand fold? Ten-thousand fold? And suddenly, once again, it becomes more cost-effective for the company to take care of you than to ignore you. Which, initially, they thought it would be more advantageous to ignore you then to take care of you. It just turned it over and makes it a simple business equation on their part. They’re not admitting wrong because they’re never going to admit being wrong, it just becomes a business decision. Make this person go away because ignoring them is going to cost us more than taking care of them. That’s the consumer’s real leverage: when the company believes that it is going to cost them more to ignore you than to take care of you, you will get instant satisfaction. So, you don’t have to scream or yell, you just have to present the facts in such a way that that business equation becomes very apparent.

POPKEN: So what you’re basically describing is that consumers should stop thinking of themselves as consumer sheep, but they themselves should act like business entities.

BURLEY: Absolutely. We need to be mature, not screaming or yelling, realize that we really do have power. One of the most powerful things these days and a thing that even the most timid person can do is use the internet. sells everything in the world and you don’t have to have purchased anything from to have a consumer impact. I bought a photo printer from well-known photo-camera company whose name begins with a C. I’m not going to mention them. You can actually search online and find this though. They were selling this photo printer in the early 2000’s, but didn’t have a photo printer driver for Windows XP, which was the only PC operating system available on the market. So they were selling the photo printer right alongside Windows XP machines but they didn’t have a driver to make it compatible, and said they were never planning to. So you’re buying a brand new printer next to a brand new computer, but the printer won’t work with it, and never will. I thought that was absurd. Well, I didn’t have to do a spokesperson for the competition didn’t do anything except go to or any other of the online warehouse vendors, write a review of the product, it had instant impact, and corporations know this.

Now one of the things to remember is, don’t pull the trigger first. Once you write the review then all your leverage is gone. But what a consumer can do is write the company and say, “I’m going to tell my true story. I’m going to write that review on exactly how you treated me. All I’m asking for is what I paid for. I’m not trying to ask for four times that, I’m not trying to ask to be compensated for the time that I’ve spent on the project. But I’ve purchased a photo printer that is worthless. And you say you’re not going to have a driver for it. I don’t care if it was on sale. Because it doesn’t work.” And what that corporation will do is say, hm, we refund your $250, or, that review goes up, and how many customers do we lose? They’ll refund the $250. But if you put the review up first, your leverage is gone.

So, one of the things I do in the book is I give a step by step. Do this then this then this then this. Because, often, people will go pull the trigger first. Company is wounded, then come back and say, now I want my money. No, that’s not how it works. So leverage is upfront. They have to know, if we do this, then we won’t suffer that. And so you have to be patient. But most of these techniques work in just minutes.

I of course as an author I have a book agent. And, my agent likes the way I write and she can sell the book, but I’m not sure if she believes, do you know what I mean? Believes at the core. Well, until one day she calls me up, I’m on my way out of town. So I’m away from my house, it’s exactly 12 minutes from my house to the airport. She calls me up as I’m pulling out of my driveway, she says, I’ve got this $300 charge on my cellphone bill that I’ve been trying to fight for five months. I’ve been reluctant to call you because you’re my client but I really need your help. Can you take care of it? When I pulled into the parking lot of the airport, I got a call from the vice president of the company saying they’ve refunded the $300. What did I do in those 12 minutes?

POPKEN: 12 minutes? That’s how much time some people spend on hold just waiting to talk to a customer service rep in the first place.

BURLEY: This is the thing, don’t call customer service. Well, call them first. If you don’t get help in 5 minutes, hang up. I mean, in the middle of the music, hang up. You can increase the chances of getting customer service 400% just by changing the phone number you call. The next number you call is the sales department. Three things are going to happen. They’re going to pick up the phone right away. They want to make sales. Secondly, you’re going to be talking to an employee of the company you want to deal with. Because what happens with customer service these days of course is 50% of the time you’re talking to Rashneesh in Bangalore. He calls himself Frank but we know his name’s not Frank, it’s Rashneesh. And the third thing is that this person in the sales department is trained to make happy customers, not to make customers go away. If that doesn’t work, call investor relations. These are people that really understand the impact of negative publicity. They know how much their stockholders hate reading in magazines and the newspaper about their company mistreating anyone. And that’s what I did, I called investor relations of the cellphone company. And I said, hi, here’s the issue, and if we don’t get it resolved, I’m going to buy 100 shares of stock, and I’m going to show up at the stockholder meeting, and as is my due, walk up to that microphone and tell everyone at the meeting, and you know this one of the techniques in the book, Mr. Stockholder, tell every one at the meeting, exactly how she was treated. Now you know at those meetings they’re attended by analysts, and institutional investors, and not that I would actually fly to New York and attend a stockholder’s meeting, but if there was even the slightest chance that I would, imagine what goes through that investor relations person’s mind. Because if that stock price dips by even a nickel, they’ve lost millions of dollars of market capitalization. Talk about multiplier effect. Instead of a $300 cellphone dispute, if one institutional investor decides to sell off and that stock price drops even a little bit, suddenly that $300 turns into $30 million. You can hear her heels clicking as she runs down the hallway. That’s why it took only 12 minutes. Because of the leverage. That $300 wasn’t my agent threatening to take her business elsewhere. Because what happens with a cellphone company? They’re going to charge you $150 to do that anyway. The early termination fee.

POPKEN: They’re like, bring it on.

BURLEY: They’re not going to pay any attention to that. Yeah, okay, I’ll remain a customer. In fact, I’m going to become a stockholder, and I’m going to go to the stockholder’s meeting, and tell Mr. Big Hat that we shouldn’t be treating our customers this way! It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? Instead of running away from them, threatening to leave, run to them. It’s kind of like a domestic dispute, you know? In the middle of an argument with your spouse, you shouldn’t scream and yell, you should smile and say hi honey and walk towards her and give her a hug. It’s the last thing you want to do, and it’s the last thing you want to do with your cellphone company, or the big box store, is actually get closer. To actually get instant satisfaction that’s what you have to do.

POPKEN: Because if you’re actually going to leave then you’re worthless to them.

BURLEY: Exactly. But if you participate in the system, move closer, become a stockholder, get in their face, very nicely. If you never raise your voice, it’s actually far more intimidating. I call this being “Just a little bit Jack.” Like Jack Nicholson. He’s far more intimidating when he says, “Here’s Johnny.” Not screaming or yelling. When you say to someone, “You know what? I’m going to call up Delta airlines and get myself a ticket to New York. So I can come to the stockholder’s meeting. Because I really don’t think we should be treating our customers this way.” Hear the smile in my voice? But you know what? That’s scary as all get-out. If you sound just a little bit crazy, well, it’s actually fun. Try it sometime. Because if you put that smile in your voice because you know you’re right, you know your leverage. Just imagine actually going to that stockholder’s meeting. You get all dressed up you go on down to a nice New York restaurant and a show and go on down and kick some big corporation’s tail while you’re at it too.

POPKEN: Stroll on down and void your right to proxy and walk up to that microphone and tap it and ask “is this thing on?”

BURLEY: Just manifest that and think about how empowering that is. Because they’ve put up these walls to keep us out, but the reality is, they need us. We are the engine that fuels it, they’ve just forgotten. They’re kind of like kids. Teenagers. Teenagers rebel and they say, “I don’t need you.” Who do you think filled the refrigerator? Who’s gas are you using when you’re driving the car? We all know it’s fictional, a teenager rebelling, it’s not real, but it’s what they’re supposed to do. Corporations are kind of the same way. They push us away, they push us away, they don’t need us, but you know what, they really do. And we don’t have to have Consumers Unions, although those are great institutions for education. Each individual consumer using the techniques in this book can have that leverage, and one of the things that I’ve worked at very hard in the book is to make all of these things approachable, and to give a formula on how to select what you do.

One of the most wonderful techniques was given to me by a 75-year-old woman at one of my seminars. And she stood up in the middle of the seminar. A mic was passed around afterwards for a Q&A session. She said she got this blouse for her granddaughter for the holidays. And it was torn. The seam had burst. And so she walks it into the department store. And it’s the department store’s private label, okay? So there’s no question it was purchased there. And it’s still in the department store box. But she doesn’t have a receipt, not a gift receipt. She goes up to the counter. Of course, the woman behind the counter says, “I’m sorry without a receipt we can’t take it back, or give you a credit.” The woman says, “really?” The woman says “Yes, that’s our policy.” The best line I ever got, I wish I could take credit for it, a 75 year old woman looks straight across the counter and says, “Excuse me, but your internal policy decisions have nothing to do with my expectations of customer satisfaction.” And then she stands there and doesn’t move. The woman once again says, “Well I’m sorry, but that’s our policy!” And the woman doesn’t move she just stands there. The line of course is getting longer behind there. And the woman doesn’t move. And it’s like “it’s our policy” is this magic wand they’re supposed to wave at us and it’s supposed to make us disappear, like Harry Potter or something, or Bewitched. But no, the woman just stood there, the box in front of her, she said her piece and she wasn’t moving. She wasn’t being angry or anything. Eventually the clerk calls over the department head and the department head calls over the manager, and finally the manager says, “Can I help you?” And she tells her story. And the manager says, “Give her a refund.” Because he sees the line of people lining up behind her and that is to me the purest example of customer leverage. She just didn’t move. She didn’t have to scream or yell. She just stood her ground, realized that their policies did not have anything to do with what she could reasonably expect, and should expect, as customer service. And she waited until the right person got there.

If you’re on a customer service line you can keep escalating, and you want to be polite all the time, and if you’re right, if you’re correct, and use some of the techniques in that book, you will prevail every time. And quickly. This is the problem with going to court, or writing letters in general, is that it takes it weeks and weeks. I don’t know about you but I value my personal time. I don’t want to spend a lot of time fixing things that shouldn’t have been problems in the first place. The techniques are designed to work quickly and effectively and in such a way that even the meekest person can use them.

POPKEN: Also in the book you talk about how you should sit down and figure out how much your free time is worth. And then, sort of controversially, you should give up if after applying this effort you actually end up expending more money hours than what the refund or resolution that you’re looking for.

BURLEY: This is the hardest thing for most people. I will raise my hand when somebody asks, “Who has a justice streak a mile wide?” I hate this myself. I don’t like to give up, I don’t like to admit defeat, but we all know intuitively that you shouldn’t run around all day chasing 50 cents lost from a coke machine. It just isn’t worth your time. Is it worth running around town all day for $10? Maybe not. How about $20? $50? $100? At some point in there is a number where we would say, yeah that’s worth me taking my day off to chase. That’s the principle at work here. I’ve put some metrics to that to figure that out, to help people figure it out what is that decision. Because I value my free time. I figure my free time is worth twice what my work time is. The quick thumbnail is figure out what you get paid per hour, double it, and that’s how much your free time is worth. And this is why the techniques have to work quickly. If you get paid $30 an hour, your free time is worth $60 an hour. If you’re talking about a $100 dispute, you can pretty well figure out that if you have to spend more than 45 minutes resolving it, it isn’t worth your time. Which is why a lot of these techniques will work in 5 or 10 minutes with one phone call. If you reasonably project out that I lost 50 dollars and that I’m going to have to spend a couple of hours on this, for most people it isn’t worth the time. Just mentally I know that anything less than $100, if I can’t take care of it in one phone call, it’s not worth my time. Because really when it gets down to it, we don’t want to spend our evenings at home, waiting on voicemail, talking with customer service reps, when we could be, you know playing the guitar or playing with our kids, whatever we live for. Hopefully most of us work to live, not live to work, and quality of life means that we don’t get stressed out about these things, that we don’t let sour sense of justice and wanting to get revenge rule our lives. So putting a value on it, keeps that under control.

I bought this little Styrofoam hovercraft thing down at the mall last year. It was $20. It was one of these little kiosks in the mall that appear during the holidays. Only to find out that the one that they were demonstrating was the only one that worked. They knew these things were broken and bogus. It was a scam, it was a gypsy scam. They probably sold a couple thousand of these things, and they all had manufacturing defects. They also knew that nobody was going to open these things till Christmas, and the few that did, they gave them an instant refund. It was a newspaper story a couple of weeks later, thousands of these Styrofoam hovercrafts. People showed up at the mall, the kiosk was gone, and they were all faulty. Well that’s scam again. That’s a criminal enterprise. I paid my 20 bucks and I felt stung and my kid was really disappointed. But you know what? I went out and paid 40 dollars for one that worked. My kid was happy, I was a little lighter in the wallet, but I didn’t sit there and strew and stew and stew and ruin my day, and the hours I spend with my kids. I just said hey, that isn’t worth my time to chase these gypsies down wherever they are in the country, they disappear into the vapors somewhere. Too much time, too much effort. It would be impossible because they weren’t really a legitimate company. They had obviously set out to perpetuate a scam, and if the DA ever finds them and they ever have any of the money, then I’m sure I’ll get a check for 4 dollars. You can see that in this case, 20 dollars, it’s just not worth it, not worth my time, not worth my effort. It’s kind of like a bad girlfriend. It stings you, know, she treated you badly, it’s like one of those country songs. “She done me wrong.” Well get over it. And that’s the hardest lesson in the book, I think, is how to get over it. Because it’s not about getting that pound of flesh, it’s about getting what you paid for.

POPKEN: I have to wonder, these techniques, sound great and gratifying and immediate and the solution that a lot of people are looking for, but have there any been any situations where you or some of the people that you’ve coached have failed, has the Unscrewed method failed them?

BURLEY: The biggest trap is when somebody is a stupid business person. And stupid business decisions are made every day. When they don’t realize the business equation that you’ve laid in front of them. I had another incident that isn’t in the book with a mailbox company. They had canceled one of my business mailboxes and returned my mail. What had happened they had forgotten to put a slip in the box. It was their mistake, but they had my phone number and they could have called and I had been a customer for a half-dozen years. You would think that a 6 year customer would be worth a phone call before you cancel their box and return their mail,. Well that should have indicated something: this is a really poor business person. I went there, I did the whole unscrewed thing, “I’ll stand out front, I’ve got my flyers, I’m going to turn away business,” and he said “go right ahead.” Well, what I had to realize right then was this guy was a lousy businessman. He had demonstrated that initially, that he didn’t have enough sense to pick up the phone and call a customer of 6 years and make sure. He’s trying to get new customers all the time, he’s advertising in the Penny Saver newspaper, he’s got signs out, he papers cars in the parking lot with flyers, so he’s spending money to get new customers and he’s not protecting his old ones. And he’s got a bad attitude to boot. So this is where if he’s not willing to save his own company, if he can’t see the financial downside that you’re presenting him. But because this is a business equation, what it really turns out though is good news still for the consumer. You shouldn’t be doing business with this person. You don’t want to continue doing business with them. In the case of the mailbox company I realized that something was eventually going to happen here. I’m glad it was just this and that it wasn’t something worse. He didn’t mess with my outgoing mail, checks that were supposed to be paid or something like this. But in that case, since the unscrewed principles do depend on someone making wise business decisions, if you’re dealing with a totally idiotic company, sometimes they won’t work.

POPKEN: So that’s one, are there any others, maybe in the ways people approach it, they have the tools but then they sort of deliver it with the “wrong color,” shall we say?

BURLEY: Well, yeah, the thing is, well you get where you know in the book I present an analysis method. You’ve got to have your plan of action. Your unscrewed game plan. You know there’s the unscrewed principles and setting up the plan of action and pretty soon it becomes intuitive but the first few times you’re going to want to refer to the book and go through and figure out exactly what technique might work. But also we have to change our behavior, because most of us get really frustrated. We get angry. And if you slip, and I tell a story in the book about, well there’s actually two stories in the book where I lost. Two out of the sixteen. For example, and I included this to show hey, this is how you lose. One of them, I had made the mistake, I needed to get this priority insurance, and I was too busy, and I blew it off and I was trying to muscle someone into writing a policy with 4 hours notice so I could clench the deal, and I made the secretary cry. Well, her boss, the insurance agent, so valued his employees, that he refused to do business with me. And so instead of doing what I should have, saying, “I made the mistake, I really need your help,” I tried to be bombastic and say, “You need to help me! I’m a good customer!” The moment you start yelling, the moment you make it personal, you’re going to lose. Whether a small company or a big company. With a big company, they can hit the hang up button and they’ve got the perfect excuse to do it.

When I was talking to an airline, I was trying to save them money, had this half hour turnaround for an international flight, and I just knew because they were always late that I would miss it. So I said say, “Hey, we could come in a flight the earlier evening,” but they wanted to charge that change fee. And I said, “Hey, I’m saving YOU money.” And I could tell on the phone, just I could tell that the gentlemen at the other end of the phone was gay. Shouldn’t have mattered, shouldn’t have been anything. but I just knew it. So I was trying to be friendly, but I made it personal. I said, “Just imagine if you and your boyfriend…” Right then, I knew I had blown it. He lit up at me and said, “You shouldn’t be making assumptions or comments about my personal life blah blah blah!” Yep, I had made it personal. Now I wasn’t trying to be antagonistic. I was actually trying to make a good analogy, but still, I had broken that first rule. This is, as you said, consumers need to behave like companies. They don’t care about our personal lives, we can’t comment about their personal lives. You certainly cannot threaten a company, or the person at the other end of the line. That may actually be actionable. And remember, they’re taping everything, so never, ever threaten. The police may show up at your door. Particularly if you’re a man talking to a woman. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t know where they are, if you make a personal threat to do harm to the company or the customer service rep, they can take action, and sometimes will. It all depends on how personal you get. And of course swearing, name calling, it’s a disqualification, you’re never going to get anything. You get blackballed, that note, they’ve all got records on us. We want them to because we want them to remember. “Well I called 6 months ago.” We’re really pleased when they have that record, oh yes I see you called. The downside is if you get personal, they’re going to have that record.

POPKEN: The last rep will have notes on the account that this guy is crazy.

BURLEY: Exactly. This is a crazy person. If you ever blow it like that, I would say cancel whatever account you have with that company and go to another one. Because you’re not going to ever get good customer service. Because yes, it’s in the record. They remember and they remember a long time. So if you blow it, move on. But that’s the thing, it takes a little while to remember this, and a little bit of patience, but you’re not going to have to hang on the phone for 45 minutes or an hour, you’re not going to have to write letters and wait weeks for an “I’m a sorry we’ve reviewed your account and we’re still billing you anyway” letter. Because you can get satisfaction if you just understand the principles and implement them following a few basic rules. It will work better than 90% of the time.

POPKEN: Powerful words. Excellent. Thank you very much Mr. Burley. We’ve learned about how important is the fastest and not necessarily the nicest, and how to think like a business, and how to get what we want out of consumer relationships, and resolve our consumer complaints with minimum effort, blood, and tears. I hope that our readers can learn from some of the things that you’ve described and help and lead happier lives, because that’s kind of what it’s all about.

BURLEY: It really is. Saving up free time. Getting satisfaction. Feeling empowered. Because a lot of us feel that we’ve lost control of that relationship. The corner hardware store is no longer the corner hardware store, the corner deli is now a Boston market. We want to have those personal relationships, we want to feel that we get product or service of high quality for the money we have hard earned. And we can, if we just know how.

POPKEN: And where can people go to learn more about your book?

BURLEY: UNSCREWED: The Consumers Guide To Getting What You Paid For is available at all the online bookstores also at Barnes and Noble and Borders and also most neighborhood bookstores. It’s from 10 speed press. You can also go to if they want to know more about me and what I’m doing, they can go to

We’ve also done a few posts based on the material from Ron’s book:


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cowboys_fan says:

    I worked for t-mobile and their ideals on churn were it costs $200 to maintain a customer, but over $600 to gain a new one…idk where this guy thinks it costs only $4. Maybe $4 in marketing, and $596 in advertising! He is wrong right off the hop so I won’t read the rest.

  2. Corydon says:

    Interesting conversation.

    However, in light of the diminishing returns of the EECB (noted with respect to Dell, although I’m sure a lot of other companies are starting to do similar things), I wonder how successful these tactics would be if everybody started using them willy-nilly.

    I also think the numbers that are given for the costs of attracting vs. retaining customers up front are a bit off.

    To take a favorite example around here, Comcast, it costs them a lot more than $4 to attract new customers when you compare the promotional rates for their triple play to their “standard” rates. And that’s not factoring in marketing expenses, commissions for sales people, etc., etc.

    Not everyone uses the same business model as Comcast obviously, but even down in the middle of the conversation where Burley talks about his experience with the mailbox place, he goes out of his way to talk about how much effort they put into attracting new customers (advertising, signs, flyers) and how little effort (probably a 5 minute phone call) it would have taken to retain him.

    The real message to corporate America is that customer service should not be treated as a drain on profits but recognized as an important tool for retaining high value customers. Right now, customer service is usually treated as an expense to be reduced and/or eliminated in any way possible.

  3. Wimpkins says:

    Amazing…sounds like a good read.

  4. moore850 says:

    The summary indicates that while there are some good ideas there, also this should be common sense to a lot of people, especially the part about ‘how much is this worth to me?’ I am amazed that people will spend thousands of dollars’ worth of their time to dispute a 50 dollar charge. With all that time, they could’ve picked up a part-time job or something and earned hundreds upon hundreds of dollars… enough to repurchase a much better product or service.

  5. brew400 says:

    thanks for the tips… no need for the book now

  6. MickeyMoo says:

    RE: “worth your time” sometimes the feeling of vindication is priceless and worth the pursuit, sometimes not.

    Generally interesting article – but I could have done without the unnecessary (and kinda douchy) comments about Indians, Gypsies, and the gays.

  7. RyanC0989 says:

    Here’s my problem with the tactics and the interview in general. Essentially Mr. Burley’s tactics involve the company in question buying his silence. “In exchange for my money no one else hears about this,” which is fine for the consumer but it doesn’t help the next person in line who gets tricked by the same scam. A consumer has every right to get what is theirs, but I think there is a bit of social responsibility to alert people regardless of your outcome.

  8. EmperorOfCanada says:

    This guy made a secretary cry, yells at people. He sounds like a bit of an A**hat. Might make for an interesting read though. And hey if the book sucks you can demand a refund using the techniques!

  9. SacredByte says:

    I like traffic lights.

  10. Great read!

  11. A.W.E.S.O.M.-O says:

    Only a 75 year old woman could pull off that holding-up-the-line trick. If a 25 year old guy tried to do it, they’d call security on him.

    Life’s great when you’re a 75 year old woman, you can even smash up Comcast’s office with a hammer and you’re a hero. Not that they don’t deserve it, but if I did that, I’d get thrown in the slammer and people would say I play too many violent video games.

  12. gmark2000 says:

    Sure sounds like he’s shilling his book, first and foremost.

  13. This is a great interview, the best I’ve read in awhile. Thanks, ‘ist.

  14. radio1 says:


    I really like the way he advises *thinking* about your gameplan first, and then implementing it. I also like how he emphasized that you must be right, and not try to break the bank…

  15. Black Bellamy says:

    This is probably the best thing I have read on this site. Besides my own insightful comments that is.

  16. cparmele says:

    Is it ok to talk about the other side of this coin? What about the companies out there who are doing it right by new and exisiting customers, but getting reamed anyway?

    I feel like this type of idea teaches people to expect bad service wherever they go. And if you go in expecting sub-par business then most likely you’ll receive it.

  17. heavylee-again says:

    Assuming the article’s author transcribed Burley’s words exactly, I hope he writes better than he speaks. I found his responses difficult to read, choppy and not very cohesive (again, assuming the article’s author trascribed Burley’s words verbatim).

  18. picardia says:

    @cparmele: Generally speaking, the good people DON’T get reamed anyway, save by the nutbag faction that no amount of reason can do away with.

    Then again, we can never forget the poor, martyred corporations who suffer so nobly to charge us double for March’s cable bill or what the hell ever.

  19. @EmperorOfCanada: “This guy made a secretary cry”

    Oh, honestly, who HASN’T made somebody cry at some point in their life in a business setting? Even I’ve managed it, and I fear interpersonal conflict. As long as he feels bad about it and doesn’t make a habit of it, I don’t think it’s worth crucifying someone over.

    (Although good on the company for refusing to do business with him — love to see more bosses value their employees that much.)

  20. yesteryear says:

    man. being disgruntled is like it’s own cottage industry now.

  21. shan6 says:

    @gmark2000: Yeah, he is advertising his book, but who can blame him? It is the same as an actor going on Jay Leno to push their new movie. Seems like he has some pretty good tips, some I have thought of, most I probably haven’t. The key here is to do everything you can to never need to use them though.

  22. Jim says:

    I’ll be at my local library tonight checking this book out. How’s that for leverage Amazon?!?!?!

    Seriously, I dig the “Spokesperson for the Competition” angle. I never thought of that. I wonder how a bunch of my Sprint stories would be handled by Verizon – maybe I could be the Jared of cell phones or something – or at least get free text messaging maybe.

  23. rjhiggins says:

    @gmark2000: Not sure what your point is. That’s what people do when they write books (or make movies, etc.). They do interviews with newspapers and magazines, go on talk shows, and so forth. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn something in the process.

  24. RhymePhile says:

    And I could tell on the phone, just I could tell that the gentlemen at the other end of the phone was gay.

    So along with his talents for dealing with companies, his superpowers also include deducing someone’s sexual orientation over the phone?

    I think I’ll walk outside my local Barnes & Noble and hand out flyers that tell people not to buy his book, because “just I could tell” that he’s an idiot.

  25. Nylo says:

    I hate it when writers start a sentence with the word, “And.” Just a peeve of mine.

  26. cparmele says:

    @picardia: I’m just sayin, not all of the companies out there are douchy. Lumping them together and starting out in a confrontive manner doesn’t do anyone any good.

    I’ve had to deal with my share of idiots in customer service, but I don’t have the expectation that they’re all idiots.

    Totally agree on the nutbag contingency.

  27. BugMeNot2 says:


    And it’s a good peeve to have. Hey, since this guy is allowed to judge people on how they sound on the phone, can I judge by how he looks in his pic? I bet he’s the guy that calls everyone ‘shooter’ or ‘sport’ and tries to give advice, even when it’s not wanted or has been declined.

  28. KJones says:

    One golden rule of getting satisfaction is, “Can I get in their face?” I don’t mean threats, I mean, can they rip you off and get away with ignoring you? The farther you are away from them physically, the greater the chance of them trying to commit fraud.

    I live in a large city with many corporate regional offices, so I don’t waste time with “customer service”. If they screw up, I go into their building and talk to them directly, and it gets the job done.

    This is why I’ve said elsewhere to buy locally when you’re in a small town: big corporations will try to ignore you, but the local store can’t ignore you because they can’t afford to.

  29. SarcasticDwarf says:

    Effectively he is saying that what people need to do is threaten the current and future business of a company by making a scene. This is all well and good, but much like the EECB it is far too often abused. The whole “make a scene” idea has been around for ages and most employers are used to it. Yes, the 75 year old woman did not get thrown out, but as another poster noted, and 25 year old guy would be. Certain tactics such as using the investor angle can work better in many cases, but most of the time the other methods only work if you are a complete and utter jerk and stoop to the level of Comcast.

  30. Dont Know Me? You Are Me. says:

    @RhymePhile: Yeah, he does sound like a bit of an ignorant bigot, but you should also have a look at The Science of Gaydar. Fascinating topic.

  31. Hateshopping says:

    A couple years ago I had unbelievable problems with Bell moving a business number (they assigned us new numbers and didn’t tell us and cancelled our old ones–the number we’d had for 15 years in business and had told us could be moved to our new location). You can imagine I wasn’t happy since it took the entire day of the cutover wondering when the line would be live). Did I say wasn’t happy? I meant livid, steaming, over the top, how can they be so fricking stupid rage. When I called Bell, the first thing out of my mouth in a quiet, calm voice was, “I want to talk to you about a problem with our business lines and want you to know upfront that I’m very angry. I know this isn’t your fault, but I hope you can resolve this for me”. The CR laughed nervously and listened to me explain what happened then offered to have a supervisor call back. I told her I would be happy to hold, and she came back and said a Manager now (not a supervisor) would call back or email within the hour. I told her no thank you, I’d be happy to hold no matter how long it took. Next thing I know, I’m talking to a Manager who tried to tell me they couldn’t change things that we’d just have to reprint our newly reprinted stationery with the new phone number and tell all our customers the new phone number etc etc. I told her that was unacceptable and had been told the numbers could be moved, and they were going to move them (port them to the new location, is the telephone company lingo which I used on them) and I would wait on hold until she confirmed it was done. By now I’ve been on the phone for 1.5 hours with Bell. Another 30 minutes while the Manager went off to do whatever, and came back and advised it was done. We’d have our numbers back online within the hour and were sending a tech over to the building to do the hard wiring.

  32. ChuckECheese says:

    @RhymePhile: That’s hilarious. Maybe the CSR had sistervoice. @MickeyMoo: Once at church they made us sing this horrid song, “Valley Song,” by Jars of Clay. It makes some gratuitous comment about gypsies stealing stuff. I turned to the old lady standing next to me and whisper-quoted from Strangers with Candy, “Dirty thieving gypsies!” She laughed so hard she had to leave. I quit going to that church. This guy sounds like a self-promoting sub-clinical bigot.

  33. up2late says:

    The old adage “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” seems to apply pretty well here. When dealing with CSR’s, especially over the phone, I make every effort to be polite and reasonable, and I also make it a *little* bit personal – that is, I’ll try to inject a bit of humor into the conversation to get the person on the other end to laugh a little bit and put them on my side, kind of a “what would you do if you were me?” tone.

    More often than not, if you are engaging and entertaining and treat them like an actual human being, they’ll do everything in their power to help get the situation resolved in your favor.

    Fortunately I’ve had few situations where I’ve felt the need to threaten to stand in front of the business handing out fliers.

  34. g76monte says:

    thing is … gypsies are dirty and thieving, and the teach their kids to lie, cheat, and steal. anything they can get away with. ‘gypsie’ isn’t describing a race, it’s a state of mind, albeit a effed up one.

  35. ChuckECheese says:

    @g76monte: That’s like saying Mexican is a state of mind. ¡Viva la raza!

  36. Spaceboy says:

    Yahoo local reviews=force multipliers

  37. scoosdad says:

    @Nylo: And your point is?

  38. foofoo2 says:

    Just for clarity, if you threaten to take an issue public unless they make restitution, it isn’t blackmail?

    I’ve poked around a bit and it seems that if they legitimately owe you the money, it’s not blackmail, but I’m not sure.

    Anyone got any references?

  39. foofoo2 says:

    If you threaten to take an issue public if they don’t make restitution, isn’t that blackmail?

  40. cerbie says:

    @knave77: you know you’ve been on the ‘net too much when you spend seconds looking at a link like that…your comment is classic Rick-Roll form…

    IMO, it reads like he’s not trying to be PC. Current genuine Gypsies still have a quality reputation for minor crimes (every time the word comes up anywhere with Irish readers about, you get pages full); and, it’s not like he was working to offend the guy on the phone, he just didn’t think about that being a hot button.

    I’m not saying he seems like a really soft nice guy, but hey, a guy managing his finances OK isn’t going become a publicly known financial adviser and consumer advocate…the guy who buys two cheeseburgers and puts the patties together to save a dime will (Clark Howard anecdote, FYI).

  41. Cliff_Donner says:

    OK, I have not read this book, only this blog and its accompanying posts. Burley’s advice does not seem so crazy to me. But here’s my situation:

    I am involved in a major contract dispute with a company that provided cabinets to my wholly-newly-renovated-1950s home. The cabinet company failed to meet both the design specifications and performance specifications in ROOM after ROOM of cabinetry, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think the threat of the negative publicity I could engender should be enough to get them to back off in collecting the less-than-10% balance that is supposedly “owed” on this contract. Yet, it’s not — they don’t seem to get it. I think this may very well be a case that Burley references, where the company is just too freakin’ stupid to make a prudent business decision. At the very least, I want to leave a very frank Angie’s List report. Yet, my attorney is advising me that warning this vendor about “negative publicity” (“threatening”) would not be looked upon favorably by the judge in what seems to inevitably be an upcoming court case. She’s advising I don’t do it, for that reason.

    My other question: In the situation where Burley had a conflict with the cancelled mailbox, when he threatened to stand out front with his flyers and was blown off, did he actually follow through and stand out front with his flyers? It doesn’t sound like he followed through. Maybe he was blown off because he “projected” his lack of conviction? Maybe the clerk called his bluff — and if he didn’t follow through, it WAS a bluff.