Recently, I bought an electric lawnmower at the local big-box store. Unfortunately, it was dead on arrival, and let's just say I wasn't blown away by the manufacturer's customer service department. So, after a few hours of frustration, I sent an email to the CEO of the multibillion-dollar company explaining briefly what had happened.

The result? A day or two later, I was on the phone with the vice president of product development. He wound up sending me a few hundred dollars' worth of free lawn equipment, and assured me he was changing a policy in the company's customer service department as a result of my experience.

Maybe I'm just a persuasive guy, but I have to credit a strategy I call the Jeff Bezos question-mark method, based on a story in Brad Stone's book The Everything Store about how Bezos sometimes reacts when he receives customer complaint emails at Amazon.

I'm a huge fan of this strategy. (You can read more about how to put it into practice here.) I've also compiled dozens of examples of ordinary customers who employed it--or at least a similar strategy--with great results, by taking their complaints directly to the CEOs of the world's biggest companies.

Here are 11 of the best examples, gathered from my own interviews and supplemented by a discussion thread on Quora. They're organized by company and by the CEO at the time.

1. Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple

Years ago, Aaron Booker writes, he bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro and a 22-inch monitor, and was surprised to realize he wasn't eligible for a discount on AppleCare that would have applied if he'd bought another, similarly priced computer. So Booker wrote "a very brief email" directly to Steve Jobs (then: sjobs@apple.com) and got a three-word response from the legendary CEO: "We'll fix this."

"The next day I got a call from one of Steve's assistants," Booker writes. "Problem solved."

2. Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America

Christian Brown says his credit score dropped 100 points after he forgot to pay his BofA credit card bill two months in a row. (Longer explanation here.) He found the address for CEO Brian Moynihan and wrote a plaintive email.

Two days later, he writes, an assistant to the CEO called; three days after that, his credit score was restored.

3. Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota

The warranty on Webin Manzana's 2008 Toyota Camry had long since lapsed, but he noticed the dashboard had begun melting under the hot Philippine sun, so he faxed a letter directly to the CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda.

"The next day," he writes, "I received a call from Toyota Motors Philippines, and had my Camry picked up, [and] replaced the dashboard."

4. Mark Fields, CEO of Ford

Nahush Kulkarni said he bought a "lemon" from Ford: a brand-new 2015 Mustang convertible, on which the brakes failed during his very first day. He returned the car to the dealership, and after a month--and lots of replacement parts--he refused to take the car back (even repaired). He emailed Ford's CEO and president, Mark Fields.

"Soon enough, I got a call from his office," Kulkarni writes. "The dealership took the car back and I placed an order for a new one."

5. Jan Koum, CEO of WhatsApp

Nina Michanie wrote one of the funnier direct-to-the-CEO complaints--a heartfelt email asking WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum why the company didn't have a sheep emoji on its app.

Koum wrote back directly telling her he'd been "shocked to learn we don't have a sheep" (but also correcting her and showing that the app did in fact have one).

6. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Mike Gnitecki, of East Texas Medical Center, told me about what happened when his dad bought a defective Apple laptop computer. After his father couldn't get a good resolution from customer service, Gnitecki said he decided to email Tim Cook directly at 5:35 p.m.

By 10:56 a.m. the next day, "a very helpful woman from Tim Cook's office" had called, and his dad got a new computer.

7. CEO of Target (we think)

Or maybe it was Circuit City, Gil Silberman writes--he can't remember for sure because this was a few years ago. However, someone stole an old checkbook of his on an account that had been closed long before, and used it to make a purchase. This led to the check bouncing, and the retailer reported Silberman (who wasn't involved, naturally) to collection agencies.

"So I tracked down all of the board members and sent them a certified letter at home," he writes. "It worked. No more debt collectors."

8. Michael Dell, CEO and founder of Dell

College student Tami Tritz bought a Dell computer online--but it never arrived, he says. He tried working with Dell's customer service agents, but ran into issues over and over. Bottom line, he had shelled out money, and had no computer.

"We sent off a relatively curt but not unpleasant email to Michael Dell that evening," Tritz writes. "Received an immediate response from the executive team, an expedited refund, and $156 to spend on Dell Official Site for our troubles.... I wonder how they settled on giving me $156."

9. CEO of Travelers

While auditing her monthly expenses, Maureen Almaleki says she realized she'd been paying too much for her homeowners' insurance for a dozen years, as Travelers was basing her payments on insuring a much larger house. The insurer's customer service agents dropped her monthly payment--but said they weren't able to offer any kind of retroactive refund.

"That's when I did the research, found out who the CEO was, and sent a certified letter," she told me. "After some conversations at the CEO level, the company agreed to send me $1,600, and I let it go. Granted, had I not gone to the CEO, I would have never received any money!"

(Note: We're not sure exactly when this happened, so for now at least we can't say who the CEO was at the time.)

10. Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew

After he got a J. Crew coupon in the mail, Mike Beaulieu went to shop at the retailer, only to find that their employees wouldn't accept it, and even suggested he'd created a forgery.

Beaulieu went home, looked up the email of the company's CEO, Mickey Drexler, and fired off an email. He says he got the following response from Drexler within 15 minutes:

Terrible on our part! No excuses. My apologies! We will be in touch.

Best,

Mickey

11. John Thompson, CEO of Symantec

This one might be my favorite, just for its immediacy. A decade ago, Ophir Ben-Yitschak wrote on Quora, he spent an hour on hold waiting for support from customer service at Symantec.

"I decided just for the sake of 'here goes nothing' to look up the CEO and his email address, which--amazingly--I found rather easily on Google," Ben-Yitschak wrote. "I sent John Thompson a one- sentence email, saying I am a customer on hold for a long time and asking for his help."

Within minutes after he sent the email, Ben-Yitschak seemed to jump to the front of the line. A "customer support manager called me and helped fix the issue."

Have you tried emailing the CEO of a major company to prompt the equivalent of a Jeff Bezos question-mark email? Let us know how it worked in the comments.

Published on: Jun 1, 2017
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