Contra Costa Times (California)
December 29, 2007
by Janis Mara STAFF WRITER
Online consumer advocate resolves disputes;
LetterChamp writes wrongs
When Theo Brown scored a high-end, newly released computer on Dell's
Web site for less than $2,000 in 2006, he was jubilant at getting a
good deal. But his mood soured when he got an e-mail saying delivery
would be delayed indefinitely.
"I called customer service and got put on hold, then went
through voice mail hell and ended up talking to someone in Bangalore
(India) who was no help," said Brown. Frustrated, he turned to an
online Tracy-based consumer advocacy company, LetterChamp, and ended up
with a free upgrade, a $200 gift certificate and delivery in two weeks.
LetterChamp, founded in 2006, helps beleaguered consumers who
don't have the time or inclination to battle unresponsive companies.
The company gets the job done by sending hard copy letters to company
executives to negotiate refunds, replacements and other resolutions.
Consumers sign up for LetterChamp's services with a $25 deposit via the company's Web site, www.letterchamp.com,
or on the phone. LetterChamp calls them and obtains documentation, such
as receipts and repair records, and then goes to work. When the dispute
is resolved, the consumer pays a cash commission equal to one-third of
the refund or replacement cost of the product.
"I got the idea when a friend of mine's car developed
transmission problems right after the warranty expired," said Allen
Banez, founder of the service. "He felt ripped off but was too busy
with work and family responsibilities to do anything about it."
Banez was able to get his friend's transmission replaced for free 19 days later.
"He told me, 'You should do this as a business,' and I decided
to give it a try," said Banez, who with his team of six independent
contractors has helped 50 people since July 2006, winning successful
resolutions for 48 of them. Two cases are still pending, he said.
Banez has a full-time job in San Leandro and does his
LetterChamp work from home. He has an MBA from the University of
Michigan Ross School of Business and helped put himself through college
with jobs as a bill collector and auto salesman, which taught him to be
persistent, he said.
In the case of Theo Brown's computer, Banez went straight to
the top, sending a hard copy letter to the company's founder and chief
executive, Michael Dell.
"We always contact executives, not customer service," Banez
said. Usually, the executive will direct an assistant or customer
service to handle the case, but because they're now under the gun from
a company bigwig, they're sure to scramble, he said.
"Everything rolls downhill. If you're at the bottom of the
hill, you know you have to please the executives," Banez said. "In
Theo's case, they called me several times a day. They chased me. That's
the beauty of it."
The letters are short, with well-written arguments and
documentation and describe specifically what restitution the customer
is seeking. It's important to keep the letters logical and unemotional,
Brown's computer delivery was delayed for a legitimate reason
-- a vital component was unavailable. But Brown hadn't even been able
to get an explanation until he turned to LetterChamp, and the company
won him a software upgrade and a $200 gift certificate to compensate
him for his trouble.
"This is fascinating. It's like having a John Edwards-style
tort lawyer at a cut rate for smaller consumer complaints," said Judy
Dugan, research director for Santa Monica consumer advocacy group, the
Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
Dugan asked, "How does he put teeth in it?"
"If you present logic to executives, if you have complete
documentation and you present it without emotion, you can get them to
listen. Executives know you have to give people a good experience or
they will not keep coming back," Banez said. "We never yell or scream
or threaten a lawsuit. We are not attorneys."
He cited Honda, Procter and Gamble and Alaska Airlines as
examples of corporations he has worked with that were highly
One of his clients missed most of his class reunion in Las
Vegas because his Sacramento plane flight on Alaska Airlines was
delayed. When the client called to complain, customer service told him
he should have left earlier.
"He is diabetic and was having kidney dialysis earlier in the
day," Banez said. When LetterChamp contacted an Alaska Airlines
executive, the company issued $250 vouchers to the man and his wife,
though their original tickets were only $170, Banez said.
"He's doing something no one else is doing," said Dugan. "If he
can show he is successful and on the up and up, more power to him."
* Go to the company Web site and identify key executives.
* Send hard copy letters, not e-mail.
* Make your letters short.
* Include documentation.
* Don't be emotional. Make a logical case for why you feel you've been wronged.
* Explain what you want -- a replacement, a refund or some other restitution.