What does mediating a customer dispute with a business do?

Dear Ms. Allison: I have a dispute with a company. I keep trying to resolve it but think I am getting “the run around”. Things keep dragging out, on and on, but there is a time limit for me to take action and I have become suspicious that they are taking advantage of me by delaying. I would rather not sue them and wonder if mediation is an option for me and how it works. This is a product dispute and I want a full refund. Janice in Western Oklahoma.

Dear Janice:

I do not know everything you have tried and that could have some bearing on your options for Customer Dispute Resolution. The amount of time and money at stake and your tolerance for stress are other considerations. However, since you say you’ve tried, let’s assume you have been to the service department (with your receipt and (ideally) any original packaging) and you’ve followed their instructions). You may have made a written request to the customer service office as well. So you’ve asked about mediating a customer dispute…

Most disputes can be mediated and I will explain that in a minute (or you can skip to that part below). Perhaps the only ones that cannot are when the company simply refuses or has a written policy of exclusively using arbitration (also explained below) for these disputes. Still, there are things you can try first. Have you written a letter or complained to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or consumer protection office? Did you try a polite, but firm online review? I ask these things because they are less expensive than your other options and generally get results.

Of course, as you’ve mentioned, one option is to file a lawsuit. I think you know that you must be ready for a long and expensive battle if the amount of the refund is more than can be addressed by a Small Claims court. The outcome or resolution of a court solution is that it will be a matter of public record. Any curious observer can sit in the courtroom or look it up in the files to learn about you and your situation. Depending on the circumstances and venue, you may be ordered to mediation before a lawsuit would even be tried by the court.

You can always try alternative dispute resolution. In arbitration, you and the seller appear at hearings, present evidence, call and question each other’s witnesses – rather like in court, but a bit less formal. It generally takes less time than a lawsuit as well. An arbitrator or panel makes the decision or award once you’ve presented your case. The decision may be legally binding. Some companies require this method of resolution in their fine print..

You asked if you can go for private, consumer business mediation. Again, factor in the amount of the product you are returning and what you are willing to invest in the way of time, money, and emotional expense. If it is not much and there is a volunteer mediation option at your District court (i.e., Early Settlement) that will be less expensive than hiring a private mediator and may or may not be binding.

If you do decide to work privately with a professional for mediating a customer dispute:
-The disputing parties get to create their own solution and decide what is fair.
Both parties must agree to the mediator, to mediate in good faith, and to abide by the final agreement.
-Not taking one side or the other, the mediator will work to focus the parties on a mutually satisfactory solution that can be as creative as they are willing to make it.
-A private mediator charges by the hour at a rate that reflects his or her skill level, experience, education, certifications, etc.
-Most mediations are settled within hours, at least on the day of the session. A very few require extra time.
Sometimes both parties share the expense of the mediation but this could be an item that is negotiated.
Both sides can hire and bring their own individual lawyers to the mediation.
-There will be a written agreement, like a contract, that is signed by both parties. As such, mediating a customer dispute will have the force of law behind it.
-A mediated solution is private; the only records of it are those of the parties.

I can certainly mediate a consumer business dispute and assure you that mediation is always a more peaceful way to settle differences. I only ask you to consider the cost in time, stress, and dollars to be sure that your investment returns the value you want.

I hope this addresses your concerns. Contact me if I can help.

That’s your question, Asked and Answered.
Gale Allison, Mediator

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