Rather than blaming a representative or a corporate culture when discussions with a company don’t go the customer’s way, perhaps there are specific things the customer can do to encourage representatives to help. Money Magazine polled its readers and talked to experts to determine the best tactics for receiving the best customer service from companies. Many shared specific strategies they’ve employed that have led to success, whether the goal was to pay less for cable service, avoid fees or upgrade with an airline, or receive repair on a product out of its warranty period.
Be nice. Most of the stories I’ve read about receiving poor customer service could have been avoided if the customer wasn’t confrontational from the start. Direct confrontation rarely produces any result. I’ve been on the receiving end of confrontational attitudes. If someone threatens me or is verbally abusive, there is no possibility of me going out of my way to help that person. I can see why a customer service representative would not be motivated to help anyone who didn’t approach the situation calmly. Money Magazine suggests using flattery to encourage a representative to help. If you’re likable, it is more probable that someone would want to help you.
Hint you will leave. Not every company is interested in keeping every customer. Bank of America’s proposal to enact $5 monthly debit card fees made this clear: some customers are expendable. While the bank eventually reversed its position after public outrage, the damage to reputation was done. Most companies, however, do not want to lose customers.
If you hint that you have other options available, some companies will transfer you to a different representative whose only goal is to keep you, and these employees often have the authority to negotiate with you. This is how cable television companies and internet service providers seem to operate. If you can get to the retention department, and sometimes you can get there just by asking, you can cut your cable bill and perhaps receive some free extras.
Don’t give up. While some companies are flexible with their policies, they make you work for it. Low-level customer service representatives often can’t make decisions on their own, but they do serve to wear customers down so they give up before they get in touch with someone else at the company, a supervisor for example, who is more likely to be authorized to negotiate with you or provide the service you’re looking for. Even by increasing your hold time from one minute to two minutes before you reach the first level of customer service, companies count on callers to give up before they speak to one person.
If you’re patient and persistent, and you insist on talking to someone who has the authority to work with you, you will be in a better position to receive satisfaction.
Use social media. More companies have presences on Twitter and Facebook, and they’re looking to do good publicly. For example, every time I’ve mentioned Comcast on Twitter in any sort of negative manner, I immediately receive a response from a company representative who actively monitors discussions for opportunities to help. When you take your issue public, a company is motivated to address your issue in the hopes that you will retract your statement or rave about how the company went out of its way to rectify the situation.
Critical blog posts or videos, when they gain attention, can be public relations nightmares for companies. A few years ago, United mishandled and broke a passenger’s guitar. The passenger recorded a video and song titled United Breaks Guitars, and it went viral. He received an offer from United to pay for the guitars — as well as an offer from a guitar company for two new guitars for a new video.
Know what you’re entitled to. First-line customer service representatives may not know all the details of your agreement, but if you do, you can suggest solutions that fall within the terms. When you’re approaching a company looking for resolution to an issue, ask for something specific that the representative can do. Most customers, if they ask for something specific, are unaware of the options available, and a customer service representative might not be aware. If he or she is aware, the representative might not volunteer the information. By knowing what options are available according to the policy, you have an advantage.
Offer a “complaint sandwich.” This is a psychological manipulation tactic, and it works. If you start your discussion with a positive comment, move to a discussion of the issue you’d like to resolve, and end again with a positive comment, you’re more likely to receive the results you want. In my experience, this strategy is called praise-suggestion-praise. You could start a discussion by saying how much you love being a customer of the company. It’s important to be sincere and genuine, and to quickly get to the core of the matter so you don’t waste the representative’s time. After explaining your issue, offer praise again, thanking the representative and remaining positive that the two parties can agree about a resolution.
Contact the executives. One tactic that has shown to work is the “executive email carpet bomb.” Email addresses of the CEO and other important executives are often easy to find. If a general search of the internet offers no results, you might be able to use the SEC’s own tools or Google Finance’s corporate listings to find the right email addresses. Send an effective complaint letter to all the executives on your list to increase your probability of getting a quick resolution.
Have you ever received great customer service? What approaches were successful for you?
Published or updated December 15, 2011.