How to Get What You Want on Customer Service Calls

Bad customer service experiences have become part of our collective narrative about modern life. Unmotivated CS reps, enraged callers, outsourced call centers on the other side of the globe are all part of our consumer assumptions the moment we pick up that phone with a sigh and mutter under our breath, "Once more into the breach." (See also: In Praise of Complainers: Why Complaining Is Good)

But with a little experience and some ground rules, I think that call to a customer service center can be much more productive, if not outright pleasant. In various stages of my life I've sat on each end of that phone line and can offer eight strategies to stack the odds of success in your favor:

1. Identify Your Goal

We call customer service lines for many reasons: an error on a bill, a fee we don't think is warranted, help with instructions, and text message overages from a nimble-fingered kid all fall within in the purview of the CS rep. Before you pick up that phone, it helps to collect your thoughts and determine exactly why you're calling. Anger and frustration may be motivating, but it's best to work through these reflex emotions before picking up the phone. Ask yourself, "What do I specifically want to achieve on this call and is this the best method to achieve it?" Once you've determined your goal, take a deep breath, chill out and dial. (See also: How to Get a Customer Service Phone Number, Fast!)

2. Be Polite

As much as we might be blinded to this fact from outsourcing trends and bad late-night comedy skits, CS reps are people, too. The average rep takes dozens of calls per hour and fields all sorts of issues both on and off the phone. Though the rep most likely had nothing to do with the source of the problem, many of them do have the power to resolve it. Remembering the fundamentals of civility will serve you well as you communicate what you need. Remember to greet the person on the other end of line and jot down his name (and use it) during the call. Toss in a "please" and "thank you" once in a while for good measure. It will distinguish you from most other callers and may inspire that added motivation to go above and beyond. (See also: 25 Ways to Communicate Better Today)

3. Don't Waste Time

Most CS reps are evaluated professionally on how many calls they take within a certain period, how well the issues on the call are resolved, and how well they follow a script (usually related to company protocols, phone demeanor, ability to upsell, etc). Respect the fact that the CS has a vested interest in resolving your issue, but is also sentient of time. Long, drawn out histories or personal narratives only muddy the waters and take time away from the solution.

4. State Your Goal

CS reps are not mind-readers; it helps to outline your issue and your goal as early as possible on the call to avoid wasted time and mounting frustration. State your goal clearly and concisely. Do you want that late fee waived since the holiday slowed mail delivery? Do you want a pro-rated credit on your cable bill since the cable was out all weekend? Is your request fair and reasonable based upon the facts?

5. Communicate Your Value

Knowing why your request should be honored is as important as defining your request in the first place. This is your chance to sell yourself and make a case for the value of your continued business. I don't hesitate to let folks know how long I've been a customer, my average monthly payments, the fact that I've never been late with a payment, etc. It helps to make a case for yourself and give the CS rep a reason to keep you happy.

6. Escalate When Necessary

Sometimes an escalation of the issue is necessary if we reach an impasse or don't feel like our request is being heard. In these instances, politely ask to speak with someone in a position of authority, such as a supervisor. This doesn't have to be a confrontational moment. A phrase like, "I appreciate your time, but I feel like it might be better for me to speak with a supervisor," can help diffuse most awkwardness. Some reps simply don't have the authority to solve problems past a basic level. Speaking to a supervisor (though often the 'supervisor' is simply another rep who is tapped for escalation calls) can give new perspective to your issue or get a call-back from a manager who can work through higher-level issues.

7. Recap

Recapping the call by restating the issue, the solution, and the timing of the solution helps avoid confusion by either party. If the rep doesn't do it, just take a quick moment to restate the gist of the call and what you understand will be done. Any miscommunication can be ironed out before hanging up.

8. Document the Conversation

Finally, take a moment to jot down the issue and the resolution. Use your bill, daily planner, or monthly statement to make a quick note of who you spoke with (name and/or employee number, the date, etc). If the issue isn't resolved as agreed upon, you have a bit of documentation to refer to during a subsequent call.

In the end, good communication and a bit of temper control will serve you well. Approaching calls with a sense of collaboration, respect, and patience will keep you leagues ahead of the irate caller who immediately puts everyone on guard. After years of following these eight laws (as a caller) and a couple of years wishing more people knew about them (as a rep), I'm sure they'll hold you in good stead the next time the cable goes out.

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Guest's picture

As a customer service rep for an insurance company, I'd like to add a few more thoughts...Don't even think about picking up the phone to make a customer service call unless you've got something to write with, paper to write on and the documents pertaining to your call. Don't call on a cell phone if a land line is available because dropped calls and conversations that cut out because you're in a bad reception area are annoying to you and waste the customer service reps time. Never call while you're driving, cooking, eating, drinking, have your crying children or loud pets underfoot. You will have to take notes during the conversation so be prepared to do so. NEVER hang up the phone without getting the name of the person you spoke to. You don't have much credibility when you say "somebody you spoke to" told you something but can't prove what you've been told.

Guest's picture

Ive called a company 4 times in a the 4th, they gave me exactly what I was asking for. i was unemployed at the time, and I figured, if you're going to cancel my CC for no reason then, then Im going to waste as much of your time as needed (customer service phone calls, time spent talking to me, routing me through the system, clogging up the phone line). I was polite, dont get me wrong, but definitely dedicated myself to being a nuisance...Sorry, but I was giving to them what they were giving to me: BS. Suffice it to say, it was immediate. I would have kept calling too...It took about 10 minutes, tops. Works like a charm.

Guest's picture

I'd add one more step to the list - reward GOOD CS behavior. When your CS Rep shows empathy, and is efficient and friendly in resolving the problem or getting you the service credit...take another minute or two to speak to the manager and verbalize what impressed you with the service. It means the folks who are motivated get the pay raises and have incentives to stay! :)

Guest's picture

I've had to make some customer service calls lately and I'm finding that they are more likely to help out, than before the recession. I am very polite and explain what's going on and I've gotten great results, so far!

Guest's picture

I have worked in the customer service industry for 19 years, and my co- workers & I (not minimum wage, that remark was insulting) are constantly amazed at the way many customers treat the representative they are hoping will solve their issuse. First of all, we are human beings just like you. Treat us accordingly & you will be far happier with the outcome of our conversation. Realize we WANT to help you! But name calling, yelling, interrupting, and other negative communication will change our mind in a hurry. Remember, we're human. Please give us the respect we deserve, and understand that we don't want you to be anything but satisfied. Politeness & a bit of humor go a long long way. Telling us a long disjointed story that rambles on & repeats itself will not. We're human! Help us want to help you!

Guest's picture

As a CSR- thank you for this. #3 especially. Not all places are like this, some reps & co. suck, but some don't so give us a chance to do our job.
I just wanted to add another reason that yelling or making unreasonable doesn't work: how well do YOU problem solve, do math, type, remember or speak when someone is yelling at you? We have to do all those things to solve your problem! I actually enjoy the challenge of a good problem to solve after many repetitive calls in a row but if you are making me angry then all the blood is rushing to my head & I can't think. Oh & here is a thought too- sometimes I may need to think for a few seconds or look up something on my computer to answer your question or fix your problem- if you want it done correctly, or the actual answer instead of a guess, I recommend you bear with me a minute, when I ask you nicely to bear with me a moment. Thanks!

Guest's picture

Well, there certainly are a lot of customer service reps representing themselves here in the comments section. And I suppose it's unsurprising.

I think there's something which needs to be understood that goes increasingly forgotten. When someone makes a statement, whether it's one of opinion or of peer-review study-backed fact, they generalize. We must. To account for every variable, every person, every circumstance, every difference in a given statement and attempt to write it all out would be more than a planet of lawyers could take!

Instead, there are a number of fallacies committed here on both sides of the table. The author's primary fault is the content manipulation fallacy of Unfalsifiability. It's not that he's lied; it's that we can't confirm or deny his statements because we don't know where he got the data to make his conclusions. What the customer service folks are accusing him of is making a faulty deduction known as Division, in which one assumes the characteristics or beliefs of a group apply to every member of a group. To be clear, we cannot confirm or deny that assertion as there is no data upon which to make that assessment, consequently it is in all likelihood that the CSRs are making that faulty deduction rather than the author. This claim is made due to the fact that CSRs are presenting anecdotal evidence as proof, which is in itself another faulty deduction; discounting statements made in favor of other beliefs developed through firsthand experience. Unfortunately, firsthand experience establishes a relatively small exposure to a subject for a study, but to the perception of the one experiencing it, it has much greater impact.

So, please, folks, no need to take offense because an article which by necessity generalizes didn't take your unique situation into account.

That said, the evidence gathered by several thousand angry customers has established that, to some companies, these techniques don't always work. As a preface, there are some companies that I know will bend over backwards to treat me well, and I do everything short of sending Christmas cards to show proper gratitude. Comcast is not one such company. Personally, their billing to me took six years to straighten out. As they could not figure out a standard rate to charge me for my router and extra cable boxes, I returned them and programmed my own router. They continued to bill me for the devices; I had my wife video me as I returned them to our local branch (which is built like a fortress, likely because they are well aware of the extent of their business practices) and made multiple copies of the return receipt. That, plus a selfie with me shaking the hands of the local branch manager as I returned them, all was submitted. The response varied between CSRs, starting with me needing to send that to a different office, then another office which didn't take emails, and then a central office which swore up and down they never got anything. It was documented, voice recorded, and still I was required to file a complaint with the FCC to straighten out the problem. It amounts to getting to a point where a company knows they have wronged you, violated a contract in some way, and doesn't care because they know you don't have the means to enforce the contract or take them to court.

I have to date filed six different complaints with the FCC, and an additional four for my mother's behalf. I knew how to do all this because there are entire online communities devoted to pooling information on Comcast's wrongdoings, meticulously documenting it, and establishing procedures for effectively escalating complaints.

My point is that I highly doubt there are any customer service reps commenting who work for the companies which require an article such as this to be written. I would like to say that such companies are also the reason you folks have to deal with angry customers, but sadly the human race always lets me down.

I would comment on the growing problem of health insurance companies laying policies to the bone since the ACA was passed, but I expect the people who make that decision aren't anywhere near the ones who have to bear the brunt of peoples' anger at the notion that being healthy and surviving perfectly curable illnesses is a privilege in this country, not a right.