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Getting what you want AND preventing customer suckiness

Win Customer Service Battles


Of all the fibs uttered to you by corporations, here's the one I bet you are least likely to fall for: "Your call is important to us."

It's usually followed by a sentence you wish weren't true: "It will be answered within 22 minutes."

Ah, the classic dance of the customer service call. When you’re in it, you'd rather be doing anything other than listening to that hold music. Your sense of powerlessness grows as Barry Manilow reminds you how much you’d rather be spending a weekend in New England.


And yet, what happens when someone finally answers the phone is worth a lot of money to you. Getting mad won’t get you anywhere. What you want is to get your money. Here are 20 ways to increase your chances of success with customer service, complete with insider tips from operators who answer complaint calls every day.

During his 2005 Customer Rage survey (the fact that such a thing even exists should tell you something) consultant Scott M. Broetzmann found that 70 percent of consumers experienced rage in the past 12 months. Perhaps that's because 25 percent had one incident that took at least nine hours of complaining to resolve.

Like death and taxes, these blood-boiling phone calls are now inevitable for all of us. Anyway you look at it, the call will cost you. Whether it's your lunch break, work time, or a Saturday afternoon on the rocking chair, calling customer service will rob you of valuable time. And while you wait, your blood pressure will almost certainly rise, leading you to perhaps be not at your level-headed best when you finally get your turn.

But if you let your frustration get the better of you, you've really wasted those 22 minutes, or however long it took for Barry Manilow to win back Mandy. So the first rule of a successful customer service call is maintaining composure. Perhaps this mantra will help:

Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. Get your money. Now, how to do that?


Before you call
There are many things you can do even before you pick up the phone to increase your chances of success. One: Make sure you have a decent speakerphone. Nothing makes those 22 minutes pass more slowly than a strained neck from pressing the phone against your ear. If you can move around while you're waiting -- say if you can fold the laundry -- the time won't feel quite as wasted.


It's also important to be realistic about your time investment. If you're trying to challenge a hidden fee on your cell phone, don't place the call when you have to leave for work in seven minutes. Two: Set aside at least a half hour to confront the problem.

Three: Get a human. Of course, negotiations cannot begin until you get someone to negotiate with. Most U.S. companies will force you through a frustrating automated telephone tree. In the business, they're called IVR systems, for Interactive Voice Response. There might be times when these work for you, say, if you just need to hear an account balance. But most times, you'll want a person. A visit to Paul English's GetHuman.com Web site is in order. There, armed with information from thousands of volunteers, English publishes the tips to faking out IVRS systems (For Telecheck, for example, the site says, Press 1, 3, * at the prompts.) and getting an operator on the line.

The most important precall tip is this: Four: Gather your evidence. Nothing makes customer service calls go more smoothly than specifics, particularly when you get into the nitty-gritty of negotiating with underpaid, overstressed customer service representatives.

Get a human, be human
After you get a human, remember tip Five: Act like a human. You may want to start out by shouting “This is the 10th time I've had to call to get that overdraft fee refunded,” but it’s still the operator’s first time talking to you. Save the yelling for the moon.

Here's the best way to get into the right frame of mind, courtesy of Timothy Warner, who runs a Web site called Mother Tongue annoyances: "Six: Have a Copernican Revolution." Copernicus was the astronomer who first asserted that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Neither are you. However awful that unfair charge may be, it will only help your cause to understand the circumstances of the person you are talking to.

Customer service representatives often work in third-party call centers, which means they don't work for the company you are calling to complain to. So yelling out, "You people are thieves!" rarely works. Asking questions like, "How are you?" or even, "What options do you see on the screen in front of you," will probably get you further.

The rest of Warner's column, “Zen of Placing Customer Service Calls,” is worth a read.

Seven: Know your enemy. Picture this: You're a college student earning extra money at night dealing with a steady stream of manic customers upset about cell phone text message rates. And you must take 50 to 100 calls a shift. To give you an idea of their perspective, here's what one cell phone customer service representative wrote to the Red Tape Chronicles recently: "I say ‘no’ because its fun," he said (picture David Spade in the Capital One credit card commercials). "If somebody wants to be rude with me, I'll step down to their level because my company allows it as long as I don’t use profanity."

You may think ill of this operator, who perhaps suffers a bit from a Napoleon complex. But neither frustration nor psychological diagnoses help you get your money. In fact, with someone like him, extra “pleases” and “thank yous” are likely more effective.

For an even better picture of what "they" think of "us," visit CustomersSuck.com. At this site, frustrated agents tell stories of greedy, cheating and uneducated consumers, which they refer to as "SCs," for “sucky customers.” Here's one example of what they think of us: A recent post on the site is titled: “I Didn’t Kill You. You’re Welcome.” Here’s another: “No, I cannot stay on the line while you hold another conversation!” You can probably guess where that post is going, but here’s a flavor of it:

“I had a gentleman today who needed help setting up his Internet connection, yet I had to repeat the instructions almost five times before he got it right. Every time I told him what links to click and what to type in, he always ended up with errors. Yet, I got to listen to he and his wife bicker about the car insurance rates, how much the gas cost them that they put into their car earlier, when this man's mother was coming for a visit, how Junior's diaper needed to be changed. …”

Now, imagine you as the one friendly call this agent receives on a given night. You are warm, you are even keeled, you are reasonable. You say “please” and “thank you.” You will have a leg up on every other caller that night.

Run out the clock
One piece of advice that’s an absolute necessity: Eight: Have a pen and paper handy before you pick up the phone and take copious notes while you talk. The first question out of your mouth is tip Nine: Ask for the operator’s name and a number to call back if you are disconnected. If he or she won’t give you a name, try to get a first name, an operator number or an extension. As a last resort, have the operator write down your number in case your cell phone battery dies or some other surprise occurs. But you really want a record of whom you talked to for the inevitable second conversation when you’ll need a reference point.

It's long been advised that if you aren't getting the answer you want from one service representative, it’s time to employ tip 10: Hang up and try another operator. That doesn't work as well as it used to, said Broetzmann, because sophisticated databases track customer calls now in detail. Representatives enter copious notes about calls, so you are likely to hear, "I see you just called in a minute ago."

But according to one anonymous Red Tape reader and working call center operator, consumers should do just the opposite. His advice: 11: Run out the clock on call centers, which are often paid per call.

"The strongest tool a customer has is call length," he wrote. "They pay these companies a very small amount for each call taken, so the call center wants to have the shortest call length possible, and take as many calls in a given period of time as possible. They want to see 3 to 5 minutes per call. … If your call goes 10 minutes, you (or the rep you're talking to) have the attention of a supervisor. The supervisors have computerized call monitors that alert them to long calls."

At a certain point, the economics tip in favor of the caller: It's more expensive to keep saying “no” to you on the phone than it is to give you what you want.

Keeping the line open requires smart tactics. You'll ask for a supervisor; you'll be told none are available. The operator will offer to have a supervisor call back. That will never happen. So remember tip 12: Do all you can to hold the line open. Say you set aside this afternoon to resolve the problem and you really need to do it today. Adopt the same strategy the customer service representatives are taught: 13: Keep calmly repeating your story. Don't raise your voice or swear, which makes it easier for a service representative to hang up on you.

Better negotiating
The first rule of negotiating in this circumstance is simple: 14:Say exactly what you want, as soon and as briefly as possible. Example: “I see a $36 fee on my phone bill. I was never told about this fee. I want a refund."

There is a corollary to this rule: 15: Never ask for a “yes” from someone who can only say “no.” Make sure the person you are talking to is empowered to give you what you want. A front-line person may very likely be unable to grant you a credit. So ask for a manager. You'll be told the manager can't do anything else for you. Say you want to talk to him or her anyway.

Jill Kurz, a 47-year-old Chicago area Cingular customers recently had several unexpected fees refunded by following a principle she calls "complaining with a smile."

"If someone says there's nothing they can do, then you're not talking to the right person," she said. "Somebody at every company knows if there are no customers, there's no company."

When you are speaking to someone who can give you what you want, think like a manager yourself, and, 16: Make a business case for what you want, not an emotional argument, said Broetzmann.

"I had a problem with a credit card company recently, and when I called, I said, 'You'll see I've spent $50,000 in travel expenses on this card in recent years. Do you really want to lose me as a customer?"

The business case must be real, however. A vague "I've been with the company for years" statement probably won't work.

More Zen
Another important rule to follow is 17: If you expect companies to be honest, be honest yourself. Service reps tend to very quickly adopt a bunker mentality about their jobs -- read CustomersSuck.com -- and you'll get the sense they think we're all cheaters. And with calls like the one below, that might be understandable.

"Wanted help with troubleshooting their Internet, when I asked them to head over to where their modem and router is they would go, ‘That's gonna be kinda hard as I'm using someone else's router,’" posted one frustrated agent.

When you call and lie about what you deserve, it is bound to come back and bite you. So stick to the truth.

Some companies have caps on refunds. Put another way, as the fiscal quarter draws to a close, the strings on the courtesy credits might grow considerably tighter. Remember tip 18: You might have better luck calling early in the month of a new quarter, or even early in the day, when the kitty for kick-backs is more likely to be full. Broetzmann is skeptical of this strategy, but offered a similar suggestion: He says consumers have more luck if they apply tip 19: Try to find a young, new, not-yet-jaded customer service rep.

Of course, you won't win them all. Jill Kurz, who we mentioned earlier, ultimately had to put into practice tip no. 20: Pull out a computer and type an e-mail to a company executive. When you do, print out the e-mail and snail mail it, too. The more attack vectors, the better. As for when to know you are reaching a complete impasse with customer service, CustomersSuck.com offers some good advice:

"I have been talking to some friends and we have discovered that we use different phrases or words that should signify to the customer that the call is not going to go any further," one writes. "My all time favorite is "Sir or Ma'am, is there anything else I may help you with?"

Of course, the best trick of all is to make as few customer service calls as possible. That means buying reliable brands (not the cheapest!) and buying from retail stores that will stand behind their products and take complaints directly.

CustomersSuck.com's Top 10

But if you must deal with customer service, it’s best to know the enemy well. To that end, we asked the operators of CustomersSuck.com to provide their own top 10 list to consumers. Here’s what they came up with, compiled by site owner and anonymous customer service representative Rapscallion:

1: Be civil. We do understand that this is a frustrating problem for you, and your frustration is probably compounded by the wait you had to get through to a real live human being, but the more civil you can be (not abusive, sarcastic, profane or belligerent), the more likely it is that you will walk away with a satisfying resolution to your problem.

2: Allow the rep to talk. While this seems like an insignificant point, a good many frustrations arise because callers "talk over" a rep trying to explain something crucial. A good rep will let the caller have his or her say, and then explain the problem

3: Don't ramble. Jot down the salient points of the problem on a piece of paper if you know you have a propensity to ramble. It’s very helpful in allowing you to get right to the point, thus helping solve the problem quicker. The rep doesn't need to hear about all the details of your hernia operation when you are calling to dispute charges on your phone bill.

4: Don’t blame reps for corporate policies. The nature of call centers, etc, is that the employees within them are relatively low-level in the organization. They cannot change corporate policy no matter how much they are screamed and yelled at. If you are dissatisfied with an aspect of corporate policy, ask the rep (civilly!) for the address of the corporate office and the names of the customer services manager and head of strategy, and write to those individuals complaining about the policy.

5: Remember that the person you are talking to is just that -- a person. They are not a machine, or a mindless computer-generated voice. It could be your neighbor, your son or your mother working there. They are as frustrated as the caller by poor policies, but each caller only has to deal with the problem once. The rep has to hear the same litany of complaints over and over again. There is no reason to be deliberately unkind or upsetting to the rep; it just makes the caller look like a fool.

6: Demanding a supervisor will not always work. Doing so for a minor matter is insulting to the representative to whom you are talking, but there very well may be no supervisor available. Many 24-hour call centers have no supervisor at night, and there is often one supervisor per several dozen representatives. Supervisors have to
follow the same policies as the front-line representatives in most cases, and will often tell you the same thing. Demanding a supervisor for something the initial representative
is unable to do for you is tantamount to calling them a liar. A supervisor should only be needed if the representative doesn't have the training or knowledge to help you.

7: Be reasonable and retain a sense of perspective. Decide whether or not throwing a fit over a small inconvenience or 20 cents or so is worth losing your dignity, or the risk of verbally assaulting an innocent representative of the company. Threats of legal action go one of two ways -- either you're seen as blowing things out of proportion with an empty threat or you will be referred to the company's lawyers as it then becomes a legal matter for which the phone representative cannot help you.

8: Consider seeing a therapist if you find yourself screaming at a powerless representative.

9: Accept that sometimes you cannot be helped. There will be some circumstances when the entire company cannot do anything for you. Sometimes, the only answer the service reps can give is, "no."

10: Don’t tell us how long you’ve been on hold. We're sorry that it took us 15 minutes to get to your call, but you don't need to tell us about it-we know about it -- we've been answering calls non-stop during that time. Now, the extra 2 minutes you’re taking to tell us this is an extra two minutes that is spent not helping you and not helping others on hold.

x-posted to customers_suck
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