Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to Get What You Want From Customer Service

This is completely unrelated to parenting, but I wrote it this weekend and thought it might be helpful to share. Then,  I was going to make this one of those list articles where you have to click "next" at the bottom of every number, but I remembered that I hate those things and I'm not an a-hole. So instead, you get a super long scrolling article full of tips and tricks for getting what you want from customer service agents. And... uhm... less time on the phone arguing with customer service means more quality time you can spend with the kiddos. So there, it is about parenting. Huzzah!

I spent the better part of my twenties taking calls and teaching all levels of inbound customer service calls for United Parcel Service. I started as a grunt, tracking packages and scheduling pickups. I promoted up through training and supervisory rolls until I finally landed in a small group of people that handled calls that came into the president's office. If your call got to me, we'd either really screwed up or you're just incredibly resourceful with Google.

Anyway, what all of this experience helped me to do was become very proficient at being on both sides of a customer service call. Now, if there is a need to call an 800 number, my wife hands me the phone. In fact, if our friends or neighbors need help with an 800 number, sometimes they'll have me call in as their surrogate to navigate the emotional maze that is inbound customer service.  

See, when I was a phone rep, I solved problems by trying to think like the customer. As a customer, the best way to get your problem fixed is to think like the phone rep.  Problem solving, appointment scheduling, bill fixing, credit getting, free stuff sending, I can do it all. It's really easy.

But here's the thing. So can you! Here's my ten step plan to get whatever you want (within reason) from Megacorp Customer Service.

1. Make sure you have an actual problem that customer service should be able to address.

You don't like the color of the company's logo? Deal with it. You are mad that you have to pay money to watch HBO when you're already paying for 95 channels that you don't watch. Me too, but Comcast Customer Service can't change that. Suck it up pay ten bucks a month. Or just wait for the Blu-Ray.

Now, did your service go out for three days? Did they miss an appointment? Did you order a product from a company and it showed up in a box that looked like it became sentient mid-transit, fought off a galactic invasion of space monkeys only to be delivered to your front door a tattered hero? Those are good times to call. Once you've established why you're calling, before you pick up the phone decide…

2. What do you want? Is it reasonable?

A year of free shipping is not a reasonable request for a delayed package. A refund for the package is. What if you missed a million dollar proposal meeting because it was late? Are you entitled to a million dollars? Maybe that would be fair and set the universe right, but no, you're not. You're probably better off asking for something in-between a service refund and a million dollars. Realistically you'd want to keep it towards the service refund part of the scale.

Here are some of the reasonable things I have gotten with this strategy:
  • A few months of free cable. (Comcast)
  • A $200 antenna thingy that makes my cell phone not drop 90% of the calls in my house. (AT&T)
  • NFL Sunday Ticket (Direct TV)
  • Free web-hosting for three months (Go-Daddy)
  • Free shipping on my next order with a company (Multiple companies)
  • A waived expired liability waiver on some damaged headphones (Skull Candy)
  • Small credits to various accounts $10-100 (My bank, and various credit cards)

All of these things were obtained through a little prodding and stellar customer service. The most important steps are next.

3. Ask for what you want.

At some point between now and step 10 you need to ask for what you want. If you don't, you're probably not going to get it. Don't wait for the customer service rep to offer you your hand-picked solution because most of the time they won't. They will go with the most common and inexpensive way to fix your problem – an apology. Don't be offended. It's just how it is. Accept the apology and move into your strategy of getting what you want, the most important component of which is...


I can't reiterate this enough. If you want a punching bag, buy a literal punching bag. If you want your problem fixed, treat the customer service agent like a human being. I know this should go without saying, but inbound customer service is not the most pleasant of jobs. People don't call customer service when things go right. So all the rep hears ALL day long is how horrible their company is. The company could make and sell live unicorns that poop rainbows and the customer service agent for that company will hear nothing all day but complaints about how unicorn rainbow poop smells like cotton candy and it SHOULD smell like freshly baked cupcakes.

Also, a lot of people who call customer service with problems are not especially kind to the people they are speaking to. While that may suck for the phone rep, it is good news for you! If you show some courtesy and even a little kindness to the phone rep, you are ray of sunshine in their crappy day. If there are rules they can bend for you, they will bend them.  

Think of it this way. You want to form a team with the person on the other side of the phone. You want it to be the phone rep and you vs. the problem. You don't want it to be you vs. the phone rep. If you step into the call with an adversarial tone and that phone rep is already in a pissy mood, you may as well be trying to hammer a nail with a piece of Jello. It's not going to work.

5. Don't just dive into your rant. Involve the rep in the "previously on" portion of the call.

Is this your third call? There's probably a record of your previous two. Ask the agent if they are able to see a record of your previous calls. If they do, ask them to recap what they have in their system. This serves a couple purposes. First and most obvious, it lets you know how far you've gotten and what you need to repeat. Second, it lets the agent walk through your journey and catch up with you emotionally. If you've been given incorrect info, or previous commitments have been broken, they're going to see it.  If there aren't any notes, or this is your first call, get ready to have numbers!

6. Present your case.

Have numbers! Numbers help. Reps can tell if you are making them up. If you don't know how long you were holding, don't say a half an hour. CS reps can see the queue. They know how long you've been in it. They can see other things too. People used to tell me that their daily pick up was missed multiple times in a week. What they didn't know was that I could see when they were picked up and how many packages were collected. I never called them liars, but I took whatever else they said on the call with a grain of salt.

If you have a valid concern, you're going to have valid numbers.  How many times have you called? Which dates? Who did you speak with? What did they promise? How much time have you invested in the problem? Look, it shouldn't be your job to document your interactions with a company. You should be entitled to a first call resolution. Reality is, sometimes that doesn't happen. Keep a note pad by the phone and keep track of these things. When things go south with a company, you'll be happy you have them.

I've been trying to work a Night Court image into my blog forever!

7. Avoid asking for a supervisor as a punishment.

So you've got a jerk on the phone that cares about you about as much as she cares about her  job. She's sarcastic and rude and she laughs a little when you ask her to step off script and do anything outside of the box to fix your problem. You'll show her. You're going to ask for a supervisor and complain. Bad idea. 

If you are asking for a supervisor to complain about the agent you were speaking with, you've already lost sight of your goal, and while you're wasting your time tattling on Charlotte, your problem still isn't fixed.

You didn't call customer service to get someone in trouble. You called to get your service issue resolved. If an agent is rude, then they are obstructing your path to your goal, ask for a supervisor. You might think that the agent or their supervisor will oblige any request you have to avoid a complaint about them. I hate to tell you this, but they don't care if they get complaints. They will say they do, but they don't. Most supervisors will cover for their agents. Wouldn't you?

So instead of complaining about the inflection in the front line agent's voice, just let it go. Let the supervisor know that you didn't feel like you were being heard and just preferred to speak with someone else. I usually will make an effort to specify that I'm not complaining about the agent and ask that they not be reprimanded. This gets your conversation with the supervisor off on the right foot.  Instead of feeling like a principal who's being tattled to, the supervisor will feel like someone of authority who has been called in to save the day, just like a… well… a supervisor.

NOTE:  If your rep was really bad and you still want to complain about them, you should - just not on the call. Write a letter and include details about your call and the agent's behavior. Most phone complaints exist about as long as the phone call in which they are taken. In most cases, letter complaints last forever.

8. Asking for a supervisor shouldn't be a punishment (The sequel)

Sometimes agents say "no" because they are told to say no initially and only give in to those who persist. Sometimes they are told to say "no" without exception. These are cost saving measures. Try not to take them personally. Instead of taking the time to argue with the agent and feel out which are the soft "no's" and which are the hard "no's" just escalate the call. You'll find out which is which a lot quicker at level two.

Here is the key to this one. DON'T BE A DICK!  Seriously. Here's a call I've had multiple times over the years.

Customer: I would like a credit for this shipment that was delayed by weather.
Me:  I'm sorry sir, we are unable to issue ref…
Customer: "SUPERVISOR!"
Me: Sir, the..
Customer: SUPERVISOR!!!!!!!!!!!
Me: Yes sir. One moment.

Here's the thing that this guy doesn't realize. There is more than one supervisor on the floor, and I get to pick who takes the escalation.

In the blue corner we have Pam the Empathizer! Pam is going to hear you out.  Pam is going to sympathize. Pam is probably going to override the service refund.

Fictional Call Center Pam, not to be confused with Pam from The Office on NBC

In the red corner we have Angry Andy. He has been in his position for the last 15 years. He hasn't been promoted and has only received enough incremental raises to barely make it worth not leaving for a job that doesn't make him want to punch a wall every night. He hates his job and he hates that he doesn't have control over whether or not he can leave. But guess what he does have control over. He gets to decide whether or not you get your refund.  

Fictional Call Center Andy, not to be confused with Andy from The Office on NBC

Now guess who I am flagging down to come take the call for Mr.  I WANNA SUPERVISOR? You guessed it.

Me: Andy, I've got a sup call.
So instead of cutting the agent off and screaming for level two, go with this.

You: Hi, Kyle (you have his name because you wrote it down), I appreciate you explaining the refund policy to me, and I understand that you may not be able to override it. Would you mind grabbing your sup for me? I know that they may not be able to either, but I would feel more comfortable taking my concern to the next level. It's nothing against you. You've been really nice.

4/5 times if the refund is a soft "no" the supervisor is going to hop on the phone and process it immediately – as long as you didn't get transferred to Angry Andy. 

9. Social Media can be a customer's best friend.

Look up the company's Facebook and Twitter page. Take your complaint there. You are a lot more visible on social media than you are on a telephone. You don't have to be mean to be seen. Just present the facts. If you have a valid complaint, then they will usually hop right on fixing it. Since social media is a pretty volatile environment, major companies don't just hand the keys to anyone. You will most likely be dealing with a higher level customer service representative than your normal front line phone rep.

The best rule with social media customer service is, if at first you don't succeed, just keep posting. Sometimes the squeaky wheel thing still works. But…

10. If all else fails, write a letter or call the office of the president.

Not this one. 
This may take a little research, but Google can make it pretty easy to find access to these folks.  Use these templates:

(Insert company name) Corporate Office Phone Number

(Insert company name) Office of the president

(Insert company name) executive board e-mail addresses

Great! Now that you've found out where to call, or where to write, I need you to immediately lower your expectations. You're not going to talk to the actual president of the company, and no, he or she is not going to read your letter.  They are really busy people.

At most, you're probably going to talk to their administrative assistant or a team of individuals that handle top level escalations. (That's what I used to do.)

Don't get hung up on getting above these people because one, you probably won't, and two, this level of customer service manager is generally imbued with magical override powers that the rest of the company doesn't have.  

Just start over at #2 and follow the steps that I've outlined in this guide. If they still say no at that point, you're probably out of luck. This method isn't fail proof. Sometimes companies are going to say no. If it is that big of a service failure, vote them into the hall of shame the best way any good capitalist can, with your dollars.

We can't always get what we want. The buck stops somewhere. Sorry dude.

Good luck, and happy calling! I'll be back to talking about the joys of fatherhood next week.


Dad (John)

P.S. Tons of fun is still being had over at the Ask Your Dad Facebook page. All new likes this month will receive one free 2013 XU3200 Cupcake Pooping Unicorn!*

*Allow 6-8 centuries for delivery. Some limitations apply. Offer not valid in Puerto Rico... oh what the heck - Puerto Rico, you can have unicorns too!


  1. All excellent advice. The thing I find really tricky is *staying* really lovely and friendly after you've been on the phone for forever and doing everything right.

    And for whatever reason, it drives me INSANE when they keep saying your name over and over and they don't say it properly....

  2. As a former tech support/fraud investigations/cyber for DirecTV....this is SPOT FRIGGIN' ON!!! So sharing with all of my cust service friends over there. It is because of working customer service that I no longer talk on the phone.

    The biggest one? The one that will have agents doing all they can for you? BE NICE!

    Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

  3. AMEN! I find that writing letters is actually an effective way for me to address my concerns without worrying about phone calls and return times. Putting things in writing is very helpful. I've actually had great results when it comes to sending educated correspondence, however it depends on the situation. For example, I am a CPC (certified professional medical coder). I read doctors notes all day long and make sure they match up to what they want to bill, applying guidelines set out by the US government. When I looked at a bill from a doctor's visit, I found he was obsurdly overbilling for what was done. So I politely asked for my records. The office was resistant, so I went to another office and was able to get them to request a copy and pass them on to me. I reviewed them and called the over-billing doc. I asked to speak to the biller and explained the documentation didn't meet criteria for what was being billed. We talked about it, but she didn't know anything about coding. Since coders and billers are often different things, I did ask her to talk to the person who codes about it (the doctor, in this case) and call me back. She didn't call me back, so I called back and left a polite voicemail. Still no answer, so I sent over a letter in writing where I explained the discrepancy, who I spoke with, when I left messages, and the federal guidelines that the documentation wasn't meeting for the code he was trying to bill my insurance. I see insurance money as still "my money", and it raises everyone's costs when these kinds of mistakes happen.
    I made sure to send it with delivery confirmation and requesting a signature upon deliver.
    The issue was then resolved within 24 hours.
    There is power in the written word, and it gives folks a chance to look at their concern, and match 'em up to your tips above. ;) Afterall, if you can't get them to do anything about it, then it's just "venting" and companies can't help you (other than to let ya get it off your chest).

  4. John,
    I agree with each of these, I did technical support for a former employer. Usually I was supporting our sales staff with technical advice, but would also frequently get customer calls. I was always polite, and always tried my best to satisfy the caller.
    I was also the unofficial go to person for absurd calls that came into the switchboard, after the operators found out that a call they forwarded to me would not come bouncing back to them. I would also frequently get the calls that had bounced from department to department, because so many people would not take the time to listen to the caller, just forward the call to someone else. Many times, I would ask the caller to tell me their story, and hear: "I've already been transferred/ told my story 3 times!". After a polite response of, "Yes, but I'm going to listen to your story, to understand exactly what you need, and transfer you to the department that actually CAN help you." It works every time.

  5. Wow. I work in customer service and that's a pretty good template. As I type out this comment from my Nexus 10 - the one that took a month to get to me due to Google incompetency; the one I spent a month's worth of phone calls and emails and twitters to get; the one where no one at the Google call centers was willing to do anything to help me - or compensate me for. My wife and I have an epic tale of piss-poor customer service from Google but have yet to post it on my blog. Since I work in customer service, I follow pretty much the same template you laid out above - all except for snail-mail letter writing; we did not do that. It was honestly like we were taking our emails, tweets and phone calls and dumping them into an empty void.

    Since that time, we've hit up 3M for replacement rolls of packing tape, Otterbox for a replacement case for my wife's phone and some other HTC (when we thought the problem with my wife's phone was the phone itself and not the case) and all three of those companies were falling over themselves to help us out and retain our loyalty - the way companies are supposed to treat their customers.

  6. Way to sum it up, Sir! Customers... think like Customer Service Reps. CSRs... think like the customer.

  7. Well put sir! Customers would definitely get a lot further if they followed these ten steps.

  8. Awesome post. Too tired and an excessive amount of to try and do to depart a higher comment. however this one is one in all my favorite on this year. you've got created an excellent} case for all hospice disciplines to not be dogmatic and really suppose through customer service.

  9. I agree with the points mentioned above but this is not the case all of the times. sometimes the case it critical or very hard to handle then you need to talk to the supervisor and even supervisor cannot settle the issue. When I call to any call centre and I get the rubbish answers for not providing the service properly then I get angry and tell them that I need to talk to the supervisor. At the same time customer service managers also need to learn that how to solve a customer's issue rather then beating about the bush.

  10. Well in case this is actually the event, I know that you are engaged to be able to look for the sky TV phone number and also evaluation equally of the pluses and minuses.

  11. One more suggestion: remark on their usual excellent customer service, and that you realize this is a one-time situation.

  12. Some good tips here that I wouldn't have thought of. Thanks.

  13. Use the following words in a nice tone of voice:" I appreciate it, but is that the best you can do?" Richard Paul Evans taught me that at a seminar he gave. Works very well.

    If the rep is a surly piece of work, cuts me off and talks over me? I get their employee ID, politely end the call and then call back. If it's a good CSR? I get a sup and give a compliment. I know I love getting those. :-)

  14. Oh, this is gonna take forever to write from my phone, but I just gotta share.

    A few months ago, my telephone service shut me off the day BEFORE their letter stated they would for non payment. I just happened to be on the phone with them for multiple hours that day (the "day before") hashing out a new contract for internet, and also paying them a boatload of money (including a $100 deposit for new equipment)

    Two days later I find out that my landline had been disconnected. I never use my landline, so it took that long to realize. Imagine my suprise when I found out. Not only had my bill already been paid, but the line was shut off a day earlier than my letter warned, and was shut of sometime during my three hour negotiations over internet. Not one of the three people I spoke to that day even mentioned it to me.

    It was all so silly that I wasn't even upset when I called to straighten it all out. It was clearly some strange miscommunication between one department and the other. Except when I called, the lady I got was instantly against me. She claimed there was never any such "warning" letter mailed- they dont do that kind of thing. (Um hello- pay your bill by 'date' to avoid disconnection/termination? ) also its "against company policy" to credit reconnection fees. Besides all of this she pointed out, I had already received numerous credits to my account for internet charges so what was I complaining about anyway??

    Of course I became frustrated (even to the point of tears) as this woman continued to treat me like a deadbeat. She refused to accept the fact I had any other story than DEADBEAT. Knowing better than to get angry AT her, I repeatedly said "im not upset at YOU, I understand you're doing your job, but I am confused" finally, I asked for a supervisor. And guess who I got?? Andy.

    I should have just hung up and called another day- because he was even more adamant about the whole deadbeat thing. In fact he kept repeating the fact that the internet department had already credited me over a hundred dollars, and yes he understands one thing has nothing to do with the other, but why am I even complaining anyway??
    (Side note: internet department REALLY wanted me to switch over to their higher speed, and offered to credit me all the data use overage fees if I did so. Thats why I had those credits. I didn't ask for them)

    I kmow better than to treat CSRs like crap. Ive worked in customer service and know first hand you catch more flies with honey. Besides the fact I also know that these people are PEOPLE, and deserve to be treated as such. I guess sometimes that doesn't matter, you're gonna get the hard ass rep who enjoys giving YOU a hard time. I wad so upset, I didn't even bother looking into a complaint. I wish I had thought about writing a letter.

  15. Are you going to start a small scale business? Hire a reputable company that can provide mail forwarding service in London at the reasonable prices.

  16. I've worked customer service for about 6 different companies for a year and a half (my company rents out my customer service to other businesses, so I answer calls for a variety of products and customers). I have to often does no good to ask for a supervisor, other than to piss off the agent. I do everything I can for my customers. Sometimes that isn't much, and I understand that, and I often empathize with the customer over that. You think you should get free returns? Wish we could do that for you. Want to change your order? Not possible, but it sure would be nice. You think you should be able to cancel your order whenever you want? I would love to be able to get that done for you. 90% of the time, it's not a soft "if you ask again, sure" no or even a hard "it's against company policy" no. It's a solid-concrete-wall "it is physically impossible for this to be done by anyone" no. The problem is, I'm limited in some of the things I can do, and so are the supervisors. In fact, we're empowered enough as agents that I can literally do anything my supervisors can do...and there have been at least six instances in the last month where I either helped a supervisor assist someone, or I even took a "sup call" even though I'm not a sup (you'd be surprised how frequently this happens - even if you ask for a sup, there's no guarantee that the person you get is actually a sup). However, asking for one is almost certainly going to set the agent somewhat against you, even if you do it nicely, because you're telling them one of three things: 1. I think you're lying. 2. I think you're incompetent. 3. I think you're powerless and I want to talk to the "person in charge". I can't even begin to count the number of times I've gone over to my manager to say "Hey, this customer asked for a sup. Can you explain XYZ to them?" "Have you told them this?" "Yeah, but now I guess they want to hear it from someone else." There is nothing I cannot do that a supervisor can, no appeasements they can give that I can't also give. I have given up trying to warn them that the supervisor won't have more power or information than me, because a few have accused me of arguing with them, and at that point, I no longer care enough to try to prevent them from wasting their time and energy explaining the same thing to someone else only to get the same response.
    What really gets our goat, though, are the people who call you to ask a question and then question your response. Something like: "What is your return policy?" "90 days from the day you ordered." "...are you sure? That doesn't sound right. Can you go check and make sure that's right, maybe from a manager?" Nevermind that I've been doing this job for over a year and have probably, no joke, answered this question over a thousand times, but somehow they're now the expert. Why call me for an answer if you're going to then try to tell me what the answer is??
    All in all, it's often not pleasant for either the service reps or the callers. Sadly, some callers make it worse. Best advice is, unless the rep is rude, abusive, etc., be reasonable and even-keeled on the call. If you get a rude one, you're always free to call back; however, keep in mind that many offices like mine are rather small and especially un-busy at certain times of the day, and we all talk to each other. For the few customers who don't get what they want and throw a fit and hang up and call right back, they may get a coworker that I just explained the whole call to (who is now against them because of that) - or they might even get me again.