7 Ways to Get What You Want on Customer Service Calls


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I’ve sat on both sides of the customer service line -- taking abuse from callers and getting angry at unmotivated CS reps too. Here are some lessons I've learned that can help you.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling that comes with the realization that a customer service call is inevitable. The printer stops working, the laptop flickers with the blue screen of death, or the cellphone company sneaks a new cryptic fee onto your bill.

These are all foreboding circumstances that gird us to begin the long descent into Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell (anger) — making the dreaded call to a nameless, faceless and likely outsourced customer service department.

Does it sound like I’m inclined to exaggeration or being unfair? Maybe so. But I’ve sat on both sides of that customer service line and I’m intimately familiar with unmotivated CS reps, language barriers, and quick-to-rage callers. I’ve had to calm down customers who seemed not only ready, but entirely able to climb through the phone line to strangle me. And, as a caller, I’ve had to be calmed down a time or two, as well.

But with a bit of planning, some Zen-like preparation, and a few basic ground rules, a customer service call can be — if certainly not the highlight of your day — at least sufferable and productive. Here are seven strategies that can stack the odds in your favor:

1. Collect yourself

Before you ever pick up the phone, take a moment to clarify what the problem is and what you want to get from the call. Do you want someone to explain a charge on your gas bill? Help you troubleshoot an issue with your smartphone? Or, if this is just the latest in a long string of issues, do you want to speak with a decision maker who can replace an item or get to the bottom of a persistent problem?

Take five minutes to cool down before those lightning-fast fingers start dialing, and you’ll likely get a lot more out of the call.

2. Be nice (or fake it)

Though it might be difficult to see through the blue flame of your indignation, customer service reps are people too. And though they typically have no responsibility for causing the problem you’re calling about, they often have the power to solve it.

A kind greeting, a civil tone, using the rep’s name, and thanking them for their help can go miles toward shaping a successful outcome. If you just can’t muster genuine civility, channel your inner performer and fake it.

3. Bottom-line it

CS reps are often evaluated on how many calls they take within a finite period, how closely they follow the company’s call script, and how well callers’ issues are resolved. Remember that reps have an interest in tending to your issue, but they’re also mindful of their time. Avoid long diatribes and drawn-out explanations; get to the point and then get focused on the solution.

4. Suggest a solution

Reps are not mind readers (thank goodness!). After you outline the issue, it helps to offer a potential solution when appropriate. State your goal clearly and concisely. Do you want that late fee waived since a snowstorm slowed mail delivery? Is a credit on your cable bill warranted because service was out for three days?

Is your request fair and reasonable based on the situation? What’s your ideal resolution and what would you settle for?

5. Demonstrate your value as a customer

Sometimes it’s important to sell yourself and defend your value as a loyal customer. If the occasion called for it, I wouldn’t hesitate to remind my cellphone company that I’ve been a customer for nine years and have never made a late payment.

Sure, it may not work 100 percent of the time — and I’m certain my photo doesn’t grace any break room walls with the caption, “Best Customer Ever” — but at least I’m giving the person on the other end of the line a reason to pay a bit more attention to my request.

6. Don’t hyperventilate. Escalate.

Sometimes calmly escalating an issue is necessary if we encounter an inexperienced customer service rep or don’t feel like we’re being heard or understood.

When these situations happen, politely ask to speak with a supervisor or someone who has decision-making authority.

Remember, escalation doesn’t have to mean confrontation. A phrase such as “I appreciate your time, but feel like it might be more constructive for me to speak with a supervisor” can usually get the job done with minimal awkwardness.

Though the “supervisor” you’re transferred to may often be just another rep who’s drawn the short straw to take problem calls, another set of ears can help. If it doesn’t, ask to receive a call back from a manager who can work through higher-level issues.

7. Quickly recap and document

Wrapping up the call by restating the issue, the solution, and the timing can help avoid confusion and the need for more calls later. If the rep doesn’t recap, take a moment to restate the gist of the call and the agreed-upon next steps yourself.

And while you’re at it, log a few quick notes to document the conversation. Specify whom you spoke with (by name or employee number), the date, and pertinent facts, etc. If the issue lingers, you’ll have all the essential information at your fingertips for follow-up.

I’d sound like a Pollyanna if I suggested that customer service calls weren’t often maddening experiences. But approaching them in a spirit of collaboration can make all the difference in the world. Take a moment to prep, set aside frustration, and identify what you’d really like to accomplish. It just might help you get what you want.

What’s helped you to have more productive customer service calls? What tips do you have for readers? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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