5 Ways to Get Good Customer Service

The guerrilla guide to getting good customer service (without getting arrested). Mona Shaw walked into her local Comcast customer-service office

The guerrilla guide to getting good customer service (without getting arrested). Mona Shaw walked into her local Comcast customer-service office one day last summer swinging a claw hammer. The feisty 75-year-old clobbered several pieces of office equipment before she was stopped. “Now do I have your attention?” she asked.

Reliable phone service was critical for Shaw and her husband. They lived in rural Bristow, Virginia, with no neighbors nearby and a history of calling for emergency medical assistance. The Shaws were switching to a Comcast phone-Internet-TV package, but after days of spotty phone service, a botched installation attempt, a missed service appointment, and blithe indifference, Shaw decided to visit the Comcast office.

As consumers, we have the right to receive the goods and services we purchased at the price and quality advertised.
As consumers, we have the right to receive the goods and services we purchased at the price and quality advertised.
 She waited two hours for the manager before a customer-service rep announced that he had gone home for the day. That was the last straw for the secretary of the local square-dancing club. Shaw went back to her house and fetched her hammer. “They thought just because we’re old enough to get Social Security that we lack both brains and backbone,” Shaw told The Washington Post.

Was Mona Shaw’s reaction extreme? You bet. She received a three-month suspended sentence for disorderly conduct, a $345 fine for damages, and a year-long restraining order that barred her from going near the Comcast office. Consumers across the nation identified with her frustration.

As costs balloon and paychecks shrink, customers are chasing value while merchants are chasing profits. Naturally, there are some nasty collisions. But good service is, in the end, good business-and it’s something both sides want. Before you open your mouth to complain about poor customer service, you need to ask yourself two questions: Do I have a valid complaint? Am I expecting a reasonable solution? If the answer to both questions is yes, you can use the strategies here to get satisfaction for almost any transaction.

All valid complaints start the same way. You expect one outcome but get another. It’s just like algebra class: x dollars = y service. If you’re getting 1/2y, then you should have to pay only 1/2x. Or perhaps they can throw in z, where z is something you feel equals 1/2y. It’s a simple matter of balancing the equation.

Just how much time should you spend on the problem? Calculate your income as an hourly wage. If your time is worth $30 an hour, don’t spend all day chasing down a $25 refund. Life is short. Hold times are long.

Give regular customer service a shot first. Concisely and calmly explain your problem. If they don’t do what you want, try repeating the reasons. If the first rep is stuck on no, call back and get a different one. Talking to a supervisor sometimes works. If it doesn’t, it’s time to escalate your tactics by following these tried-and-true tips from satisfied customers.

1. DICTATE THE OPTIONS

HOW TO DO IT: Begin the call by saying, “I have a situation that you are going to fix for me today.” Clearly state in a sentence or two exactly what you want them to do for you. Have your options figured out. It may help to write them on an index card and keep it in front of you.

WHY IT WORKS: You set the tone and expectations from the outset. You’ll skip the “if” of helping you and get right to the “how.” You’ll save time, and not just for yourself. Many call centers work on commission and incentives. It’s a high-stress environment. The faster the rep completes his calls, the bigger his bonuses.

In the past, it wasn’t unheard-of for AOL reps to hang up on customers if they tried to cancel their accounts. One insider told me he took stress medications until he got acclimated to the job and its pressures. He became one of AOL’s top guys when it came to convincing people not to cancel their accounts. His reward? Thousands of dollars a month in bonuses and an annual all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico. Not surprisingly, an AOL spokesperson says, “It is not our policy for representatives to achieve time targets by hanging up on customers. Such behavior could result in termination.”

ONE EXAMPLE: Lona Nicholle has a reputation as a customer-service avenger, so friends and family are always asking her for help. Like the time her sister-in-law’s new computer went kaput. She had to reinstall the operating system but realized she’d never received the disc. She went back to Best Buy; they wanted to charge her $100 to load the missing software onto her computer.

Nicholle called Best Buy and gave them two options: Give her sister-in-law the CD or install the software free. The manager said no to both. Nicholle asked how he would be solving the problem. After putting her on hold, he told Nicholle to have her sister-in-law come in and he would take care of her.

When the sister-in-law showed up, the manager again tried to charge her full price. A quick call to Nicholle changed his tune. Best Buy installed the software free, after all, because Nicholle had established the parameters of their agreement when she made her first call. Best Buy says simply, “Happy customers are invaluable. We will do what it takes to make sure the issues are resolved.”

2. THREATEN TO CANCEL

HOW TO DO IT: Tell the company that unless it solves your problem, you’re taking your business to a competitor. It’s helpful to cite the other company’s enticing promotional offers. A deal-sealing phrase? “Give me a reason to stick around.”

WHY IT WORKS: One study shows that if a business hangs on to an extra 5 percent of its customers, profits increase an average of 44 percent. In contrast, the cost of replacing you is five times the cost of making you happy. Some companies even have a special division-the “retention department”-with specialists trained to convince you not to leave, even if they must dangle credits and freebies in front of you.

ONE EXAMPLE: Anne Braswell decided that the interest rate on her Citi MasterCard, 13.99 percent, was a little steep for her taste. She called customer service and asked if she qualified for a lower rate. The rep said no but told her to try again in a month. Braswell said, “Well, you can probably see from my account activity that I’m no longer charging any purchases to this card. Don’t be surprised when you see my entire balance get transferred elsewhere.”

With those words she was put through to a retention specialist, who bumped her rate down to 3.99 percent. Braswell says the moral of the story is “It never hurts to ask.”

A Citigroup spokesman agrees: “We are pleased that our standard practice was followed in achieving a satisfactory result for the customer.”

3. CALL THE EXECUTIVE SUITE

HOW TO DO IT: It’s a little-known secret, but many large companies like Bank of America, US Airways, Verizon, Washington Mutual, and Best Buy have a firewall of high-ranking customer-service personnel surrounding the executive offices. To reach them, find the number for corporate headquarters and the name of a top-ranking executive. The CEO works nicely. Call the main operator and ask in your most professional voice to be transferred to his or her office. Once there, quickly pitch your case to the assistant. She will likely hand you over to an elite squadron equipped with customer-service superpowers.

WHY IT WORKS: The job of the executive customer-service team is to solve all problems in their path. They like to make customers happy. They also like to keep you from bothering busy executives, complaining to regulatory agencies, and blabbing to the local news.

ONE EXAMPLE: Joe W.’s elderly, disabled mother was about to have her electricity shut off. That meant no air-conditioning in Atlanta, where temperatures were hovering around 100 degrees. She freely admitted to fumbling her checkbook calculations, and a $400 overdraft wound up becoming a $1,040 debt after Washington Mutual hit her with 20 overdraft fees. Two of the bounced checks were made out to the electric company.

While Joe’s mother definitely made a mistake, banks will often waive one set of fees a year for good customers. Pleas for mercy got only two overdrafts forgiven. After searching online, Joe found the direct number for the WaMu executive customer-service department (a previous WaMu customer had done the heavy lifting for him and posted the number on consumerist.com). One call got enough of the overdrafts waived to pull the account out of the red.

4. LAUNCH AN E-MAIL CARPET BOMB

HOW TO DO IT: Figure out the company’s e-mail address format. It’s usually something like firstname.lastname @companyname.com. You can find sample e-mail addresses in company press releases and SEC filings (sec.gov). Next, find the names of a number of top executives, plug them into the formula, and blast your complaint letter to as many as you want. For a list of potential targets, check out the company at google.com/finance and look under Management. The About Us or Investor Relations sections of a company website are also good places to find a high-level executive roster.

WHY IT WORKS: A top executive understands he won’t have a company if there are no customers. Perhaps he read the study in the Journal of Marketing that found the stock of companies scoring high on the American Customer Satisfaction Index outperforms the general market. Plus, he’s a bigwig. If you can convince him your cause is just and he tells his people to fix your problem, it will get done.

ONE EXAMPLE: Kurt Greiner’s stepson, Private Christopher Corley, was flying home to New Jersey from California on US Airways in time to say goodbye to his dying grandmother. A delay triggered a series of events that left the Marine stranded in Phoenix and sleeping in the terminal. Gate staff were indifferent to the family crisis, so Greiner e-mailed a complaint to a list of US Airways executives.

A senior customer-service representative called Corley and apologized profusely. By then, he had made it to New Jersey, but the rep upgraded his return flight to first class, threw in a $400 travel voucher, and offered to waive any future $100 itinerary-change fee. Delayed 16 hours, Corley didn’t make it to his grandmother’s bedside in time, but he was able to stand by his stepfather at her memorial service.

5. BECOME A TOWN CRIER

HOW TO DO IT: As a last resort, try typing up a one-page flyer telling your true tale of customer disservice. Make copies and take them with you to the store. Inform the manager that unless he gives you what you deserve, you will stand outside the store and distribute flyers to anyone and everyone who walks by.

WHY IT WORKS: Now that it has your money, a store can afford to lose your business. But what about the business of the next ten customers?

ONE EXAMPLE: In his book Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For, Ron Burley recounts buying a new car. His thrill over the new set of wheels evaporated when he opened the newspaper a few days later. There was his car, in an ad from the same dealer, for $1,200 less. When Burley called, the sales manager told him the contracts were complete, so there was nothing he could do.

Burley stewed-and made some flyers: “This company lies to its customers!” He returned to the dealership and laid the papers on the manager’s desk. “I am going to exercise my First Amendment right to stand in front of your dealership and hand out these flyers. I bet that in just a handful of Saturdays, I can convince a couple of dozen people to shop elsewhere. It won’t put any cash in my pocket, but I’ll feel a lot better about things. What do you think?”

The speechless manager excused himself. When he came back, he smiled and apologized for not honoring the advertised price. The dealership cut Burley a check within minutes.

Companies have the right to make a profit. As consumers, we have the right to receive the goods and services we purchased at the price and quality advertised. We also have the right to seek redress if those expectations are not met.

But the Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory bodies that are supposed to protect us from reckless profiteers can’t possibly address every complaint. So now it’s up to you to protect your consumer rights.

You can execute most of these techniques in less than 30 minutes. And you probably have everything you need already: a telephone, a computer, and a spine. Do your research. Ask questions. Read the fine print. Be fair. When things go wrong, know whom to complain to and how. And always vote with your dollar. Remember, there’s no valid excuse for anyone to rip you off.

WARNING
These techniques are recommended only for sane people who can speak in reasonable tones and treat strangers like humans. Threatening an individual may result in a visit from the police. Causing a company to lose money may result in a lawsuit. The right to free speech does not exist on private property and may have to be exercised just beyond the owner’s property line, which usually extends from the edge of the store to where the sidewalk meets the asphalt.

To reach a live person, try these tips:

1. Push zero repeatedly, say “operator” or “agent,” or simply stay on the line until the end of the options.

2. Gethuman.com lists hundreds of companies and the phone shortcuts to quickly reach someone.

3. Try the back door. Call sales, investor relations, or the main corporate headquarters line.

4. Select the Spanish-only option. You’ll likely get a bilingual operator faster than an English-only agent.

5. Call from a friend’s phone instead of the one registered to your account. In some companies, potential new customers leapfrog to the top of the queue.

6. Call the company’s international customer-service number collect. Its incentive for keeping you on hold will drop dramatically.

NO AMOUNT OF MONEY…

Last summer, Sprint fired 1,000 “professional” customers (that’s right-customers). Some had called customer service dozens of times over six months, begging for credits. “These were the customers who had nothing better to do but call us every single day demanding credit,” one insider revealed. “And they were getting it because customer care was exhausted from arguing with them. At the end of the year, we were literally paying these customers to use our service.”

You want to stand up for your rights, but there is a limit. When you break it all down, these professional customers were probably spending more in “time dollars” than they got back in credits.

BEST IN CLASS

These companies topped BusinessWeek‘s 2008 Customer Service Champs list.

1. USAA

2. L.L. Bean

3. Fairmont Hotels

4. Lexus

5. Trader Joe’s

6. Starbucks

7. JetBlue Airways

8. Edward Jones

9. Lands’ End

10. Ace Hardware

11. Lincoln

12. The Ritz-Carlton

13. Amica

14. Enterprise Rent-a-Car

15. Publix Super Markets

16. Nordstrom

17. Southwest Airlines

18. Wachovia

19. Smith Barney

20. Cadillac

BusinessWeek/J.D. Power & Associates

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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