How to Get What You Paid For

By Ben Popken

A guide to getting good customer service (without getting arrested).

How to Get What You Paid For

Mona Shaw walked into her local telco’s customer-service office one day 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 an isolated rural area and had a history of calling for emergency medical assistance. The Shaws were switching to a phone-internet-TV package, but after days of spotty phone service, a botched installation attempt, a missed service appointment, and blithe indifference, Shaw went to the company’s local office.

She waited two hours for the manager before a customer-service representative announced that the manager had gone home for the day. That was the last straw so Shaw went back to her house and fetched her hammer.

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 company’s office. Yet consumers everywhere can identify with her frustration.

As costs balloon and income shrinks, customers are chasing value while businesses 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.

But 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.

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 – gathered from both our readers and customer-service experts – to get satisfaction for almost any transaction.

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.

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 worked out. It may help to write them on a piece of paper 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 centres work on commission and incentives. It’s a high-stress environment. The faster the call centre operator completes his calls, the bigger his bonuses.

Try these tips

“Know your rights and ask the right questions.” – Dheeraj Taneja, Sydney, New South Wales

“Acknowledge what’s well done before airing your complaint quietly and reasonably.” – Lorella D’cruz, Essendon, Victoria

“Ask the right questions and listen to the response.” – Terri Bradley, Gold Coast, Queensland

“Speak in a friendly manner, then listen enthusiastically to their reply.” – Lin Walker, Eastern Creek, New South Wales

2. Threaten to Cancel

How to do it
Tell the company that unless your problem is fixed, 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
When customers feel taken care of they are more inclined to buy from the company again. One study shows that if a business hangs on to an extra five per cent of its customers, profits increase an average of 44 per cent. In contrast, the cost of replacing a customer is five times the cost of making a customer 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 discounts and freebies in front of you.

Try these tips

“Don’t take no for an answer.” – Greg Norris, Bothwell, Tasmania

“Keeping your cool, sticking to the facts and being your most charming self will bring better results.” – Elaine Allison, customer-service expert

“Mention your long-term loyalty to their business, then kill them with kindness – it’s much harder to not help someone nice!” – Vicki Tooher, customer-service specialist

3. Call the Executive Suite

How to do it
It’s a little-known secret, but many large companies 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. They 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 talking to the local news.

Try these tips

“Don’t waste time dealing with customer-services reps for serious matters as they have only limited authority.” – Vicki Tooher

“Order what you want from the right people.” – Ronald Vidler, Ermington, New South Wales

4. Email Someone High Up in the Company

How to do it
Figure out the company’s email address format. Next, find the names of a number of top executives, then send your complaint letter to one or more of them. For a list of potential recipients, check out the company’s About Us or Investor Relations sections of its website.

Why it works
A top executive understands they won’t have a company if there are no customers. Plus, when you’re a bigwig – and you’ve been convinced that a customer deserves assistance – if you tell your people to fix that problem, it will get done.

Try these tips

“Put your complaint in writing. A letter creates a paper trail and saves you from repeating the story.” – Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate

“Emails sent to the right people work – they can’t address complaints if they’re not aware of them.” –  Vicki Tooher  

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