Easy Methods for Negotiating with Customer Service Reps

by Mr. Cheap

I’m always interested in negotiation tactics. Some people recommend things like mirroring the other person’s body positions to create rapport or trying to hypnotize them by using words that sound like other words and nonsense like that. Maybe these things work for some people, but they seem too silly for me to even try them. These techniques should work for anyone (no need for acting abilities, Jedi mind tricks or anything). Although I’ll discuss these in the context of customer service reps (those difficult people you have to call when you get overcharged on a cell phone bill or your Internet service is down), they should be fairly transferable to other contexts.

  1. Make it hard for them to say “No” – If you say “Isn’t there any other promotion you could put me on to save me some money? Please?” it’s too easy for them to say “I’m sorry, but no”. You aren’t on Jeopardy, so don’t phrase it as a question. Anything you ask for, make it a statement “I’m not willing to pay more, I want something comparable to the deal I’ve been on for the last 3 months.” They may still say no, but it’ll be a lot harder for them.
  2. Keep repeating yourself - It drives me NUTS when people do this to me, so you might luck out and have someone like me on the other end of the line who’ll get frustrated enough that they’ll give you what you want. Remember, they can’t hang up on you. Every time they “explain” their policy or say no, repeat your request. Don’t be a jerk (hear them out when they respond, if you cut them off and get aggressive, they’ll just get aggressive back). Use different words, but keep making the same request:
    • MC: Hi! I got a phone call the other night saying my phone & Internet promotion is ending, which told me to call you to learn about your current promotions.
    • CSR: Yes sir, unfortunately the discounted rate you received for your first year is ending, so after June 1st you’ll be paying $100 / month instead of the $80 you’ve been paying up until now.
    • MC: I see. So what are my options for promotions?
    • CSR: Unfortunately sir the promotions are only for new customers, your rate will be $100 / month.
    • MC: Ok. The message I got said there were other promotions you’d tell me about though. Ideally I’d like something cheaper than the $80 / month I’ve been paying.
    • CSR: Sir, as I just told you, there aren’t any promotions you qualify for.
    • MC: <friendly laugh> well, the computer voice told me something different so I don’t know who to believe. What’s the promotion if I was a new customer?
    • CSR: Still the $80, but unfortunately you don’t qualify for that.
    • MC: So, if I cancel my service then ask you to reconnect me I can get service for $80 / month?
    • CSR: Well sir, you don’t want a service interruption do you?
    • MC: No really, but I’m sure you don’t want to have to send out a technician twice and disconnect me, then reconnect me. For a $240 savings over the next year I’m willing to go without service for a couple of days.
    • CSR: <muttering under his breath about how much he hates me> Ok, I’ve put you in at the new customer rate. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
    • MC: Yes actually…
  3. “Shop” reps – This was a clever idea I came across a while ago, but the plan is if you get someone who won’t give you what you’re looking for (after you’ve tried the first two techniques), thank them, hang up, and hit redial. Get a new rep and repeat the process. Reps are given latitude to deal with customers, so if one is being too stubborn, find some else to deal with. I’d personally be in no mood to get back on the phone after I waited in their queue for 20 minutes, then just spent 15 minutes nagging another rep for what I wanted, but when we’re talking about savings like $240 / year, it’s time WELL spent. One way to also justify this to yourself is every call is costing the company money, so it may be an irritation for you to get what you want, but you ARE costing them money at the same time.
    • One idea I had after reading “The 4 Hour Work Week” was to hire an off-shore personal assistant to argue with companies to get your fees reduced. There’s something delightful about the idea of hiring someone in Mumbai (to save you time) to haggle with the people the company has hired in Mumbai (to save them money).
  4. Keep records of your conversations – In his new book Ramit Sethi uses this as a way to blow away reps. Every time he calls a service, he keeps a spreadsheet with a record of the date, the name (and ID) of the employee he talks to, and a summary of the conversation. When he goes over his past interactions with the company, reps often realize that he’s there to play ball and give him what he wants. I suspect that getting a rep’s name and ID number at the beginning of the call would also encourage them to do whatever they can to help you.
  5. Try non-traditional avenues for contacting the company – Years ago (at the end of 2001) when I had a problem with my Sprint cell phone, I used a service (I can’t remember the name, it may have been Complaints.com) that would post your complaint on-line, help you structure it, plus send it to the head office of the relevant company. They were MUCH more helpful resolving the issue then their service reps had been (even though I’d escalated it to a “manager”). More recently I had problems with Primus, and kept getting the run-around from the off-shore reps. Finally I got frustrated enough that I called their business support line. The woman I talked to initially told me that line was only for business support, but after I told her how much trouble I was having with the residential support line, she fixed things for me.

Some things might work for other people but don’t work for me, including:

  1. Getting angry – Customer service reps are humans (for now, I’m sure robots will replace them soon enough). Perhaps justifiably, when you get angry at them, they get angry right back. I think its fair to be frustrated with a company and to be upset, but often the person we’re talking to had NOTHING to do with the problem (and they’re likely to get annoyed if you start barking at them). I think the above approaches are FAR more effective than raising your voice or starting to curse.
  2. Threatening to take your business elsewhere – This is something that MAY be effective to work into the conversation (by telling them about competitors’ superior deals or sayings you’re “thinking about leaving”). If you throw down the gauntlet and say “Do X or I’m going to terminate my service”, there’s nowhere to go if they say “we can’t do X”. They’re called you and you either back down (at which point you might as well get off the phone and call back to talk to someone else – it’s clear you’re bluffing), or follow through on your threat (at which point you’re now in the market for a new service provider, I hope they’re better than the old one).
  3. Asking to speak to a manager – Apparently reps just hand the phone to the person next to them who pretends to be a manager. I haven’t gotten better responses from anyone I escalated issues to compared to the front line people (other than on tech support calls, the front line people just follow a script and the people they can escalate to are the ones who actually know what they’re doing).

What things have you found work or don’t work for you when negotiating with company reps on the phone?

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