Ask LH: How Can I Get Large Companies To Pay Attention To Me?

Dear Lifehacker, It seems like every large company I have to deal with these days is more interested in getting me off the phone and telling me that there's no one who can help me than they are in keeping their customers. When I call my phone company or my bank, they run me around for even the simplest questions. I've all but given up hope. How do I find someone who will actually listen? Thanks, The Little Guy

Title image remixed from Andy Dean Photography (Shutterstock).

Dear Little Guy,

It's true — most companies consider customer service a supremely low priority. After all, they pay customer service employees the least, train them the least, and yet they're the face of the company to every current and would-be customer who calls or walks through their doors. Those people deal with dozens of customers like you every day, and they're not really paid enough to bend over backwards — even if it is their job.

It's easier to stick to a script (sometimes they're punished if they don't), keep their call times down, and pretend your problem doesn't exist. It's a really backwards way of doing things.

Even so, that doesn't leave you without recourse. If you know how to hack the system, there are ways you can get stellar help from even the largest companies. Sometimes you just have to smile and nod; other times you have to make a nuisance of yourself. Here's how.

Do Your Homework

The first thing you'll need to do is make sure you're using all of the options available to you for support and service, and you're bringing to bear all of the information you need before you pick up the phone or fire off an email. Collect any and all relevant documentation and information first so you don't need to dig for it later. If all you've been doing is calling the same number over and over again and pressing the same numbers to talk to the same department, it might be time to switch it up a little bit.

For example, if you know talking to the reps that answer the phone isn't going to get you anywhere, ask to escalate the call as soon as you get on the line. Alternatively, ask if there's a customer retention department that can help you address your concerns, otherwise you're worried you may have to take your business elsewhere (more on this later.)

If you're asking a question that may lead to a change in your service, or you're looking for general information, you may be better off talking to sales. Do a little research and see if there's another department that may — even marginally — be related to your concern, and try talking to them instead. Finally, check and and see if the company you're having trouble with has a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter or even Google+. In many cases, social media reps have customer service powers, and are more willing to help than a call centre full of overworked agents.

Let Them Know You're On Their Side

When you do get in touch with someone, either on the phone, by email, or through social media, the worst thing you can do out of the gate is set them off by being adversarial. Let them know that you really appreciate their help, you're glad to have their attention, and set up the conversation so they understand that you're on the same side. They're working to help you, and you want their help. If you launch into how horrible your experience has been before you even describe your problem, you're not doing anyone — including yourself — any favours.

Save that energy, be positive, and launch right into the issue you're having. If you have room to explain your experiences up to this point, that's where you can make the case for how badly you've been treated — let them know over the course of your narrative what happened, who said what, and usually the rep you're working with will be able to pick up where other people have put up roadblocks and tried to get rid of you. Photo by Sam Felder.

Be polite, be honest, toss in a compliment here and there, be a better customer, and understand that the person you're working with is trying to help you — until they stop, of course. Most of us can tell when someone's given up on us or has no desire to help. That's when it's time to try and work the system.

Buck The System

When you realise that the person you're interacting with isn't about to help you, you can always escalate the call and ask for a supervisor or a manager. Don't hesitate to do this, and as long as you're not rude about it, you'll get one. However, if things are really bad already, the rep you're working with has no incentive to actually escalate your issue, especially if it would be clear to a manager that they've mishandled your problem. It's possible they'll lean over to the person next to them and say "hey, you want to be 'the manager' today?" and get them to essentially tell you the same thing to get you to go away. Just hang up and call back to see if you get someone a bit more professional.

Keep in mind when you do this that many cell centres and companies log calls by the same person, so you may want to be up front about the fact that you just called and "got disconnected", or just be honest and say the last person you spoke to wasn't able to help.

By calling earlier in the day — preferably right after opening — you may get hold of someone more willing to help if you're their first call of the day. This is where you might consider social media as an alternative — not as a platform to whine and complain to the world with the side-goal of getting a company's attention, but just as a different access point to better service and support. Photo by James Cridland.

If you're stuck with someone who acknowledges there's a problem but can't think of any way to assist you — as in, their script doesn't offer a solution for your problem — you can always propose your own, and let them know what it is you're looking for. Don't sit back and wait for an agent to suggest something — let them know what you'd like, and they can come back with what they can offer you. Be ready to negotiate. Here are a few more tips to working your way through the system.

Threaten To Leave — And Be Willing To Do So

Finally (and this comes with doing your homework as we mentioned above), you should be ready and willing to pack your bags and jump ship for a competitor or alternative. If you've escalated and you're getting nowhere, let the representative know that if you can't get this issue resolved, you'll have to close your account and take your business elsewhere. Most customer service reps probably won't care, but a manager may, and even if they don't, ask if they have a customer retention department that you can speak with. I've had mixed luck here — some call centre operators refuse to admit their company even has one, or pretend they don't know what it is, but in most cases, there are people dedicated to making sure customers don't close their accounts.

Another way you can approach this is to hang up, call back, and see if there's a menu option specifically to close or cancel an account. If there's not, talk to sales — those folks are tasked with bringing in business, not sending it away, and they may be able to help, or at least point you to someone who's job it is to keep you around. At the end of the day though, if the company is unwilling to resolve your problem, unable to, or the options that customer retention or anyone else offers you just aren't enough to resolve your issue, you should be ready to leave. After all, don't threaten to leave unless you're willing to do it.

These are just a couple of ways to wind your way through the annals of customer service in companies large and small. Smaller companies may be more appreciative of your business than larger ones, but you never know. Every company is different, and different people answering the same phone number will respond to the same problem in different ways. Don't give up, don't be afraid to escalate, and don't be afraid to walk away. Hopefully, with these tips it won't come to that. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    And if they really annoy you, find a "Reply Paid" envelope from the company, attach it to a few bricks, and send them that randomly from time to time. Repy Paid maens they pay for the postage.

    Or so I've heard....

      I used to do that with anybody who sent me a 'reply paid' envelope (mostly credit card companies). They'd get an envelope stuffed with whatever scraps were lying around my desk, which tended to be broken PCI cards and hard drive platters.

      The practice trailed off because I don't get sent any reply-paid envelopes anymore.

        Wow, how incredibly immature. I'm sure that a few dollars' worth of extra postage will really ruin that multi-million/billion dollar company's budget. They're only sending the reply paid envelopes to save YOU some money, and make it more convenient for YOU.

        The only people you will end up irritating are the poor, overworked mail-room staff.

          If they place it in my letterbox addressed 'to the resident', it is now mine to do as I like with. Throwing the envelope away would be an insult to them given all the effort they went to get that unsolicited mail into my hands.

          (As a sidenote: those mailroom staff are being paid to do their job. I'm increasing the demand for workers and improving our economy.)

      Most of these services are usually registered for only receiving letters, so Australia Post will simply toss your brick out (and not charge the receiver). Not terribly bright.

      A much more evil option involves a photocopier and a box of envelopes. I'm sure you can figure that one out for yourself. :)

    http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-idiotic-misconceptions-about-calling-customer-service/ was a fascinating read.

    Of course this is more of a comedic look, but some advice here can ring true, such as not asking right off the bat to speak to a manager and such.

    Re: telcos
    Rule 1: always ask for a reference number for your complaint/issue.
    Rule 2: if they seems uncaring, threaten to take your complaint and its reference number to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, who will listen to your complaint, and then slap the telco around until they do what you want.

    Rules 1 and 2 assume that your complaint is a reasonable one, such as "optus promised me 3G reception in this particular street and town that I live in but I'm not getting anything" or, more often, "I'm with vodafone", and that your proposed solution is reasonable, such as "I want a partial refund on my current bill" or "cancel my contract since I'm not getting what I signed up for, namely 3G service, I'm talking to you vodafone".

    My wife and I run a couple of small businesses and have had massive problems with large companies. What we found works best is to complain about the company in question on a social media site (I've used twitter). More often than not, the company will attempt to contact you on that site and then through a phone call. It's the fastest way of getting results otherwise you get stuck in different departments playingnthenblame game at your expense. MAKE SURE YOU MARK THE MESSAGE SO THE COMPANY CAN EASILY FIND IT (hash tag on twitter for example).

    Using "Can I speak to the manager" as soon as you need help is really offensive as it's like saying you don't think I'm capable of serving you. I constantly have customers calling up asking for the manager for it to end up as a simple question like "What time are you open till today".

    +1 to the use of social media. Most complaints don't generate bad publicity because you and the company are the only ones who know about them. However, putting it out there on FB or Twitter makes the issue public, and companies seem more anxious to go above and beyond to work out a resolution.

    Honest, polite, well written, if possible funny, and if also possible brutally critical feedback on social media has worked out quite well for me. Shutting someone up before their comments go viral is usually high on the todo list.

    Ombudsman escalation has also usually been a worthwhile time investment for me.

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