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Friday, September 23, 2011

Tip 7: The Last (And Best) Way to Get Results

If you’ve been reading this blog the past few months, you may have recognized that most of my tips thus far haven’t been radically new or original…no doubt, if you’re the type of person who’s interested in customer service blogs, you’ve probably come up with a few tips of your own over the years. And in the vast majority of customer service issues, my resolution usually involves making a phone call or emailing someone and getting a resolution with the first or second person I speak to. But of course this is not always the case. Unfortunately, sometimes even I just can’t seem to get an issue resolved, no matter how intense my power of persuasion may be. At this point, most people would likely give up and not cry over spilled milk. But I’ve always had a tough time letting go in these types of situations. Rather than give up, I go to the next and last level of customer service…the CEO!

Many people assume that since they are just single individuals in a large customer pool, they’re really not that important to a big business. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Any large business that is worth its salt will have entire organizations and departments devoted to making sure that customers are being treated well. Even though a single customer may seem inconsequential, businesses have long recognized that negative word of mouth is a big factor in attracting future customers and keeping current ones…if a business ticks off the wrong customer, they may suddenly find their reputation irreparably damaged. Especially in today’s social-network-focused society, most businesses operate under the (mostly correct) assumptions that it takes much more to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one and that resolving individual cases can prevent wide-spread negative word of mouth.

Knowing this, I often reference these facts to customer service employees who may not have gotten the memo that individual cases matter. I frequently find myself telling level 1 reps, “Do you really want to risk losing a customer for life…especially one who’s going to tell all his friends and family about his negative experience with your company?” This is a good way to test how persuasive I’m going to be able to be with this rep…if they seem like they really don’t care that much about this statement, they’re not likely to be convinced about anything else because they don’t have their business’s best interests as a priority. But if they react in a very positive way, agreeing with me and trying to find some way to resolve my issue, I know I’m talking to someone who genuinely cares about his employer’s future and can be persuaded to help me, even if I am just one person.

The more important point to take away from this is that while lower level reps may or may not care about you as an individual, large businesses cannot afford to have VPs and CEOs who don’t care about your issue. Why? Because no CEO wants to take up and find an article in the newspaper about a small-town, middle-America individual who’s going head-to-head with his Big Business over something that should have been resolved quickly and quietly. The last thing VPs and CEOs want is to deal with these individual “nuisance” issues. So to prevent them from having to, most large businesses have a department called “Executive Resolutions” or something similar to that. This is your last and best chance of getting the resolution you want.

It’s usually somewhat difficult to get to the executive resolutions department. Here are a few tips on how to do it: (1) Search on the Internet for the company’s executive resolutions department…sometimes others have already been in touch with this department and will provide names and phone numbers to reach someone quickly. (2) Search on the Internet for the email or phone number of the VP of customer service or human relations department for the company…see below before writing or calling them. (3) Search on the internet for the office of the president or CEO of the company…get their email or phone number and then read below on how to contact them.

If tip 1 worked for you, you’re probably on you’re way to a quick and easy resolution to your issue. These service reps are the best that the company has, and their core mission is to make sure your issue is resolved to your satisfaction…even if it means that the company will lose money or have to go outside its standard resolutions practices. I’m not suggesting that you’ll get a resolution to an unreasonable demand…if you’re asking for something that your friends don’t agree is a reasonable request, you might want to think twice about calling the executive resolutions department. They are typically very helpful and exceedingly courteous…but they’re also very smart and can quickly spot when someone is being genuine and reasonable versus when someone is just being demanding and irrational. If your request is reasonable and you present your case in a straightforward and courteous manner, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how helpful these reps can be.

If you can’t find an easy way to get in touch with these people, the next best option is to send an email to a VP at the company…typically, these will be quickly forwarded to the company’s executive resolutions department to get it off the VP’s plate and you’ll get a response back within 24 hours. Make sure your email is courteous and respectful…but don’t be shy about explaining how dissatisfied and upset you are about this issue. One of my favorite lines to put into one of these emails is, “It’s really very surprising and disappointing to me that I actually have to email a VP at your company just to get a resolution to what should be a simple-to-resolve issue.” Be forceful in demanding a response, but make sure to add a line about how you know the VP’s time is valuable and you’d really appreciate someone getting back to you right away. You can also call the VP’s office and do this same thing over the phone, but I usually prefer to have a digital paper trail to avoid having to explain the same issue to multiple people, which is much easier to do if you send an e-mail.

If you can’t find a VP to contact (or you’ve tried and haven’t gotten a response), there’s really only one step left…contact the CEO or president’s office. A simple Google search will usually provide this information for any large, public company…and it’s usually easy to find their email address. If you can’t get their specific address, see if you can find the standard email format for other employees at the company (i.e. and fill in the CEO or president’s name. Assuming the address is correct, you will get a response. The first response may be an auto-reply, but pretty soon you should be getting a personal response from an executive support team member. Keep in mind, you will not be speaking with the CEO or president, which is fine because that’s not your goal…your goal is to get your issue resolved. Always make sure to include your phone number in the email and the best time to call you.

When you actually get that call from executive resolutions, make sure to write down the name and phone number for the person you’re talking to. Odds are, this case may not get entered into the typical customer service logs that companies keep for their customers, and if you ever need to continue this issue after the initial phone call, you don’t want to rely on the rep to call you back. Be prepared not to get a resolution immediately…sometimes it takes a few days for the rep to investigate your issue and come up with a resolution. Assuming your issue isn’t an urgent emergency, this is really not a bad thing…they are legitimately trying to help you, and sometimes they may need a few days to make sure that the next time they call you will be the last time.

My personal experience with executive resolutions departments has been overwhelmingly positive. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a very difficult customer to please…my expectations are incredibly high and I pretty much never take “no” for an answer. So when I tell you that the executive resolutions department pretty much always resolves my problem, you know they’re really that good! In the rare instances where I haven’t gotten the resolution I wanted, I was able to convince them that they should provide an alternative resolution that may not even be related to the original problem. I called the executive resolutions department of one credit card company because they were changing my rewards plan to something less valuable. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them to allow me to keep the original program…this wasn’t surprising, since they were eliminating that program for all their customers and their system wouldn’t allow me to remain. So ultimately, I said that I would settle for them giving me a bonus $70 credit, which would then result in my being able to cash in my existing rewards for a bonus $50. The rep happily obliged. So in essence, the company gave me $120 in order to keep me as a customer. I doubt that most of the other tens of thousands of individuals who were dismayed at the rewards plan changes actually spoke to executive resolutions or got anything at all.

Just remember, you are always a valuable customer, no matter how much the first level reps may convince you otherwise. Their primary concern is to go through all of their calls and get issues resolved using the system that has been created for them. But remember, you’re special…your problem can’t be solved by their system. The company’s response that, “Our system doesn’t allow us to do that” is quite simply unacceptable to you…you’re going to speak to someone who understands your problem and has the power to go outside the system because you’re smart enough to recognize that any company that limits customer service to a “system” without the ability for a human being to intervene and solve your problem has an even bigger issue on its hands than yours.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tip 6: Foreign Transaction Fees

There have been countless articles written online about how to save the most money whilst traveling abroad. Most advise that you pay in cash in the local currency and avoid using credit cards or ATMs. This is generally good advice, since most cards charge foreign transaction fees of anywhere between addition to the currency conversion rates, which are not guaranteed to be most favorable to you (although I have found most banks to provide the best current rate when doing conversions most of the time).

Another suggested option is to get a credit card that promises not to charge a foreign transaction fee. Capital One is the most popular one currently available. But maybe you don’t want to open a brand new credit card…it can sometimes be a hassle and can impact your credit rating, especially if you already have a bunch of other cards with high spending limits.
If you do want to use a credit card internationally but don’t want to open a new card, one option that most people overlook is to just call each of your current credit card companies and ask what their foreign fee policies are. Then, once they explain the fees, ask them to waive them. Will they say yes? Of course not! This is where you need a supervisor…

In many cases, these fees are not actually controlled by the bank. MasterCard and Visa impose certain transaction fees on the banks that the banks then pass on to you. The initial customer service rep and the supervisor will be sure to point this out to you so that you won’t think less of their bank…it’s not their fault these fees are being charged, after all. This is a fair point…except that you’re the customer, and they need your business; even if it’s going to cost them a little money to keep it. After the rep explains the reasoning for the fees, you should politely respond that you understand the policy and where the fees are coming from, but you still feel that a valuable customer should be extended a courtesy of having these fees waived. Otherwise, you can tell the rep, you’ll just switch to a card without fees (mention Capital One by name to let him know you’ve done your research). And while you’re switching cards, you may just want to close your current account all together (don’t actually ask to close your account as a bluff, or you may suddenly find yourself having your account actually closed even though you were just bluffing).

At this point, the supervisor will do one of two things. He will either tell you once again that, while he values your business and doesn’t want to lose you as a customer, there’s really nothing he can do. Or he will tell you that, while he’s not authorized to waive the fees, he can offer you some other incentive to keep you as a customer. When I had this discussion with my Chase MasterCard supervisor, he came up with a unique solution. He asked me to estimate how much I planned to spend during my upcoming trip to Italy. I responded that I planned to spend about $500 with my card. He took a look at something in his system and then said that he could offer me a credit of $25 worth of reward points now…as a way of balancing out the transaction fees I would be charged for my purchases in Italy. This was actually more than I would have been charged, since their fees are 3% for foreign transactions. But for the supervisor, a courtesy credit like this is relatively easy to apply…whereas waiving the actual transaction fees might be nearly impossible. Ultimately, I don’t even need to use my Chase MasterCard in Italy if I don’t want to…but the $25 is mine to keep! But if I did end up using this card, I would know that my transaction fees aren’t really coming out of my pocket…which would, of course, make for a far more enjoyable trip!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Case Study 1: What’s Negotiable and What’s Not (Part 2)

In last week’s trip to Value City Furniture, we learned that with a little bit of bargaining we could save $100 on a new couch. Now we’ll be taking a look at a similar shopping trip, but with somewhat less successful results.

In preparation for Thanksgiving last year, my fiancé and I decided that the time had come for us to have a real dining room table and chairs…so we followed our typical strategy of going everywhere and anywhere in search of the perfect dining room. We spent a few weeks casually looking online, and one weekend we decided to journey through as many stores as we could.

Our first stop was Bob’s Discount Furniture…we had been there a few times to take advantage of its infamous free candy and ice cream (which we quickly learned was “not for take with”). But this time we were on a specific mission…and sure enough, we fell in love with the first set we saw. It had everything we had been looking for and even included a matching china cabinet…which we hadn’t really thought about, but now seemed like would be a perfect addition to the room.

Of course, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going with this dining room set until we had compared to as many alternatives as possible. So we continued on our planned trip, heading in and out of store after store, essentially comparing everything we saw to the first set. After a long, non-stop weekend, we finally settled on the Bob’s set…there was simply nothing else out there that had the look and combination that we were looking for.

So we headed back to Bob’s ready to buy…but as before, I insisted on attempting to bring the price down at least slightly. I had looked up this particular furniture set online based on the manufacturer info, and Bob’s did seem to have the lowest price by a decent margin. But I had to take my own advice and at least try to bargain a bit. What’s the worst that could happen?

We went back into Bob’s on Monday night and met a nice salesman; we asked a few questions about the warranty, shipping, and dimensions…questions that we mostly knew the answers to but wanted to confirm anyway. Then my fiancé casually went back to the car while I switched into bargain mode. I began by stating the same thing I did at Value City: “I’d really like to buy this set but it’s just a little bit more than my budget.” The salesman began talking about their zero-percent financing plan, which I listened about but wasn’t really interested in. I went into round two: “If this were even just a bit cheaper I think I’d be ready to buy right now.” But he still wasn’t budging…he said very politely that Bob’s didn’t allow for any price changes or negotiation. I had a sneaking suspicion that this might actually be their policy (whereas I’m normally inclined to assume that whatever the salesman tells me is only partially true, if at all). But I asked if I could speak to the manager just to see if maybe he would be willing to lower the price a bit to avoid losing a sale. Again politely, the salesman went to the back to get the manager. He came back a few minutes later and said that the manager couldn’t come out right now, but he confirmed the no-negotiating policy. I said I understood, but I still wanted to speak to the manager in person. He called the manager’s desk, where he clearly got no answer. I then followed him over to that desk, where the manager’s assistant was sitting out front. I asked her to call him, which she did…he said he couldn’t come out right now. I insisted to the assistant that I needed to speak to him or else I’d be walking away without buying a big dining room set; she went to his office for a few minutes and eventually came out with him following behind.

He came up to the counter, and I told him the same story I had told the salesman. In a very stern, focused manner the manager said, “We don’t negotiate prices.” I said, “Ok, I understand that, but would you really want to lose a sale because you wouldn’t lower the price by a little bit?” He repeated the exact same sentence as before. I said, “So you’d rather I not buy this dining room set at all?” He then said something along the lines of, “I have more important things to do and don’t have time for this anymore.” This caught me a bit off guard; I actually had to take a moment to consider if he had just said what I thought he had said. Now I was upset. I began saying how rude and inappropriate it was for him to say that to a customer; he just walked away back into his office. I continued to tell the assistant (with the salesman watching his sale slip away) that this was ridiculous and that I wanted the name and phone number of the main store manager right now. I told her I’d be speaking to his manager first thing in the morning and that it was totally unacceptable that he would treat a customer like this. After a few minutes of this, I told the assistant to tell the manager that if he hoped to avoid my speaking to his boss about this fiasco, he’d better come back out and apologize for his behavior. The manager called the assistant into his office on the phone; after a few minutes, she came back out and said that he heard what I said but he couldn’t come out because he was busy counting the cash receipts for the day. I responded that, had he said that to begin with, I might have been more understanding and just come back the next day to speak to him or another manager…but instead, he had been incredibly rude and risked a big sale. I walked away in what I would honestly describe as a big huff! But I didn’t leave the store…I walked with the salesman back to the dining room set and told him I would still buy this from him…it wasn’t his fault that the manager had treated me this way, and I did actually want this set, even if it meant paying full price. He was very polite and helpful through this whole process, and he apologized multiple times for his manager’s behavior. I told him I appreciate that, but I’d still be speaking to the main manager about the situation.

The next day, as planned, I called and spoke with the main store manager. He said he had actually been told by the manager in the morning that he’d probably be getting a call about this. We discussed the whole situation, and he apologized multiple times and said that, while the no-negotiating policy was indeed Bob’s set-in-stone policy, that didn’t excuse the manager’s behavior. The store manager was polite and said that, as a courtesy, he would give me a credit of $50 which I could use toward this purchase. I said that, ironically, had his manager offered to reduce the price by this small amount, I probably would have just agreed to buy it at that price and we would have never had to go through this whole mess. He apologized again and went over the details of how I could get the credit.

A week later, we received the furniture and the credit…everything was exactly as we had hoped and it looked perfect in our dining room. The extra leaf we had bought proved to be incredibly necessary for our full-table Thanksgiving dinner. Looking back, this was an interesting departure from the Value City situation. But looking at both together has demonstrated a few important notes for future transactions. The most important lesson is probably that, while it never hurts to try to bargain, it’s probably worth researching the store’s policy ahead of time. I had read a few forums online where some posters were noting the Bob’s policy…but some had responded that their experience had been that there are some negotiable items at Bob’s. So I figured I’d give it a shot; clearly, dining room sets are not on the negotiable list.

While I saved $50 on this whole transaction, it may not have been worth all the hassle and stress involved. While I normally don’t mind even the most aggressive negotiating session, this particular incident wasn’t quite as much fun as a typical customer service fiasco tends to be. Especially when I consider my earlier blog post about the “real” cost of saving on a purchase, it becomes clear that certain savings just aren’t worth it. If you’re having to call the main manager to complain about your experience, you’ve probably lessened the enjoyment that you’re supposed to get from the furniture purchase in the first place. Maybe it’s not worth focusing so much on the bottom line…after all, are you really going to even notice or remember that $50 during Thanksgiving dinner?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Case Study 1: What’s Negotiable and What’s Not (Part 1)

About a year ago, my fiancé and I were newly moved into our first house and were on the hunt for a new couch. We applied a very organized approach to our hunt and scoured every furniture store within driving distance in search of maximum comfort at minimum price. Everywhere we went it seemed like we were finding the same exact types of couches, none of which seemed particularly appealing to us. After a few weeks of searching, we suddenly came across exactly what we’d been looking for: a Klaussner sectional! The moment we sat down on it in the Value City Furniture showroom we knew we had found “the one”; it was like falling in love, but with a much steeper price tag. As it so happened, the day we found our magical couch happened to be a day before Memorial Day weekend. The store was filled with “SALE” signs and the price tag for this couch indicated that it had been marked down an extra $400 from its original discounted price (50% list price…that part I never pay much attention to, since it seems like everything is at least 50% off of list price).

It seemed like a decent price, but it was still a bit steep compared to the other models we’d been looking at. We talked it over privately and decided that this was definitely the couch for us. But being the frugal consumer that I am, I insisted that I write down the model info and research it online before we bought it at this store. My fiancé agreed and we left the store without purchasing anything. After a few days of intense research, it appeared that Value City really did have the best price for this couch. There were some Internet sites that had it for sale, but at a higher cost and without the free shipping. Even if they had it at the same price, I typically prefer to shop at brick & mortar stores whenever I’m making such a big and expensive purchase (it’s always nice to have a store that you can walk back into and see the manager face-to-face if there are any issues).Finally, after much agonizing and useless pacing, I decided to pull the trigger. My fiancé knew me too well to accompany me on the trip to the store…she knew that I was planning to do some bargaining, and when that happens, she prefers to be somewhere else.

On the way to Value City, I had a momentary hesitation and decided to pay a visit to Jennifer Convertibles. I had remembered reading that Jennifer was a Klaussner dealer, so I figured I’d take one more glance at the competition. Sure enough, Jennifer was selling the same couch in their catalog…but for hundreds of dollars more and without the free delivery! I mentioned to the sales manager the price I had seen at Value City…he told me, “If you can get that price for this couch, go sign right now!” I was taken aback by his refreshing candor…it had reassured me that my decision to buy it at Value City was not a foolish one.

So off I went back to the store. I went over to the Klaussner couch and was quickly approached by a saleswoman. I told her that I was interested in purchasing this couch, but the price was a little higher than my budget. Now some might find this bargaining process to be somewhat dishonest; I personally don’t take that view. My goal is to get this couch for the lowest price that the store is willing to accept for it; if one “story” is more likely to make that happen than another, it’s all part of a legitimate capitalistic negotiation. After all, if the lowest price they’re willing to sell it for is already on the sticker, it shouldn’t matter what story I tell them. I should also point out that I made sure to wear my college t-shirt to the store that day, as a way of illustrating that I was working “on a budget”. In reality, I was willing to pay the price on the sticker for this couch; but why not give bargaining a shot?

The saleswoman said that it was already very discounted and that this was the lowest price she could sell it for. I asked if I could speak to a manager about it, and she was very courteous and got one in a few minutes. The manager repeated the same line; this is when I switched to my second tactic. “Look,” I said to him, “I’d really like to buy this couch but it’s just a little higher than I’m looking to spend. If you could go even a little bit lower, I’d buy it right now.” My hope was that he would see that I was prepared to make the purchase there and then and that would force his hand on the truly lowest price he could sell it for. He still hesitated and proceeded to tell me about their interest-free financing. I quickly stopped him and said I wasn’t really interested in the financing…and then used my third and final tactic, “I’ll buy it on a credit card right now, payment in full, if you can knock it down by even $100!” The manager paused for a moment and thought about it…and then replied, “Okay, $100 off if you pay in full right now.” I got my credit card out and headed to the register with the saleswoman.

I walked away from this experience having learned a few things. First of all, never be afraid to jump on a good deal. Sometimes, I second-guess myself and worry that I’m overpaying and that I should hold out for a bigger sale. But this has often resulted in my actually missing out on the best price.

Secondly, it never hurts to haggle. Many people find it unpleasant to bargain for major purchases, but when it comes to furniture, vehicles, or other high-value items, the sticker price is very often quite negotiable. It’s important to remember that you’re not trying to rip anybody off; the store is in business to make money, and if the salesperson thinks they can get your business with a lower price, they’d rather make the sale at that price than not make it at all. But they’re not going to offer you that lower price out of the kindness of their hearts; it’s your responsibility to assess what you’re willing to pay for an item and whether you think it can be sold for less. The worst thing that can happen is that the store says no to your offer.

Lastly, emotional appeals can sometimes be persuasive. I’ll never know for sure whether my negotiation tactics were really responsible for the deal I got, but I suspect that if I had merely stated to the saleswoman or manager that I wanted to pay $100 less off the bat, I may not have gotten what I wanted. Instead, I slowly worked my way from “my budget” to “a little less expensive” to “$100 off”. By taking this approach, I think I was perceived less as some brat who just wanted a discount and more as a casual buyer who might really be willing to walk away from this sale. The sales staff treated me differently because of this perception, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong or dishonest about using this as a negotiation tactic. After all, if they genuinely didn’t think they were getting a fair deal in the sale, they wouldn’t have offered me the discount at all.

Coming up in the next post is Part 2, where I find out that not quite everything is as negotiable as I had thought…

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tip 5: Assessing the Hidden Costs

Picture this: you’ve been on hold for about 15 minutes trying to speak to a customer service representative about your airline reservation. As it turns out, you wanted to sit next to your spouse on your flight (why wouldn’t the airline and travel agent assume that when you booked two tickets, you didn’t actually care about them being together). Try as you might, you simply can’t get someone on the phone who can actually help you. When you eventually get through, the representative makes you give him all of your contact info (even though it’s in the booking details), only to then realize that he was typing on the “wrong screen” (any time I hear those words, I always wonder if it’s just my luck or if this actually happens to other people as much as it seems to happen to me). Finally, your seats have been changed. You’ve spent roughly 30 minutes of your time on this process. This was a free fix, of course, but as the saying goes, nothing is ever really free.

We often do ourselves the disservice of undervaluing our time. If we’re paid hourly, we know exactly how much our time is worth to our employer (and if we’re salaried, we can probably do a little math to figure out the average). But when it comes to personal customer service issues, we seem to exclude the cost of our time when figuring out how much to pay for a product or service. Take airline travel for example. With all the competition out there, you’re likely to see incredibly low prices for flights that may have cost much more in the past. Even when factoring in nickel and dime charges for excess baggage and meals, you’re still likely to pay less than even a decade ago. But did you ever take some time to consider whether you’ll be more or less likely to have a hassle-free experience with one airline versus another? Some airlines allow you to choose your seat online when you make your reservation. Had you chosen one of these in the example above, you would have saved yourself 30 minutes. Figure out how much your employer thinks 30 minutes of your time is worth, and then ask yourself if that’s more or less than the difference between this hassle-free airline’s fare and the more cumbersome airline’s fare. If it’s more or even close, ask yourself if you’d be better off by paying more up front to save yourself time and hassle down the road.

There are, of course, a few caveats to this way of thinking. First of all, if you’re like me, maybe you don’t really mind the hassle of dealing with customer service. Maybe you actually enjoy dealing with issues like this, and all you really care about is the bottom line price of doing business. You might feel that your time is really only worth what your employer thinks it’s worth while you’re at work; at home, your time might be less valuable (after all, who doesn’t enjoy a 30-minute customer service call as an after-dinner treat?). Also, you may not always be able to predict which purchase option will actually result in a customer service issue; you may pick the airline you’ve always used without any hassle only to discover that they’ve redone their customer service operation…and it’s gotten much worse. In this case, you might just throw your hands up and pick the cheapest option since you have no way of predicting whether spending extra money will actually result in a better customer service experience.

Ultimately, it all really comes down to the type of person that you think of yourself as. Are you the type of person that doesn’t really mind calling customer service, waiting on hold, and then working through an issue…possibly with multiple people? Or are you the type of person that, upon hearing the same hold music for more than 30 seconds, will immediately get frustrated and miserable and beg your significant other to just take care of this for you. If it’s the latter, picking the hassle-free option may be the way to go. It may cost you a little more up front, but you’ll be avoiding the hidden costs of time wasted and stress added…which, for you, may be far more valuable.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tip 4: Read the Fine Print

We’re all very familiar with what has become all-too-common in the modern world of business-customer relationships: endless fine print. Just take a look at any credit card application, insurance policy, banking disclosure form; each one is brimming with language that practically begs not to be read. Businesses contend that in a litigious society such as ours, they have no choice but to put an asterisk next to everything and explain in pain-staking detail what the limitations of any service or product might be. In a way, this is actually very helpful and perfectly legitimate; what better way to resolve disputes between parties than by going directly to an agreed-upon written document?

But of course the reality is often much different; most people don’t bother to read all the fine print…until they realize that clause 3(b)3, subsection q, paragraph 4 is precisely where their complaint is addressed. And naturally that fine print is favorable to the company, and unfavorable to the customer. At this point, you’re pretty much out of luck; it may be in the "fine print", but the point is, it’s in print.

There are a few ways to ensure that you don’t fall victim to these footnote technicalities. First and foremost…read the fine print! Yes, it’s annoying and can take some precious time out of your day…but in the long run, it’s worth the trouble. But don’t do it without focusing on what you’re reading; pay particular attention to items that you think might actually affect you. If you’re getting a credit card specifically because of its rewards program, pay extra attention to the reward terms…even if they’re not what most of the fine print is about. You’ll find that most credit card terms gloss over rewards limitations and focus instead on interest rates and fees…but if you’re planning to pay your balance on time each month and are getting this card to get miles or points, take the time to really focus on what the fine print says about those programs.

Secondly, while you’re trudging through this documentation, make sure to take note of anything that may actually be an issue for you…and most importantly, ask about it! Many customers will complain to a business, “How was I supposed to know that that’s what the fine print meant?” That’s because they didn’t bother to ask about items that may have seemed unclear in the fine print. If you can send an email to a company asking about particular points that you find confusing early on, you’ll have documented clarification…which can be very important down the road if there’s a conflict.

In 2007 I bought an iPod Classic from a wholesale club store; they had the best price by $10 and I had always heard about their superior customer service. But when I looked at the warranty documentation, it seemed very vague. It was unclear whether their typical take-anything-back-at-any-time return policy applied to this particular electronics item, or whether it was under the limited return policy. I asked an employee at the checkout line, and they said that the normal return policy would apply. But he seemed a bit hesitant, so I decided to wander over to the customer service desk and ask the manager. She explained that iPods had a 1-year return policy; I pressed her on why that seemed to contradict their special “electronics” return policy in the documentation I had been given with the iPod. I then asked a different manager, who told me that it was actually a 90-day return policy for iPods, unless they had a defect, in which case they could be exchanged within 1 year. But this had not been clearly spelled out in the policy. At this point, I went a step further…I insisted to the first manager that she spell out in writing for me that I could return this iPod within 1 year for any reason. After some back and forth (probably beyond what was actually called for in this situation), she agreed and a few days later faxed me a letter stating as much.  My main reason for requesting this documentation wasn’t as much about my wanting or needing a 1-year return policy…although that was a strong factor in my decision to purchase it there. It was really more about wanting to protect myself for the future…who knows what manager will be working there in a year? And even if it’s the manager I spoke to, she probably won’t even remember me and, even if she does, she has no reason to remember what she told me about this particular purchase. Only by getting this policy in writing could I ensure that I'd be getting the “peace of mind” that the warranty was intended to create in the first place. [Sidenote: this store’s website now explicitly states that iPods have a 90-day return policy.]

Lastly, don’t be shy about using the fine print in your favor during a customer service issue. If you’ve done your due diligence, you can approach your issue with written documentation supporting your case. I’m not saying that your first point has to emphasize that you read the agreement very clearly and this one sentence means you’re right and the rep is wrong; if you begin that way, it’ll make the whole process far more difficult. Rather, be prepared to point out where in the terms you found a statement that backs up your case, and politely point it out if the rep disagrees with your original request. If you’re dealing with a good company that knows its own terms and conditions, you’ll never even need to get to this point. But since you’ve already gone to the trouble of actually reading the fine print, you might as well be ready to use it to your advantage.

Tip 3: Help Them Help You

When you think about what actually happens during a customer service inquiry, you start to realize that essentially it all boils down to one party that needs something from the other. I’ve found over the years that one of my biggest mistakes has been taking the position that the customer service operation is there to serve me, the customer…even though this assumption is essentially true in theory. But, I think you’ll find that it rarely seems to play out in practice. This is because when you’re making a customer service call, you’re asking another human being to put your interests first and do something for you. And a lot of times it's something they have been trained not to do, despite the fact that happy customers are more likely to return. So a better way to deal with customer service representatives is to think of it as a negotiation…what is the best way that I can get this person to do something that I want or need? I find the best way to do this is often to offer a solution. It also helps to say things to convince the representative that the two of you are on the same team.  

For instance, if I get to a point in a call where I think that my request is beyond the typical policy of the business I’m dealing with, I will start to quickly think of ways that helping me can be beneficial to the customer service rep. For a better explanation of what I mean, see the classic “Help Me, Help You” clip below from my old buddy Jerry Maguire:

Think of yourself as Jerry in this scene…you are not just fighting for your own interests, but you’re actually trying to help the rep deal with this issue. You are empathizing with his desire to get this issue off his plate…if he’s a supervisor or manager who has had this issue escalated to him, your willingness to help him get it resolved in the fastest and easiest way possible will be even more appreciated. Even if it’s not entirely true (let’s face it, we don’t exactly have the strongest empathy for certain businesses or their customer service reps), you have to appreciate that the voice on the other end of the line is just like you…he wants to scratch something off of his list, and you’re trying to help him with that.

One way you can achieve this is by saying something like, “I know you’ve got a lot of other, much more pressing issues to deal with, so I’m sure getting this small problem resolved would save us both a lot of time and hassle.” If he’s a supervisor or higher, he’ll appreciate that you value his time. You can also say, “I understand that you’re a business, and you have certain rules; but right now, the rules are actually hurting your business. If you help me out with this issue, you’ll end up with a much happier, more loyal customer who will be sure to recommend you to his friends and family.” How successful is a line like this? Probably about 50/50. It’s all about sensing the tone; is this a very business-oriented individual who is thinking about his company’s long-term success? Or is this a bottom-line focused manager who doesn’t want to rock the boat and risk getting in trouble for letting you go outside the company’s typical policies? If it’s the latter, you need a different approach which will be covered in later posts. But if it’s the former, you can appeal to the supervisor’s sense of customer relationship-building: “You know, I’ve spent a lot of money with your company [even if you haven’t…he probably won’t check], and I definitely want to keep doing business with you in the future. But without this issue being fixed, I don’t really think I can do that.”

Illustrate for the rep that by not fixing your issue, he or she is actually costing his company money. Let’s say you’re asking for a refund for something that typically wouldn’t be refunded (i.e. shipping costs for something you decided not to keep). If I were having this issue, the conversation would go something like this:

Me: I know you guys typically don’t refund the shipping costs for Item X. But I’ve done a lot of business with your company and I’d really appreciate it if you could do me the courtesy of refunding me for this one charge. [“courtesy” is the key word, because supervisors are often empowered to refund certain charges as a “courtesy” adjustment for customers]
Rep: I’d really like to help you, sir, but our policy doesn’t really allow us to refund the shipping cost.
Me: I totally understand that; but I think if you were kind enough to do that for me, I would definitely be buying something else from your store with the money, so you’d actually end up making money in the long run. In fact, maybe I could get the shipping refunded as a store credit, since I’m planning to buy from you again.

If you’re saying this to a Level 1 rep (who you probably shouldn’t be spending too much time with, as you may have learned from Tip 1), you may have some luck by suggesting the credit option…after all, you’re showing him that you really do want to buy something else from his company. If you’re saying this to a supervisor, you’ll have an even better chance, since he’s much more likely to appreciate that this will actually affect his company’s long-term relationship with you as a customer…and thus, you’re helping him help you.