We asked career customer-service experts—including Consumer Reports “acquisition” pros, who pose as regular consumers to sign up for services and buy the thousands of products we test—what works for them on the job or at home.
(Read our special report on why company promises and new technology haven’t made the customer-service experience much less painful.)
1. Pick up the phone
Eighty percent of those who participated in our national survey contacted a company that way. Half of them said it was the most effective way to resolve an issue. Real-time contact is often more efficient than e-mail, where there can be a wait of 24 to 48 hours for an answer, said Sharon Parker-Odom of Carmel, Ind., a Consumer Reports Facebook fan who worked in customer service for 26 years, three of them in call centers. Need a company’s number? Look under “investor relations” or “news,” or try websites such as Dial a Human and Get Human.
2. Cut your hold time
Try a free Web service like Lucy Phone, where you enter a company’s name or number, then give the service your phone number. It calls you back when a rep comes on the line.
3. Bypass automated menus
The old ploy of pressing “0” (with or without the “#” sign) sometimes works. Another option: Forget support entirely and press the prompt for “sales” or “to place an order,” when companies are likely to roll out the red carpet. Dealing with a TV provider or telecom company? Leapfrog service and go directly to customer retention, where agents are empowered to negotiate.
4. Show—and ask for—empathy
Many customer-care reps are low-paid workers subject to poor treatment, and their opinions are rarely sought. If you’re in a store, act with sensitivity if you notice one of them being abused by another customer. When making your case, end with the words, “Can you help me?” He or she might not have the authority, so instead of making insults, politely ask to speak with a supervisor. You also might want to say, “Don’t you agree?” or “Would you want that done to you?”
5. If nothing else works, escalate
We never suggest that you become uncivil, but if you’re stuck, be forceful. Companies rely on voice-recognition software to detect anger, sarcasm, and inflammatory phrases like “you people,” and will swiftly transfer you to an operator.
6. Try live chat
The option, if available, is just as effective as using the phone and is often faster. It also results in a transcript for follow-up purposes. Chat reps tend to be more senior than phone reps and have greater decision-making authority, said John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting.
7. Build a case
You don’t have to be a lawyer to get satisfaction, but it helps to think like one. One of our shoppers was recently surprised when Verizon FiOS pulled the Weather Channel from his TV package, replacing it with the company’s own version. When he asked why it was removed, the response was a terse, “We’re just not doing it anymore.” So our shopper went Perry Mason: “ I signed a two-year contract; you changed the lineup and altered our agreement. The way I see it, that contract is null and void.” The representative ended up giving him a discount on his bill.
8. Tell your (Facebook) friends
Many companies actively monitor social-media sites to intercept problems before they go viral and do greater damage, so you’re likely to get a quick response, Goodman said.
9. Take it to the top
Contact the president’s or CEO’s office and ask to speak with an assistant. Or write the chief executive directly. Less than 2 percent of consumers do that, Goodman said, so executives pay attention.
10. Seek outside help
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers assistance with problems involving financial products and services such as loans, leases, debt collection, credit cards, and banks. File a complaint at consumerfinance.gov/complaint, and the federal agency will forward it to the company and work to get a response within a specified time frame. You can also share your story to help protect other consumers.
11. Cancel and come back
Cable companies used to trip over each other trying to snatch a competitor’s customers with enticing incentives. These days, they seem to have no qualms about letting you walk. But believe it or not, that can work to your advantage. When the half-price HBO promo ended for one of our shoppers and the cable company refused to extend it, he dropped the package. “Once I quit, they offered it to me again—in the same phone call,” he said. Another shopper dropped Cablevision completely when his bill skyrocketed. After he quit, the company was willing to deal to regain his business.
This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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