Customer Service: Politeness vs. Demands

The prevailing wisdom when dealing with customer service representatives is to just keep repeating, “Let me speak to your supervisor,” until you eventually get what you want. Every time I read this, though, I get defensive and annoyed. I can’t forget that year I spent answering the phones for Bank of America, and the myriad of emotions I’d go through in a given day. Sure, BofA is an obscenely big multi-national corporation that probably deserves some serious punishment for its role in our recent financial collapse, but it’s also run entirely by human beings, and the customer service department are the human beings you talk to the most.

I learned a couple of very important lessons as a CSR that are in direct conflict with the “let me speak to your supervisor” rule.

Lesson 1: A friend is more likely to help you

As a CSR, when a customer made a human connection with me, I was always more eager to find ways to help them. Of course I always stayed within the rules (well, almost always), but we bank employees had a surprising amount of leeway for actions such as refunding overdraft charges. Not that that’s really a problem, anymore.

When a conversation begins with understanding, I find that progress is easier to make. So now that I’m always on the other end of the phone line, I start with humility instead of anger. For example, pretend I’m talking to someone who just introduced himself as Alex:

Hi, Alex, my name is Smithee. I’m hoping you could help explain something that’s got me really confused.

  • Write down (or just temporarily learn) his/her name. Use it conversationally, but especially near the end just before whatever changes that need to be made are about to be made.
  • Acknowledge that he/she is an independent, intelligent human being with feelings. They will reciprocate that point of view on you, too.
  • Remember their position: they’ve been talking to people with problems like yours for hours. Believe it or not, they like it when they’re able to help. Give them a chance to help you.

Sometimes I’ll go all out and just start with nothing but a little humor:

Hi, Alex, my name is Smithee and I’m afraid I’m totally ignorant, but I hope you can help.

This opener always seems to get a chuckle from the other end, which makes both of you feel good.

Using this method has been successful for me: people don’t get mad at me, and I don’t get mad at them, and I don’t have to ask to speak to a supervisor. Sure, supervisors get brought in sometimes, but it’s always their idea first.

Starting with friendliness, I get fees reversed, special deals made, you name it. When I used to call the cable (or satellite, or FiOS) company, I always ended up paying less per month for more channels, or higher bandwidth.

It’s not all hugs and puppies, of course.

Lesson 2: Even your friends can’t always help you

The other thing that bugs me about the “let me speak to your supervisor” rule is the innumerable times I personally witnessed irate customers being passed up the line, to no avail. If you’re calling with an unreasonable request (for example, this all-too-true story: “I wrote a $500 check two days before I got paid, sure, but you guys knew I’d get paid on Thursday, why did the check bounce?!”), no amount of yelling will fix the situation. You’ll simply end up ruining other people’s days, ten minutes at a time.

Ask yourself:

  1. Was this my mistake?
  2. Even so, do I have a good history as a customer? (Oh, the data these CSRs can look up…)
  3. Can I spare five minutes to walk off some steam and try to identify with the point of view of someone with a worse job than my own?

If the answers to all of those are yes, then please pay it forward instead of stealing it backward by taking that five-minute walk.

Are there exceptions? Of course! Sometimes the big behemoth is the one who screwed up. But mostly, it’s us customers who made the mistake. If you can sound like you’re willing to laugh it off, the company will be more willing, also.

That’s been my experience, anyway.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.