Inside tips on winning the customer service complaint game

Anyone who's ever called a company's customer service line -- and that's just about all of us, I'd suspect -- has probably heard these words: "This call may be monitored for quality assurance."

But have you ever wondered if the call was actually being recorded? We did. We also wondered just what the people listening in heard -- and what tips they might have to help us come out on top of the customer service complaint game every time.
Chris Coles, CEO of HyperQuality, an outsourced quality evaluation vendor, helped us out. He says calls are indeed being recorded by companies like his, which then rate the customer service representatives against a list of criteria provided by the company. "We can provide our own perspective of what's good and bad, but we follow the lead of the company and what they consider good and bad," says Coles.

While rating the customer service reps, evaluators are are also overhearing plenty of angry customers. According to Coles, yelling, swearing, threatening or name calling on the part of callers is not an effective way to get results. Asking to speak to the company owner also won't get you far. Nor does stating an intent to take the issue all the way to the president... of the United States. We're not joking. Coles said a recent trend among callers is to threaten to get in touch with President Obama in order to get their problems fixed.

So what does work? Here's what Coles suggests:
  • Be prepared. Before placing the call, develop a a concise explanation of just what is wrong and what needs to be done to fix the problem. If the call is technology related, be sure you have all the information about the product and are on a high speed internet connection. Customer service agents or technicians have a checklist they run through, so prepare to have all the documentation ready before sitting down and dialing.
  • Be concise. Clearly and immediately state what is wrong and what you want. The more latitude you give to a representative, the longer the call. You want your problem fixed quickly, so know what you want and ask for it.
  • Be reasonable. Remember, you're dealing with a customer service agent, not a servant. They can't be expected to refund your money, send you a new product and send you a $500 gift card, just to make you happy.
  • Be diligent. Get the agent's name and/or ID number at the beginning of the call, note the date and time of the call, and keep a written record of all calls you make regarding the issue.
The most important thing you can do is remain calm. "A lot of these [agents] are measured on their ability to stick to the script, so you hear some absurd, robotic nonsequiturs," says Coles. At times, it can be infuriating to customers, especially when the problem goes unresolved and the customer service rep cheerily asks, "Is there anything else I can help you with today?" Even though you may want to explode, try not to lose your temper. It won't get you anywhere with the agent.

Despite your best intentions, however, any number of things can and do go wrong. Follow these tips to keep things on track:
  • If things get emotional, it's normally on the customer's side, Coles says. If it's the other way around, you need to get a supervisor on the phone or hang up. Unprofessional behavior shouldn't be tolerated, and the call monitors will assuredly flag the operator.
  • If there's a language barrier, politely ask to speak with another agent. Call centers in India, Latin America and even Eastern Europe are not uncommon these days, and accents can be difficult to understand, particularly when you're frustrated. Be aware of your own role in the exchange, though. Coles says that all too often, non-English speaking agents bear the brunt of our frustrations and get more blame than is productive.
  • If it comes down to a policy issue and the agent doesn't have the authority to change things, ask to speak to a supervisor or have one call you back, and make it clear -- politely -- that you're dissatisfied. "This jumps off the page to the monitoring agency," explains Coles. "It becomes a company consideration as to whether they want to reach out and make it right or change a policy."
To get the results you want, it also helps to know that different industries have different customer service objectives. For instance, cell phone providers are more interested in attracting new customers than keeping existing ones, so asking for a retention specialist will probably get you better results.

If you're speaking with a discount retailer, it's important to understand that in some cases, these retailers have lowered prices to the bare minimum and deep discounting doesn't allow for much customer service. If you have a traceable history as a regular client who doesn't just cherry pick deals, point that out. This makes you a more valuable customer, and the agent may be more likely to want to work with you to make you happy.

When all else fails, cry. According to Coles, genuine tears go a long way toward getting you satisfaction. Never underestimate empathy. That's an actual person on the other end of the line, and odds are pretty good they've walked in your shoes.
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