The Fine Art of Complaining to Customer Service

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By Nicholas Pell

There's an art to getting what you want from customer service people. If you don't have the skills that make up that finesse, you're going to get stuck with a lot of "we're real sorry" boilerplate responses. However, if you know how to perfect this fine art, you're not just going to get what you're asking for -- a lot of times, you're going to get a whole lot more.

Get a Decision Maker

Jordan Harbinger is a former Wall Street lawyer and a founder of The Art of Charm, a Los Angeles company that helps men hone their professional and social skills. He advises to start off by making sure you're talking to someone who can address your concern. "The wording is important," he said. "You don't want to talk to someone who's just reading off of a screen."

To that end, he suggests specific language like "Are you able to refund $1,000 in unused services" or "Who do I talk to about refunding several months of unused service?"

Be On Your Best Behavior

It's never fun to call customer service. Harbinger advises that you do your best to keep your cool. "Even if they can't help you, getting mad is just going to make you all rattled when you finally talk to someone who matters. They don't care if you're angry. It's not their problem."

Instead, try to get the customer service representative on your side. "Some wording I might use is 'I don't mean to come across as short with you, but I'm really upset,'" he said. "At this point, you're increasing the chances that the person actually wants to help you." After all, these people deal with angry customers all day. Being the one person who was polite to them can win you big points with the right people. "Try and identify with their role," he said.

Ask the Right Questions

As you can probably already gather, what you ask is just about as important as how you ask it. So when you start getting somewhere, it's important to ask a variant of "Is that the limit of your authority?" Harbinger notes that a lot of times you hit a wall because the computer doesn't allow the person on the other end of the phone to give you what you want. He also says that you need to be prepared at this point to learn that no one can give you what you want. Still, if it's going to make you feel better, escalate just to create a record of your complaint.

However, Harbinger said that it's probably just best to cut your losses when you hit the ceiling of what someone can actually do. "If you haven't looked at your statement for the last 11 months, you probably should have," he said. "Accept that it's partially your fault when it is."

Take Things to Social Media

Dave Kerpen, "the Crunch N Munch Guy" and a participant on the reality show "Paradise Hotel," is also a social media expert, and he points out the United Breaks Guitars video, a viral sensation by Canadian musician Dave Carroll chronicling how United Airlines (UAL) broke his guitar. "No one wants to be in that situation," he said.

"Your first step isn't a loud, angry complaint," Kerpen said of a social media complaint. "Your first step is telling them how much you love their company." If that doesn't get a response, you start complaining loudly and vociferously -- with a little bit of signal boost from your friends. "The bigger your following, the better the chance is you're going to get a resolution you're happy with," he says.

The biggest mistake? Not asking for what they want explicitly. "You need to ask for it from the start," Kerpen said. "If you say what you want, you're far more likely to get it."

Kerpen encourages people to record customer service calls. In the event of a problem, you can post them -- but check your local laws about recording phone calls.

"At the end of the day the most important tool is empathy and a little bit of charm," Harbinger said. "No amount of cool scripts is going to make up for the fact that they think you're a jerk -- so don't be one."
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