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How To Talk To Customer Service – And Actually Get What You Want

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Every time I'm about to call a customer service line – dread washes over me. I know I'll fold as soon as a customer representative says they can't help me, and I feel like I've lost before even trying.

But there is a way to actually get what you want when you're calling customer service.

"Behind every rule, there's a person who has to apply that rule, and that person often has some leeway," says Craig dos Santos, a consultant who specializes in negotiation. It's tempting, says dos Santos, to think of customer service interactions as transactions. But there's a cost.

"If you treat them as a transactional being, then they will also treat you that way," he notes.

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Instead, try following these negotiation tips from dos Santos to make almost any customer service interaction work in your favor.

Separate the person from the problem

Remember, the customer service representative isn't personally responsible for the problem you're calling about. When you speak to a representative, establish that you don't blame them for the problem.

"What I'll tell them is, 'Look, I know that you don't have anything to do with this. I know you're trying to help me, but I want to tell you what happened,'" says dos Santos. Then, calmly explain the issue. You want the customer service representative to empathize with your situation. They can't do that if you're yelling at them.

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"I can express that I'm upset, but now they're not feeling confronted," says dos Santos.

Show vulnerability

If you're met with a wall of business-sounding script from the representative, try to remind them that you're both human. Use the representative's name when you talk to them. Dos Santos says you can even mention what's around your surroundings to give them a brief glimpse into your life.

"I'll say something like, 'Hey, hang on one second, sorry, my stove's on, and...I'm cooking food for my mom. She's coming over there tonight,'" say dos Santos. That might open a short conversation – is it dinner where you are? What are you making?

"Now that's two humans talking as opposed to a customer service representative and a person they have to deal with," says dos Santos.

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Make "caretaking" statements

It can be awkward to ask for what you want. One way to make the situation less of a tug-of-war and more of a collaboration: try using what dos Santos calls "caretaking" statements, like "I appreciate you being patient with me as we figure this thing out."

You're not losing focus on the problem at hand, but you're also signaling the work they're doing to help you. This kind of language can preemptively keep tension low so you and the representative can focus on problem solving together.

Make them your ally

"I want the verbal equivalent of closing my laptop, walking around the table, putting my hand on your shoulder and then we look at the problem together," says dos Santos.

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Dos Santos does this with what he calls calibrated questions. These are questions that give the customer service representative a chance to pause and take your perspective.

You can ask, simply, "what would you do in my situation?" or "I really wasn't expecting to wake up to this unexpected charge – what do you think I should do next?" This helps them collaborate with you instead of having a standoff.

A quick way to lose trust? Asking for their manager. Dos Santos says, instead, you want to have the representative to advocate for you to their manager – and they can't do that if you're threatening to get them in trouble with their boss.

Don't lie – be true to who you are, while also being respectful

Being stuck on an endless call-transfer loop from department to department can be frustrating. But don't lose your cool. You can show your annoyance without blowing up.

Remind the representative you're not angry with them personally, and try something like: "'I'm really frustrated. I just want to tell you what's been my experience so far," dos Santos suggests.

It should go without saying – but remember to be nice! Lying or screaming isn't going to get you what you want.

"You are trying to show empathy and get empathy in return," says dos Santos. "When you need to move somebody emotionally, then you can move what their decisions are."

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  • The podcast portion of this story was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee.

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