Saturday, August 3, 2013

10 Ways I Negotiated with Customer Service and Won: How I Reclaimed $625 from The Man in Two Months

One aspect of being an adult I didn't anticipate is the hassle involved in dealing with lame grown-up stuff like health insurance, internet providers, and paying for library books your toddler ripped apart during what should have been his nap time. I never realized how much my mom probably had to dig through the dung heap that is customer service, all while I was whining about teenage-world-problems like how the janitor cleaned the pudding-cup-lid mosaic from the inside of my locker door (he had no respect for installation art).

As an adult, I have costlier issues sapping my time and emotional reserves. Through experience, secondhand knowledge from Nathan's business negotiation course, and my own pushy personality, I've identified a few strategies to get out of fees, lower your bills, and generally save money.

The first call center ...

1. Be nice. Customer service employees are still, surprisingly, human, and respond well to nice people. Make your request pleasantly, and they may respond by doing everything they can to make you happy (because happy and nice are not synonymous--you can communicate your grievance but still be nice about it). Nathan used this strategy the other day to lower a dental bill. We'd accidentally scheduled an appointment for Graham during a window when he wasn't insured, and we were billed around $70 just for getting his teeth polished and counted (if the insurance company was paying, who cares, but this bill did not reflect the value we felt we received). Nathan nicely mentioned it during his own appointment, and at our next visit we unexpectedly received a $42 refund.

That's worth smiling about! (and FYI, he has 20 teeth.)

2. Be a good customer. If you can point to a long history of good customer behavior, you could negotiate for lenience when it comes to getting out of fees. I've used this strategy successfully for getting out of a late credit card payment fee (a one-time thing--that's the key) and a few bank overdraft fees. More recently, after Graham ripped up a few library books, I took him to the librarian and we solemnly confessed the crime and asked what we owed. The librarian responded well to us taking responsibility, and said she would wave the replacement fee because we "were so nice." Also, we made sure to confess to the nice librarian. We probably saved around $40 in fees to replace and re-catalogue two books.

Me, rip two books to shreds and throw the pieces like confetti all around my crib? Never.

3. Ask and ye might receive. Asking for freebies or refunds can be uncomfortable, but by asking for something specifically, you can derail their script of "I'm sorry, but that's our policy," and get them to think creatively about how to meet your request. Just ask! This was the foundational principal in Nathan's business negotiation class.

It's a great strategy to use when you're dealing with companies with good customer service--they want to say "yes"! I used this approach successfully a few weeks ago at Target. I found a pair of sandals I liked, priced at $16, but missing the price tag. I asked if I could get a discount (we'd both benefit because they wouldn't have to deal with putting a new tag on the shoes ... admittedly this is a small benefit for them, but you work with what you have!). The cashier agreed and marked them down to $10 for me--a savings of $6--almost 40% off!

I used this strategy successfully a month ago when dealing with Amazon. I was returning an opened wireless router. Even though I'd technically missed the return window, and opened the package, I got them to accept the return, waive the restocking fee, and pay my return shipping--all just because I asked. I probably saved about $12 in restocking and shipping fees.

If your request is denied, reply with, "What can you do for me?" It's lame for them to reply, "Nothing," so they may think of something to make you happy. Also try asking to speak with the manager--they often have more power to meet your requests.

4. Use the medium you're most comfortable with. Going back to the Amazon example--it was easy for me to ask for all those freebies because I was doing it over chat. I would have felt a little awkward asking for all that over the phone, and especially in person. Use the communication channel that fits best. For example, if you are ticked off, you have greater impact if they can hear the tone of your voice, or better yet, hear your voice and see your wrathful-customer-vindication face. Just don't be too scary or they'll call security. Also, don't ever yell, be threatening, use personal attacks, or swear--call center people only have a few instances when they are justified in hanging up on a customer, and it's when a customer uses those cheap strategies.

I am the wall between you and a bill adjustment. Break me down kindly.

5. Use the magic words, "I will cancel if you do not (insert demands here)." Having a customer cancel their service is a huge black mark against the customer service rep. Because it usually costs a lot more to gain a new customer than to retain a current customer, companies will try and do a lot to keep your business--whether by locking you into contracts, making it complicated to cancel, or heaven forbid, by keeping you happy. Avoid the first, endure the second if needed, and exploit the third. I used these magic words last month while dealing with my AT&T internet bill, which had doubled after my 12-month promotional rate expired (also meaning I was no longer under contract=leverage!). I had to repeat the magic words several times (also the other magic words: "let me speak to a manager"), and I had to be transferred and put on hold several times, but eventually I got on the phone with someone who could meet my demands. I negotiated for a 25% discount on my bill (still higher than the initial promo rate, but Graham and Ruby were crying so I caved ... I probably could have gotten more if I'd been even more persistent), and three months of free service, worth $96.

AT&T is an unforgivable curse.

6. Hold them accountable. Know your rights as a customer, and exercise them! Graham's beloved sound machine broke two months before the warranty expired. Yes, it's a hassle to go online, find the warranty info, contact the company, and upload a photo verifying the model you have, but then the friendly company sends you a new sound machine, worth $25.

Love this thing.

Sometimes you have less standing, though. A rep from my health insurance company told me I would be reimbursed for a prescription from a special pharmacy, even though it was out of network. Believing her, I filled the $132 prescription, then filed my claim, which was subsequently denied, twice. While I was at fault for not knowing the parameters of my policy better (no out of network coverage), I had been given misinformation. So I pushed and pushed and pushed (usually necessary for insurance companies) until they were willing to compensate me for their mistake--$98 back, baby!

7. Be informed. Does the company price match? Compare rates from different companies, and see if one of them will match and/or beat their competitor's offer. We got a smaller furniture store (i.e. better customer service) to take $200 off the price of Nathan's chair in order to match Dillard's price, and they gave us free delivery on top of that (worth $75) because they wanted to beat Dillard's.

Upholstery: A few cows. Delivery fee: $0. Seeing your husband snuggle your baby daughter: priceless. Awwww.

Another time, our doctor billed us $174 for an uncovered medical procedure (we've got to read the fine print more ... gah). Knowing that physicians will accept way lower rates if the insurance company is paying, we asked our insurance company what that contracted rate was. We went back to our doctor and said he should be willing to accept that amount from us if he would have taken it from the insurance company. His office manager (the doctor's wife ...) didn't like that so much, but again, we pushed and pushed and pushed (What is it with the health care system in this country?! Seriously.), until they agreed to accept the insured rate of $77--saving us $97. Be willing to research these policies and figures--it could save you a lot.

8. Channel your righteous anger. Sad, but true: sometimes you need to rear your ugly dissatisfied-consumer head and get intense. Don't be mean by attacking the customer service rep personally, but feel free to attack the company and its policies. Use great words and phrases like "disgusted," "unacceptable," and "how are you going to make this right?" I had to use this strategy today with our energy company. I signed up under a rate of 6.8 cents/kwh ... which they honored for two weeks before jacking my rate up to 16.1 cents/kwh. When I got a bill for $232 (over three times what I paid the same time last year), I was ticked, and I let them know. I immediately asked to speak to a supervisor, who, after listening to my angry spiel, agreed they had been unfair and applied the cheaper rate, saving me $134.

9. Avoid companies with reputations for bad customer service. Because why patronize businesses that don't respect you or your resources? Capitalism is a beautiful thing (usually), and you can reward companies for their good behavior with your dollar. Then you won't need most of these strategies!

Why is the mom the only one wearing pants? Why, why, why? Subliminal feminist propaganda?

10. Put on an episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and pick up the phone. Because you might be on hold for a while (okay, you will definitely be on hold for a while--be strong!), and you can't have your adorable toddler distracting you from your game.

Total saved: $625. Boom.


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