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Encore: How to talk to customer service — and actually get what you want


We've all been there - the dreaded call to a customer service line.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Please hold while your call is being transferred.

ESTRIN: Can I please just speak to a live human being? Well, there are ways to get what you want. In this encore, Meghan Keane of NPR's Life Kit explains a game plan.

MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: Chances are if you're calling a customer service line, you're dealing with a problem. I know it's tempting to come in hot and just really lay into the customer service representative, but just remember...


CRAIG DOS SANTOS: Behind every rule, there's a person who has to apply that rule, and that person often has some leeway. And they're only going to change things if you can reach them.

KEANE: That's Craig dos Santos. He's a consultant who specializes in negotiation, which makes him pretty incredible at dealing with customer service. He's done seemingly impossible tasks, like successfully returning three new iPads after the return period and negotiating a $16,000 medical bill to $0. But he didn't do any of this by yelling or demanding to speak to the manager.

DOS SANTOS: It's tempting to think of these as transactions, but there's a real human there. And if you treat them as a transactional being, then they will also treat you that way.

KEANE: A big tip from dos Santos - make the customer service representative your ally. You want to signal to the rep you're separating them from the problem.

DOS SANTOS: What I'll tell them is like, look, I know that you didn't have anything to do with this; I know you're trying to help me, but I want to tell you what happened.

KEANE: Let's say you ordered some sneakers. The company says they were delivered weeks ago, but you haven't seen them arrive yet - a total hypothetical here. Instead of saying, hey, jerk, you need to fix this; your company shouldn't be losing sneakers; this is unacceptable, take a deep breath.

DOS SANTOS: Just tell them, look, I'm really frustrated. I just want to tell you what's been my experience so far and separate that out. I think that is one way to, like, bring reality into the conversation without making it about them.

KEANE: Again, separating the person from the problem. So it's more like, I know the tracking information for these shoes say they've been delivered, but I've already checked with my neighbors if they picked it up by mistake, and no one has, and I'm just confused as to why they're still missing. It should go without saying, but here's your reminder to be kind. Use the representative's name and just be patient.

Another easy way to get someone on your side during a customer service interaction - ask them for advice. What would you do in my situation?

DOS SANTOS: Or I'll just state the situation. Like, you know, I woke up today, and I was just not expecting to get a bill for $145. Like, I don't know what to do - silence. You know, let them contemplate that situation, and then see what they say. And oftentimes they'll be like, yeah, that would be crappy. If I woke up in the morning and had a $145 bill, I would not be happy either.

KEANE: The key to getting good customer service is preemptively de-escalating the situation. Dos Santos does this with what he calls caretaking statements. It's essentially showing your appreciation.

DOS SANTOS: I appreciate you, like, being patient with me as we figure this thing out.

KEANE: Or say, thank you so much for sticking with me on this, or I've dealt with a few people today on this issue, and you've been so quick to sort this out.

DOS SANTOS: You can always insert one of these little what I call caretaking statements to reduce the tension, but you're not releasing the request.

KEANE: All of this - making the customer service representative your ally, separating the person from the problem, showing your appreciation - helps set policies and rules aside so you can solve the problem with another human.

DOS SANTOS: Now you're talking about something that actually impacts people emotionally. And when you need to move somebody emotionally, then you can move what their decisions are.

KEANE: So much better than just asking for the manager.

For NPR News, I'm Meghan Keane.

ESTRIN: For more Life Kit, go to npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meghan Keane is the founder and managing producer for NPR's Life Kit, which brings listeners advice and actionable information about personal finances, health, parenting, relationships and more. She is responsible for the editorial vision of Life Kit, which aims to serve NPR's larger mission of public service.