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How to Win a Fight With Customer Service

A strongly worded letter can go a long way (and other tips for getting what you want)

If you’ve ever worked a retail or food-service job, you know that dealing with irate customers is perhaps the most banal form of devilry capitalism has to offer. The irrational logic, the righteous entitlement, the raging displacement of personal problems — as yours truly once learned in her time as a Chili’s hostess, a Starbucks barista and an Apple Store employee, people never seem to tire of the opportunity to scream at another human being without fear of social reprisal.

That, in turn, can give anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of such unbridled wrath a uniquely empathetic view of customer service representatives. Whether it’s tipping generously (20 percent or higher, always, on everything), refusing to send back a wrong drink order, or just rolling over and ignoring an incorrect billing amount, being nice to service employees — or even just avoiding them completely — for many, is a sign of good character.

The only problem is that same impulse to shield service workers from nasty customer abuse can often backfire, leaving you, the customer, at the mercy (or lack thereof) of huge companies that want your money and don’t really care how they get it. Being patient and understanding with a hotline operator is certainly a healthy practice… until suddenly it’s three hours later and the issue you’ve called about still isn’t addressed (or fixed!).

These hangups are totally understandable. Especially in an era when corporate red tape is at its peak and phone calls are more stressful than ever, most of us Davids would rather not bother provoking the Goliaths of the world that continue to overcharge, under-serve, and otherwise take advantage of them. It’s just not worth it, you might find yourself thinking as you fork over an ungodly sum of money (or worse, decide not to fight to get it back).

But in this instance, you are mistaken. It is totally worth taking the time to stand up for yourself, especially if, like me, you simply cannot afford to look the other way. And while many people might argue that there are just people who can do things like fighting customer service and people who can’t, I refuse to believe this. Some may not come to confrontation naturally or gracefully, but as a person who has successfully negotiated lower cable bills, countless waived overdraft fees and, once, three entire months of health insurance for free, I am convinced that anyone can learn the skills necessary to demand the fair treatment they deserve from The Man. You can get started with these crucial rules.

Note: These instructions are for minor, bureaucratic incidents of fuckery only. Obviously, a service worker kicking you off a plane for “making him uncomfortable” requires a completely different, more aggressive and often legal approach.

Rule 1: People are human, but corporations are not.

Customer support workers are human beings just like you and me, but they’re also human beings representing corporations whose policies are designed to maximize profit. Always distinguish between the person and the corporation — for example, make sure the voice on the other end knows your frustration is not personal, but had better be remedied with a quickness — but keep them both in your line of sight. Pay too much attention to the corporation, and you’re a jerk yelling at a minimum-wage employee… but pay too much attention to the employee’s feelings, and the corporation will demolish you.

The more human you present yourself as, the more likely you are to get what you want.

Rule 2: Document everything.

Before engaging, do everything in your power to record proof of the issue in question, especially if it’s a billing issue, and especially if you’re emailing them. Screenshot, download PDFs, get case numbers, names of service reps, everything. Proof that you’ve paid a bill or that the company messed up can often mean the difference between a full refund and a bad mood with nothing to show for it.

Rule 3: Remember, entitlement is not inherently toxic.

Rich, successful people often get that way, in part, by acting like they deserve every good thing that comes to them. But in its purest form, a sense of entitlement is only really bad form when you aren’t actually entitled to the thing you think you’re entitled to. Think of it this way: Why shouldn’t you be entitled to the kind of service a company gives its best clients — if not just the services you pay for? If a corporation spends millions on advertising campaigns that paint their business in a good light, consumers deserve to reap the benefits from that image, regardless of nitpicky fine print.

Rule 4: Let them come to you.

Fun fact: Demanding specific things can sometimes make you sound like an entitled jerk. Instead, try asking open-ended questions and polite requests — for example, “How does [insert company here] plan on remedying this issue?” or “If you’d be able to reverse this charge for me, I’d be so grateful.” By making your problem and your circumstances clear and then yielding the floor, you give agency to the worker you’re dealing with.

Support employees (as you know, if you’ve been one) are usually trained to handle a variety of different customer scenarios, but they’re only empowered to solve a limited number of issues. If you stress them out by demanding something they might not be authorized to do for you, you’re far less likely to get what you want — the employee’s main goal will become getting away from you, rather than making you happy. (Apple Store “Geniuses,” for example, are technically authorized to not charge customers for certain repairs, but won’t even consider it if the customer is a jerk.)

Rule 5: Plan what you’re going to say in advance.

If you’re worried about freezing or rolling over when you go into these types of conversations, it can help to write out a mini-script for yourself (this works for any professional cold call, by the way — from interview requests to inquiries on job or apartment listings to requesting tax exemptions from your city). With a script, you can better concentrate on maintaining an upbeat, even-keeled timbre — you know, the kind used by customer support specialists themselves (think of it as beating bureaucracy at its own game).

Employ the most sunnily manipulative language you can: you’re not “mad” about your Best Buy’s customer service experience, you’re “disappointed.” It’s not that you just don’t like paying the overdraft fee; it’s that you’ve been “such a faithful customer over the past 15 years” and they’d be saving your ass if they could just spot you this one time — besides, if they want to look at their records, you’ve never left a negative balance for longer than a few hours. Be as real with the person as possible, though, and try to stress that you understand that what you’re asking is for them to do you a favor — if you sound fake, the whole strategy will backfire.

Super-pro tip: When contacting by phone, remember your customer service representative’s first name, repeating it back to them first when saying hello, then when thanking them at the end of the call.

Obviously, you can be more direct over email — the “I was told by AppleCare” lady would never have gone viral if she’d lodged her complaint digitally. Like so:

Initial email:

Hi there, [be chatty but firm right off the bat]

My name is [first and last name]; I’m writing about an issue with my [account number].

[A few sentences presenting the issue, in — include as much formal detail as possible].

[Another sentence explaining why the representative should go out of their way to help you, rather than quote regulation. Stress your long, reliable history with the company, or reference previous times you’ve spoken to someone in his department, especially if those interactions were particularly excellent or particularly terrible — it gives the incentive to either meet high standards or make up for bad experiences.]

I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me address this as soon as possible — thanks so much in advance for your help.


[Your full name]

If this is a big enough problem to lodge a formal complaint, you’ll probably have to pester them a second time:

Follow-up email:

Hi, [shorter, more clipped, but still friendly]

Following up on this, as [I’ve not heard anything from you]/[the issue I called/emailed about has still not been fixed]. Please update me on the status of this issue as soon as possible. Thanks for understanding!

[Your first name]

Follow-up to the follow-up:

Hello, [putting your oh-hell-no hat on]

I’ve now sent [x] emails, with [whatever the response has been thus far]. This issue is extremely pressing and the fact that it has not been solved already is extremely disappointing to me, as a longtime customer.

[Your first name]

Rule 6: Escalate sparingly but decisively.

If it becomes clear that the support employee on the other end doesn’t understand your problem, briskly and politely ask them if you might speak to their manager. If you’re worried about insulting them, make it clear that bad company policies shouldn’t be their problem and that it’s their boss (or their boss’s boss) who should have to answer for the hell you’re dealing with. (See: aforementioned letter-writing tip.)

Rule 7: When the going gets tough, the tough get tweeting.

As a general rule, when it comes to customer service, it’s smart to mix up the medium. Phone representative not helping? Try online live chat. Live chat too slow or stubborn? Write an email to support. And then, if all else fails… take to the wires. Often social media support staff are separate from the hotline folks; many companies outsource their phone support to countries and subcontractors who can only do so much on their end to resolve your issues, while social media staffers still tend to be in-house.

Making noise on Facebook or Twitter can be extremely effective, especially if you’ve got yourself a few hundred followers and can do a little research to find out if there are existing hashtags or campaigns in motion against that company. (A few months ago, for example, when I had multiple complaints against Blue Shield of California, my tweets were amplified by an existing campaign criticizing the health insurance company for not covering eating disorder treatments. Within hours, I received a phone call from an in-state support specialist who took on my case personally and solved every issue I had within 24 hours.)

Rule 8: Write a letter. Yes, with your hands.

When in doubt, write a letter to corporate. Handwritten notes to the CEO of a company are rare enough that, often, it’s an easy PR win for that exec to treat you exceptionally well. Purely anecdotally, I’ve heard that both DirecTV and TJ Maxx have have been very responsive to irritated letters when a customer’s issues have not been properly addressed by support staff.

Rule 9: Know when to quit.

While the whole point of this pep talk is to avoid defeat, know that you can’t win them all. Some issues can’t be solved by slick sweet-talking; some overdraft fees just can’t be waived. Some service charges are just part of the business plan. The trick is to decide in advance how hard you’re willing to fight, just how bad the company’s transgression against you is — and then, finally, know when it’s best to cut your losses and move on. You’ll get ’em next time.