TIME Business

5 Secrets to Dealing With the Comcast Customer Service Rep From Hell

Cable Giant Comcast To Acquire Time Warner Cable
A Comcast sign is seen at one of their centers on February 13, 2014 in Pompano Beach, Florida. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

A former call center manager on how to circumvent the tricks of the trade of a "retention specialist."

Poor Ryan Block. He and his wife Veronica thought they would simply make a phone call to cancel their Comcast service when they switched providers. Instead, they went through a hellish 18-minute ordeal with an abusive “retention specialist” who browbeat both of them to keep their service. The result was a Kafka-esque conversation with a rep who continually held his powers of cancellation far out of reach.

When Block, an AOL employee and former technology journalist, decided to record the last several minutes of this seemingly endless call and post it online, the result was a PR disaster for Comcast. And what made many people angriest is that Block did just about everything right: he kept his cool, set appropriate boundaries and calmly kept stating his case. This call has quickly become an online rallying cry against corporate arrogance and sales pressure.

But most of the time, you have more power in these situations than you think. As a former call center manager turned psychotherapist, I’d like to share some tricks you can use the next time you’re on the line with the rep from hell.

  1. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Comcast claimed in a written apology that they don’t train their customer service representatives this way. Technically, they are probably correct. However, most companies strongly reward – and penalize – their retention reps around whether they keep reluctant customers. So first, be aware this is probably a low-paid employee whose job may be on the line, and realize that empathy will usually get you further than threats.
  2. Watch for “bracketing.” This is what I call a technique I see commonly in politics. Do you like family values? Of course. Should people learn to speak English in America? Golly, my English teacher always thought so. What is happening here is that people ask stupid questions with only one good answer, and then use your answer as proof that you should do what they want. Cable reps, salespeople and clerks selling extended warranties use bracketing because it leverages the power of influence, and it works. So stop their rhythm and don’t ever answer their questions. When someone asks, “Don’t you want the fastest Internet available?,” respond by politely redirecting them to your request.
  3. Repetition, repetition, repetition. One call center rep posted that their workplace had a policy of “three nos and a go” – when a customer says no three times to upselling, let them go. And when I teach people how to communicate in crisis situations, I also teach them to calmly repeat their request three times. Unless your rep is a bully like Mr. Block’s, your solution is often one more “no” away.
  4. Use the magic word. There is one thing most reps hate more than not closing the sale: getting called out in front of their supervisors. In call center lingo, the word for this is “escalate.” Politely tell the rep that you would like to escalate the call to a manager or supervisor, and often you will find yourself magically cancelled.
  5. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Finally, realize that none these techniques may work with a determined rep who is tone-deaf to anything but winning. Instead of suffering through a lengthy ordeal with people like this, simply hang up and try your luck again with another representative.

Sadly, there is one more option: wait a few years. Sociologists have long talked about “the tragedy of the commons” where, for example, farmers over-graze open land into oblivion as long as their cows get there first. Retention policies are a modern-day tragedy of the commons: by hassling their customers now, cable companies may be improving their short-term bottom lines as they chase people away to options like Hulu and Netflix. And for many, that may ultimately be the best revenge of all against the customer service rep from hell.

Rich Gallagher, LMFT, heads Point of Contact Group, a communications skills training firm in Ithaca, NY. His books include What to Say to a Porcupine and The Customer Service Survival Kit. Follow him on Twitter at @GallagherPOC.

MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

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Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

MONEY Airlines

Tell an Airline How Much You Hate It and Get 8,000 Free Miles

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courtesy of Spirit

The obvious downside of Spirit Airlines' new promo is that you receive 8,000 miles to use on an airline you hate.

The “Hate Thousand Miles” promotion, introduced by Spirit Airlines this week, couldn’t be attached to a more appropriate company. Spirit, known for selling low-cost flights that come with a host of pricey “gotcha” fees, is famous for being a magnet for traveler hate. The carrier is routinely referred to as the Most Hated Airline in the U.S. What’s more, in the recent past, Spirit has more or less taken the stance that it doesn’t care that it is hated by people. “We’re not for everybody, and we’re fine with that,” a Spirit spokesperson told Businessweek in 2013, after the latest survey placed the airline at the very bottom of consumer rankings.

With its new promotion, Spirit seems to be fully embracing its reviled status. Or perhaps it’s trying to bury the hatchet. According to the terms of the deal, anyone with a Spirit Airlines frequent flier account can go to hatethousandmiles.com, spew some ill will, and then collect 8,000 free miles. While it’s assumed most haters will hate on Spirit, you can actually register a complaint about any airline at the site.

“Hate on us – or any airline of your choosing – and we’ll send you 8,000 FREE SPIRIT miles. You’ll be well on your way to earning an award flight with us,” Spirit explains.

Reward flights on Spirit can be had for as little as 10,000 miles one-way, so indeed, with 8,000 free miles, you’re almost there. But again, the downside is that you’ll have to fly on the airline you (probably) just officially targeted with hate.

What’s behind this oddball promotion? Publicity, for one thing. Spirit Airlines is known for being outrageous, with a history of invoking trending scandals (Anthony Weiner, the BP oil spill, Richie Incognito) in ads.

More important, Spirit is trying to use the hate campaign as an education opportunity. Following in the footsteps of Ryanair, Europe’s hated airline that launched a friendly rebranding earlier this year, Spirit stepped up efforts to explain its pricing structure and customer service policies with a campaign that began in May. The Hate Thousand Miles promotion is being viewed as a way for Spirit to call attention to the ins and outs of how it does its hated business, thereby, hopefully, dispelling some of the hate.

“We see this as an opportunity to educate consumers about the differences of Spirit, and in return for their hate, we’ll give them a little bit of love in the form of free miles,” the airline said in a statement to the press.

Perhaps Spirit will also read what it is that customers are complaining about, and make some changes accordingly in order to make passengers happier–or at least less filled with hate.

If you’re in the process of booking or flying on Spirit and want to vent your hate right away, however, there’s a note in the fine print of the Hate Thousand Miles offer you should be aware of: “Submitting your hate feedback is not a means to submit correspondence to our Customer Support team.”

In this case, you’ll need to send your hate message twice: once to customer service, and secondly to the Hate site in order to get your free miles. If you want them.

MONEY online shopping

Should You Ditch Amazon and eBay for Alibaba’s 11 Main?

Abandoned shopping cart
Michael Wriston—Getty Images/Flickr

The June 11 launch of 11 Main, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s first foray into the U.S. retail market, set off plenty of speculation about the company’s plans to take on Amazon and eBay. But for online bargain hunters, the real question posed by 11 Main isn’t which corporation will come out on top. It’s, “Should I shop there?”

To find out, I requested an invite (the site is currently invite-only) and pulled out my credit card.

Visually, 11 Main has more in common with crafty marketplace Etsy and flash sale sites like Gilt than the no-nonsense, utilitarian look of Amazon. Rather than sell its own items, the site is a platform for smaller sellers to hawk their wares. 11 Main currently hosts over 1,000 of these sellers, and divvies up their products into categories like fashion, home, tech, toys and jewelry. You can also browse each provider’s shop, and “favorite” items, saving them to a separate page.

Since much as been made of the 11 Main vs. Amazon and eBay showdown, I decided to compare the three by shopping for identical product on each site. I selected five different items: a jump rope, iPhone cover, bottle of pet shampoo, set of children’s socks, and pair of sunglasses (eclectic enough for you?). In each case, the item is sold not by the big site itself, but by a small seller using 11 Main, Amazon, or eBay as a storefront.

Here’s what happened:

On the pure price of the item, Amazon and eBay tied with two winners apiece, leaving 11 Main to bring up the rear.

What really matters to shoppers, though, is the total cost required to get the object of your desire to your doorstep. Now, if you’re Joe Shopper, who just wants to log on and pick up one item, you should go directly to eBay, which won (or tied) on price plus shipping, four times out of five.

But who actually pays shipping on Amazon? If you shell out the $99 a year to be a Prime member, or are willing to stock your cart with $35-worth of must-haves, you can drop those nasty shipping charges on many items. Of our five buys, four qualified for Amazon’s free shipping (the fifth was mailed directly by the seller, and was therefore ineligible). Once free shipping was factored in, the power dynamic flip-flopped, and Amazon came out on top.

Now for returns. When it comes to shipping back a product from 11 Main, you and the seller are on your own: you communicate via email to hash out the details. You also deal with the seller on eBay, though you message back and forth using the site, rather than directly. Amazon provides the most mediation; the site even sent me a printable mailing label, despite the fact that I was shipping the item directly back to the seller. (The actual return policies for each item vary by seller, no matter which site you use.)

The takeaway:

At least in its current form, 11 Main is no match for America’s current online retail kingpins. Can you take advantage of Amazon’s free shipping options? If so, make the Seattle-based retailer your first click.

Stray notes on 11 Main

  • When I logged into 11 Main after making my first purchase, the site had no record of my order.
  • If the items you put in your cart are from different sellers, they are treated as entirely separate purchases, and must be bought individually. Never have I been so happy that Autofill exists.
  • 11 Main has no product reviews or seller ratings. It’s often possible to find them elsewhere online, but adds to your shopping time.

 

 

 

 

TIME Telecom

The Surprising Best Thing about Google Fiber Coming to Your Town

A Google Fiber technician gets supplies out of his truck to install Google Fiber in a residential home in Provo, Utah, January 2, 2014. Provo is one of three cities Google is currently building gigabit internet and television service for business and residential use.
A Google Fiber technician gets supplies out of his truck to install Google Fiber in a residential home in Provo, Utah, January 2, 2014. Provo is one of three cities Google is currently building gigabit internet and television service for business and residential use. George Frey—Reuters

Sure, Internet speeds are faster, and the base-level Google Fiber service is cheaper than typical Internet providers. But what might truly set Google Fiber apart from the pack is that the customer service doesn’t suck.

This week, Google announced that it is looking at expanding Google Fiber, its ultrafast broadband Internet service, to nine more U.S. cities. The service, which costs customers $70 per month for 1-gigabit Internet—estimated at 100 times faster than the average U.S. connection—or $0 per month (after a $300 installation fee), is already operational in Kansas City, and has been approved and is in progress in Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah. Now Google is exploring the possibility of bringing Google Fiber to Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and San Jose as well.

Most communities are greeting Google with open arms, and are actively lobbying for Google Fiber to one day be offered to residents—hardly a done deal—once the company’s feasibility studies are done. “We’re excited by the call and the invitation,” Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “The opportunity for our residents is enormous. Bringing fiber to every household changes the dynamic.”

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane described the possible entrance of Google Fiber into the community as “very exciting,” per the News & Observer, especially because the region has many residents “that work in those industries that would really benefit from having this kind of connection to their home.”

(MORE: Google Is Making a Major Play to Provide Your Internet)

The speed of the service and the entrance of a hot new competitor into the increasingly monopolistic world of cable-Internet providers is what gets most of the attention concerning the spread of Google Fiber. Amid all the excitement, one noteworthy upside to Google Fiber gets overlooked: In an industry known for treating customers fairly horribly, Google Fiber stands out because its customer service is actually good.

As USA Today noted recently when reporting on the potential merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the two companies ranked dead last in the 2013 survey conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The two companies have also been perennial contenders for the dubious “Worst Company in America” crown, in an annual competition hosted by the consumer-advocacy site Consumerist.

While still in its infancy, Google Fiber has thus far managed to distance itself from the competition in terms of decent customer service—which, admittedly, shouldn’t be difficult since the bar has been set so low. Early Google Fiber sign-ons in Kansas City give the service almost universal high marks. “The customer service is outstanding. They’re very apologetic if there’s a problem. They do their best to take care of things,” a customer described as “typical” by the Kansas City Star explained. “It’s not something you’re used to with that kind of service.”

Customers weighing in on Google Fiber service in Kansas City at Yelp also pass along plenty of praise to both the service and the customer service. “The installer was professional and friendly and explained everything thoroughly. His business card offers up his cell number for follow-ups,” one reviewer wrote. “These guys have worked really hard at customer service and professionalism. If you can make the switch, I’d highly recommend it.”

(MORE: Here’s Why Your Netflix Is Slowing Down)

This doesn’t mean that Google Fiber is perfect. The average household has no real need for 1 gigabit-per-second uploads and downloads, so it’s arguable that customers going with the $70-per-month option are wasting their money. Some customers have complained that the TV service—available for $120 per month, including a gigabit connection—can sometimes be glitchy, and that Wi-Fi sometimes doesn’t reach everywhere in their homes. Others have complained that the Google Fiber boxes installed along city streets are ugly.

More often, though, complaints around the country concerning Google Fiber focus on a different subject: How come my city doesn’t offer the service yet?

More on Google:

MONEY

Tips Add up for Many Workers

’Tis the season for tipping. Maybe you tip because you genuinely appreciate good service when you get it. Or maybe you tip because you’re afraid if you don’t, your newspaper will end up on the neighbor’s lawn every morning or you’ll be the last one served at your favorite bar.

But however you feel about holiday-season gratuities, tipping is a serious business for most people on the receiving end: Gratuities make up a significant part of their annual income. And new data from salary experts PayScale sheds light on just how big of a deal a tip is for people in service occupations.

Casino dealers — talented in helping us lose our money — earn more than 50% of their income from tips, as do waitresses and bartenders. The people we ask to make us look better — makeup artists, hairdressers, and nail-salon employees — get nearly one-quarter of their income from tips. And if you’re throwing a party during the holidays, note that caterers, food servers and parking attendants get more than 20% of their income from tips.

Who among recipients is least dependent on tipping income? According to PayScale, night club managers, hotel executive chefs and hotel front desk managers get less than 10% of their income from tips.

The past few years have been tough on workers who earn gratuities. Last year, PayScale reported a 5% drop in the average hourly tips across service jobs; this year, tipping hasn’t recovered from that dip. (In a separate survey, Rent.com found that 61% of apartment-dwelling tenants aren’t planning to tip their building staff this year — bad news for doormen, who PayScale.com says get 14% of their income from tips.)

So, in these still shaky economic times, if you’re thinking of cutting back on your tipping generosity, just keep in mind that it can have a bigger impact than you might think.

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