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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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