Presented By
Getty Images
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Ever feel like the cable company or your phone service provider is charging too much? Ever feel helpless to do much about it? You’re not crazy.

When you call them the customer service rep is reading from a script. I know somebody who has worked on producing those scripts — he’s a Harvard trained negotiator. An expert. He makes sure the phrasing triggers reciprocity and subtly includes a number of other techniques to benefit them — and not you.

So when you talk to the person reading that script you’re basically going up against a top tier negotiator. Totally not a fair fight. And that bugs me. A lot.

If they have experts helping them, we should have experts helping us. So I called a friend who is an expert.

Chris Voss was the FBI’s lead international hostage negotiator. He’s taught negotiation at Harvard, Georgetown, and USC. He’s also CEO of the Black Swan Group.

Chris is going to show us a number of methods he’s used for dealing with hostage takers, terrorists and other people almost as scary as Comcast. Chris and I specifically discussed how you can lower your cable bill but these concepts will work for most any service provider you’re dealing with.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:

  1. How to find out what to ask for.
  2. The most effective way to speak.
  3. Jedi Mind Trick phrases that get them to pay attention and get them off script.
  4. How to make them like you.
  5. The technique that makes them see your point of view without making demands.

Let’s get to it…

1) Do A Little Homework

Not a ton. But negotiation studies show that good results are correlated with time spent preparing.

Check what specials and discounts your cable company is offering new customers. Here’s Chris:

(For more on the fundamental principles of hostage negotiation, click here.)

Okay, you know what you’re looking to get out of this. But before we think about what to say, it’s important to think about how you say it.

2) Use The “Late Night FM DJ Voice”

No, you don’t have to do a Barry White imitation. The point is to make sure your voice is projecting calm and warmth.

Chris couldn’t be jumpy or angry when talking with hostage takers and you probably won’t get far like that dealing with battle-hardened customer service people either. They’re used to dealing with crazy people; they have a script for it.

Calm is largely a matter of slowing your speech down. Warmth comes from smiling while you speak. Here’s Chris:

(To hear an FBI behavioral expert’s secrets on how to get people to like you, click here.)

Time to start talking. What you say first is very important. It’s one of his favorite Jedi Mind Tricks.

3) Start With “I’m Sorry”

Are you wondering why you should start with “I’m sorry”? Well, so will they. Here’s Chris:

So you’ve got their attention, they’re curious and surprised. What other effect does it have? It also makes them feel good. Here’s Chris:

(For more on how to deal with the most difficult conversations, click here.)

What’s the next Jedi Mind Trick Chris recommends?

4) This May Sound Harsh…

Anticipating what I’m going to say next? Of course you are. And whatever I say, frankly, isn’t going to be as scary as whatever you just imagined.

So that’s why Chris recommends you use the phrase, “This is going to sound harsh…” It holds people’s attention and whatever comes afterward is a relief. Here’s Chris:

(For tips from Harvard Law School’s Project on Negotiation, click here.)

So you said you were sorry, and warned them that the next thing was going to sound harsh. You have their attention and they’re wondering what is going to come next… So what comes next?

5) Turn A Complaint Call Into An Appreciation Call

Developing empathy with the other side is a huge part of the FBI Behavioral Change Stairway. And with customer service people, it’s not easy.

They’ve probably fielded 100 other calls like this with people meaner, smoother, cooler, whatever-it-is than you are. And they’re probably tuned out. They’re jaded and they’re just reading what the script tells them to say.

Their shields are up. How do we bring them down? It’s called “forced empathy.” Here’s Chris:

You need to avoid the predictable. Leading with “I’m sorry” is actually a method of forced empathy as well.

Chris knows about this firsthand from dealing with terrorists (no, not the variety that works at Comcast). When they hear predictable phrases from FBI negotiators it was very very bad. Here’s Chris:

So how do you use “forced empathy” and resist being predictable? Turn a complaint call into an appreciation call. Here’s Chris:

(For my interview with Robert Cialdini, the most noted persuasion expert in the world, click here.)

They’re paying attention and they like you — so now it’s time to assert.

6) A Focused Comparison With An Open-Ended Question

You don’t want to demand anything. That’s another autonomy struggle. But if you make a solid comparison then the conclusion in your head will appear in their head — and then they’re much more likely to accept it. Here’s Chris:

So how do you construct a focused comparison? For the cable company scenario let’s compare the two relevant billing schemes:loyal customers who pay their bills on time every month have to pay higher prices than strangers off the street. Does that sound fair to you? BOOM. There’s your point of attack.

But we don’t want to be too confrontational. You want them on your side. Chris explains how one of his students worded it perfectly:

And that silence is key. Effective pauses are a key tool of FBI hostage negotiation. Here’s Chris:

And, yes, his student got a much better deal on his cable package.

(To read more tips from Chris click here.)

Okay, let’s review and learn my favorite insight of all.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

Here’s the script from Chris:

  1. Do a little homework. Find out what they’re offering new customers.
  2. Late night FM DJ voice. Speak in calm, measured tones and smile as you talk.
  3. Start with “I’m sorry.” It grabs their attention and empowers them.
  4. “This is going to sound harsh…” It sets them up for something big and makes whatever you say a relief.
  5. Turn a complaint call into an appreciation call. This is forced empathy. They’ll want to help you.
  6. A focused comparison with an open-ended question. And it’s probably going to bring your bill down a lot.

This isn’t yelling and shouting. It’s not hardball with numbers flying back and forth. None of that works for saving hostages and it doesn’t work all that well for cable and phone companies either.

The more effective system is a lot more subtle. As Chris is fond of saying:

I’ll be including 3 more FBI hostage negotiation Jedi Mind Tricks from Chris in my weekly email. To make sure you don’t miss them, sign up here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 150,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

6 Hostage Negotiation Techniques That Will Get You What You Want

How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done – 5 Expert Tips

Read next: Why You Should Think Twice Before Choosing a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at

You May Also Like