This article was originally published by Forbes.
One of my favorite songs is “United Breaks Guitars,” based on singer/songwriter Dave Carroll’s experience with United Airlines’ customer service after a baggage handler - you guessed it - broke his guitar.
As he tells the story in the song’s lyrics, “So began a yearlong saga of, ‘Pass the buck,’ ‘Don’t ask me,’ and ‘I‘m sorry sir your claim can go nowhere.’”
With over 18 million YouTube views, the song was a viral sensation, a PR nightmare for United and a springboard for Carroll, who secured speaking engagements across the country and overnight celebrity status.
For those of us who lack Carroll’s knack for charming lyrics and catchy melodies, here’s what I recommend to achieve negotiation success with customer service.
1) Create a spreadsheet or make notes to capture every interaction.
Ideally, it takes one call, online chat, or email to resolve whatever challenge you’re seeing. In the event that it becomes a more protracted process, having each contact delineated could be invaluable.
Here’s what I track:
Date, time, and duration: Particularly given the rate at which, “calls may be recorded for quality assurance”, the date and time of your communication can be a helpful cue to the company if you want them to review your claim at a later date.
It’s also useful to be able to say definitively how much time you’ve spent dealing with the issue. “I spent an hour and seventeen minutes on the phone yesterday,” sounds very different than, “I spent, like, two hours on the phone yesterday.”
Group/Organization: This may seem obvious, but it’s worth writing down which organization, company or other group you called. For example, with healthcare issues, I’ve gotten passed around from my insurance company, to my doctor’s office, to my insurance company’s prescription benefits provider, all to resolve a single issue.
Phone number called: See “Group/Organization”. Imagine you’re striving to slay a multi-headed mythical creature – you want know which head you’ve been fighting.
Representative name and/or employee ID: This serves two purposes. First, keeping a detailed record of the exchange will allow you to reference exactly who told you what when.
Second, being able to identify a representative ensures a measure of accountability up front. If the rep knows you’re documenting their information, they may be more likely to take your request or complaint seriously.
This could backfire, putting the rep on the defensive up front, so I always ask, “How’s your day going?” and strive for a little small talk before asking for their info in a very warm, friendly way.
Call reference number: Some companies offer a specific (often ridiculously long) number to reference the call, and having that number could save you a ton of time if you are unable to resolve your issue with a single call. Others don’t, so the time stamp and person’s name are likely to be your best means to document your conversation.
Call back number: Ask if there is a direct line to reach the representative you’re speaking with. There’s nothing worse than finally making some headway and then losing the connection. They won’t always be able to give out their number; in that case they may be able to take yours and call you back if something happens.
Topic: What are you calling about?
Notes: What did the representative say? What was the outcome of your call?
When I’m getting contradictory responses or hearing pushback about information I was told previously, it’s powerful to be able to say, “Please feel free to listen to my call with Mallory, employee ID number 1234, and call reference number 5678. It began at 8:17am on July 18. She told me _____.”
2) Treat every person you interact with as a human being whose day you are capable of making better.
Particularly when I’m already frustrated, I have to remind myself that the person I’m on the phone with is in not the reason I’m upset. To make sure they know I’m not mad at them personally, I might say something like, “I’m frustrated, and while I know this is in no way your fault, I’m hoping we can come up with a good resolution together.”
A few months ago, I struck up such a lovely conversation with a Southwest Airlines employee, and, in addition to getting my situation resolved, I ended up offering him a few minutes of job interview support for the promotion he was pursuing.
3) Ask, “What would you do if you were me?”
This question facilitates empathy by asking your counterpart to see the situation from your perspective. It gets them out of their default process or line of thinking, which is centered on their own circumstances. Stepping into your shoes, they may be able to identify a workaround or escalate your claim.
4) If it’s not going well, take a break and call back.
When she didn’t get a response she liked from her state’s Department of Revenue, an accountant I know used to hang up and call back until she got the answer she wanted. It’s crass, but she’d call it “idiot roulette”. Sometimes, you can work the giant bureaucracy to your advantage by trying to get another rep and another answer.
5) If it’s a good experience, take the survey, or ask to speak with a manager.
We’re likely to have better customer service experiences in the future if we each elevate positive experiences when they happen, instead of only complaining about the negative ones. Every time someone gets positive feedback on their strong customer service skills, an angel gets their wings.
I’ve used this process to get Apple to replace and upgrade my computer, to get my husband added to my health insurance policy, and to consolidate my retirement accounts.
Try this out next time you need to resolve a situation or conflict with a big company. And when you get frustrated, you can jam out to my official theme song of fighting with customer service, “United Breaks Guitars.”