By Ismat Sarah Mangla
December 1, 2011

In the past year, my wireless carrier refunded me $50 in international roaming charges that were my fault; airline reps saved me hundreds by rebooking my delayed or canceled flights for free; and my sofa was reupholstered at no charge, long after the one-year warranty was up. My list goes on. I’m either extremely lucky or extraordinarily demanding, right? Nope. I’m just good at getting the companies I do business with to treat me well—and to do the right thing when a situation goes awry. In an age of deteriorating customer service—two out of three consumers switched at least one service provider last year because of poor treatment, a recent survey by Accenture found—that’s no small feat. But it’s one you can achieve too. After consulting with customer service experts, psychologists, industry insiders, and the smartest consumers around (MONEY readers, natch), I’ve arrived at the secrets to getting superb service that follow.

Secret 1: Even hardened pros are suckers for flattery

Front-line phone reps are cursed at, threatened, or belittled seven times a day on average, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University who studied two call centers for a major phone company. And that treatment can trigger “service sabotage,” such as dropped or misdirected calls. Don’t be one of those callers, and you already have a leg up.

Take niceness a step further, suggests Noah Goldstein, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. When a customer service agent is friendly and responsive, tell him or her that you’re so impressed that you want a supervisor’s contact info so you can write a positive e-mail. Do this before you make a tough request. You’ve offered to do a favor, says Goldstein, so the agent will be motivated to return it. (Follow through, of course.)

Flattery has paid off for Bozeman, Mont., retiree Al Banwart, 66. After witnessing a traveler tirade at the airport, he told the gate agent how well she’d handled the difficult customer. Booked for two middle seats, he and his wife were called to the podium before boarding. “I was handed two first-class tickets,” says Banwart, “with a definite wink.”

Hold your temper, admit your mistakes, employ humor—whatever it takes to charm. People are more apt to do a good deed for someone they like, and those positive feelings can be generated quickly: In a study of how people feel toward each other and compliance with requests, researchers at Santa Clara University in California found that even a quick interaction can make you seem likable, and that nearly doubles your chances of getting yes for an answer.

“Politeness sounds obvious, but it’s the secret weapon,” says Christopher Elliott, author of Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals. “You can pre-empt almost any problem by being diplomatic.”

Secret 2: Loyalty doesn’t pay unless you act disloyal

Seek out the department with the most power to bend the rules: retention. “Hint broadly that you’re going to leave,” says Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Consumer Action. “That may get you a ticket to retention.”

This technique worked with my cable company. After my promotional rate had expired, my bill shot up. I called customer service and sweetly said, “My cable bill is just too high right now, and I can’t afford it. I want to scale back my package. Otherwise I’ll probably have to cancel. How can I do that?” I was immediately transferred to an agent in the retention department, who slashed my bill by $40 a month and threw in a year of Showtime to boot. If hinting gets you nowhere, ask to speak to someone in the retention or sales department directly.

Companies spend two to 20 times as much finding new customers as they do keeping old ones, says John Goodman, founder of the customer experience research firm TARP. Exploit that imbalance.

Secret 3: Companies count on you to give up

The desk clerk is squirming or glued to a computer screen. The phone rep won’t stray from a script. You’re probably at the wrong rung of the authority ladder. Cut your losses. A few simple words will do the trick: I don’t want to waste your time. Is this something you’re authorized to do? “More often than not, they will say, ‘Well, I can do this but not that,’ or explain what the procedure is,” says New York City psychologist Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel.

The truth is, most businesses can make things right—if you reach the right person. But the majority of companies don’t empower low-level employees to make decisions, says customer service consultant Colin Shaw, CEO of Beyond Philosophy.

What’s more, some companies count on you walking away, says Winch, going so far as to build in inconveniences like long wait times. No wonder that even though a third of consumers say they’re treated rudely at least once a month, few report the problem, according to a recent study in the Journal of Service Research.

Rather than give up, try representative roulette, something Chris Constantino, a 27-year-old engineer from Milford, Conn., has employed successfully. “When I called to reschedule a flight I’d missed,” he recalls, “the first person told me it would take the equivalent miles of a trip to Hawaii. The second said it would cost $500. Third time’s a charm! I got away with just a $50 charge.”

Secret 4: Spending all day on Facebook and Twitter is actually somebody’s job

When things don’t go your way, make the Internet your microphone by posting a complaint on the business’s Facebook page or your Twitter feed. “Companies have departments dedicated to surfing the Internet and making sure their brands are protected,” says Sherry. Many firms have separate Twitter handles for help, such as @ComcastCares, @DeltaAssist, and @Zappos_Service. AT&T invites consumers to use Facebook and Twitter to reach the company, calling the service “social media customer care.”

When Jonathan Whitbourne’s dryer malfunctioned just six months after the warranty was up, he posted a complaint on Maytag’s Facebook page. A rep responded within an hour. The result: The 37-year-old Norwalk, Conn., editorial director had to pay a $119 fee for the repair technician, but Maytag agreed to cover parts and labor beyond one hour. Based on other customer stories, he estimates that would have added up to $400.

As more consumers catch on, you may not be able to attract much attention via social media. But for now, keep this tool in your arsenal.

Secret 5: You may have better solutions than the rep does

Last winter, on my trip home from Pakistan to New York, I found myself stranded in Abu Dhabi after bad weather caused me to miss my connection. When I heard the airline agents telling other stuck Americans that all the hotels at the airport were booked, I immediately asked for outside accommodations. I knew that U.S. citizens could leave the Abu Dhabi airport without a visa. The staff seemed surprised by my request, but quickly handed me vouchers for a car service and a night’s stay at a lovely seaside hotel.

My secret? I was aware of what I was entitled to, so I made the agent’s job easier by proposing a workable solution (one that my less informed fellow travelers hadn’t already asked for). Anytime you have a beef, the more specific you are about what fix will make you happy, the better the likely outcome, says John Tschohl, president of Service Quality Institute, a corporate training firm: “Vague requests get you vague results.”

You have to know the rules of the game, from what’s legally required to what hotel front-desk staff, airline employees, and rental-car agents can and can’t do. “The agents have a lot less discretion these days,” says Sue, a veteran of United Airlines. Automated systems have made it next to impossible for them to waive baggage or standby fees. But agents have more latitude to issue miles or upgrade your seat.

A rental-car clerk may have the power to cut your rate. Jesse Rice, 28, of Bloomington, Ind., who has worked in customer service for a decade, including three years at a car rental agency, suggests accepting insurance in exchange for a price break. “We got paid more for selling the insurance, not for the total price,” he notes.

Talk to friends for insider dish, get chummy with the staff, and check out tips on consumerist.com, frequentflier.com, and inflightinsider.com. “Businesses like to say an informed customer is the best customer, but they don’t always mean that,” says Elliott.

Secret 6: A good complaint is like a well-made sandwich

Set aside your blind rage at the ineffectual salesclerk and delayed delivery man and learn to gripe constructively. Your request will be more appetizing, says Winch, if you build a “complaint sandwich.”

The first slice of bread is the “ear opener”—words that keep your target from feeling attacked. We’re wired to get defensive when someone complains, but studies have found that starting with a positive point makes the listener more receptive to criticism.

Next get to the meat—the specific problem you’re having and the solution you’re hoping for. Top off the sandwich with a grateful statement that shows you’re a reasonable person who’s deserving of help—and likely to stay a loyal customer if satisfied.

Your delivery counts too. When you’re speaking to someone on the phone or in person, limit fillers such as “I mean” and “You know?” John Sparks of the University of Dayton, citing studies of courtroom transcripts, points out that listeners associate phrases like that with a lack of credibility.

Secret 7: The top 1% want to hear from you

Well, maybe not. But complaining to the president or CEO isn’t just a tired cliché. The tactic works, even at large corporations, because executives have elite service staff dedicated to solving problems quickly, says Sherry. “They are sensitive about the reputation of their company, so their team is very motivated to help you.”

Thanks to the wonders of Google, you can easily find the phone number or e-mail of top-ranking executives at companies both big and small. If a quick search doesn’t yield results, dig up the address and phone number in a company’s registration statement, free at sec.gov/edgar.shtml. Other websites that are rich in contact information: jigsaw.com, hoovers.com, and Google and Yahoo Finance.

This technique has worked for many MONEY readers, including Ric Franchetti, a 58-year-old finance consultant from Plano, Texas. When the battery on his electric lawn mower from Home Depot stopped holding a charge after a year, he was told that the extended warranty didn’t cover the batteries because they were expendable. Undeterred, Franchetti dashed off a polite letter to the $68 billion company’s CEO. Six days later, the local store manager was at his door. When replacement batteries didn’t fit, the manager gave him a new mower. “They even took my old one away,” he adds.

Bonus Secret: Never Complain Again

Use these tricks for getting better treatment and more perks upfront, and you may not need to fight back.

1. Be loyal in the air

Redeeming miles is harder than ever, but frequent fliers can at least earn better service. Log 25,000 miles a year on most airlines, and you’ll qualify for perks. United and Continental (whose programs are merging in 2012) treat their lowest-level elite members especially well: free checked bags and free upgrades, something other airlines offer only at a higher tier.

2. Get with the program

You can earn perks at hotels fast. After five stays at a Hyatt in a year, you reach platinum status with its Gold Passport program, which entitles you to free Internet and a special customer service line. Log 10 stays at a Starwood hotel, and upgrades are automatic.

3. Travel with the right card

What’s in your wallet counts too. The top airline cards have annual fees, but you can earn that back quickly. With any of Delta’s SkyMiles credit cards ($95 for the basic card, waived the first year), your first checked bag is free (saving you $25 a flight). Bonus: You get priority boarding, so you can be sure to nab an overhead bin.

4. Be a familiar face

Locally, being a repeat customer can pay. Author Christopher Elliott goes to the same Italian restaurant every Friday. On a recent visit, the owner gave him a bottle of wine, unprompted. Don’t be reluctant to call attention to your loyalty—but be subtle. “Talk about people you’ve referred and ask how their visit went,” says Elliott.

5. Don’t shop around

Even at a big chain, loyalty can be rewarding. With the free Best Buy Reward Zone frequent-shopper program, $2,500 in purchases bumps you to the premier silver level, which gives you a free home-theater consultation, a 24/7 help line, free online shipping, and a 45-day return policy (vs. the normal 30). Join the Starbucks loyalty program for free refills and free coffee every 15 cups.

6. Make a memorable impression

Stand out in a good way. Mike O’Brien, a 36-year-old marketing director in Williams Bay, Wis., notes a customer service rep’s first name and uses it during the conversation. “It removes some of the coldness and may put them in a different mindset, more in tune with helping me,” he says. He may be onto something: When you personalize a request, you’re more likely to get a positive response, says Steve Martin, co-author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. “The neurons in our brains fire up at the sound of our names,” says Dr. Michael Lewis of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We pay attention to people paying attention to us.”

 

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