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It’s January and we need help! We’re looking for service and assistance with the new technology and toys we got as holiday gifts. Roughly one-third of Americans need to return or exchange gifts after the holidays, while others are looking for financial service tools and health regimens to assist with new year resolutions.

It’s that time of the year when consumer demand and expectations are high, and time is short. What could possibly go wrong?

In my work as a consumer research psychologist I interview scores of shoppers every year. One of the topics I cover regularly is customer service. Over the past decade I’ve seen a growing chasm between what shoppers expect from customer service and what they actually get. Consumers increasingly expect more. In addition to sales service, shoppers have new demands for technological assistance. They expect faster delivery and want more personalization too.

Consumers are thrilled when technology can solve problems and answer questions, such as with shipment tracking or online how-to videos. But when it comes to services in which human interaction is required, problems are plentiful. Literally everyone I’ve interviewed has had a horrifying story of human interaction gone awry under the guise of customer service.

What is it about a customer service failure that is so maddening? A five-minute phone call over a $10 charge can reduce an otherwise rational, peace-loving person into an angry, shouting vigilante.

At their root, these failed transactions communicate a lack of respect -- and respect is among our most primal human needs since it’s closely tied to security. So even though customer service interactions are relatively brief and have relatively inconsequential outcomes, they have the power to create churning, burning and frustration similar to road rage (which is also related to disrespect). The top three complaints I hear from consumers about customer service are rudeness; inefficiency or waiting; and disingenuousness or manipulation. In each you can see that respect is missing.

To get the inside scoop on how to get the best customer service, I recently interviewed Hayley Silver, Vice President of Bizrate Insights; a senior manager of customer service for a major telecommunications provider; and two department store managers. The managers all preferred to remain anonymous to protect their companies.


1. Be prepared. Before you head to the store or make that call, gather everything you can think of that will help the person you’ll be working with understand your problem and find a solution. If you’re returning merchandise, bring your receipts. If you’re calling customer service, have your customer or transaction ID or model number ready. And if you’re calling a company that’s notorious for poor customer service (pretty much every cable, satellite and wireless provider), leave yourself time. Squeezing a call in between appointments will only elevate your stress level.

(MORE: These Companies Were the Biggest Customer Satisfaction Losers in 2015)

2. Be kind. The person you are talking with is a human being, not a company. The agent may be representing a company with terrible policies or one that hasn’t trained him properly. Underneath all of that remember he or she is a person who is trying to do a job. There is also a good chance that representative has just finished dealing with someone who is not as polite or well-mannered as you. Sales associates and call-center personnel I’ve spoken with have described atrocious behavior from consumers -- being cursed at, being spit upon, and even worse.

3. Have the right attitude. Though it’s understandable to feel angry over disrespectful interactions, an angry response is rarely in your best interest, and it’s not going to help your situation. What helps is staying focused on your own objectives. The right attitude for the best outcomes is dispassionate, fair-minded, and business-like. No pleading, placating or demanding, and skip the judgment and emotion. Try your best to avoid dwelling on concepts like fairness and stick to the facts.

(MORE: Comcast Is the Most Hated Internet Provider in America)

4. Make it personal. Though you’re going to do your best not going to take anything about the transaction personally, try to make it personal for the service employee you’re dealing with. Start by stating your name, and then ask for theirs. Continue to use their name throughout the transaction, and be sure to note who you’ve spoken with should you need employ “next level” tactics.

5. Inspire empathy. Engage the humanity of the person you’re talking with by specifically asking for help. After you state your problem, ask “Can you help?” It might feel like a request for help is implied, but it’s not personal until you ask. If you try to elevate the conversation to one that’s between two people rather than a company and a customer, everyone does a better job. Once, in desperation after a long runaround with a bank I blurted out, “I know you’d feel the same way.” In that moment the entire conversation shifted as the person I was speaking with felt an empathic connection, and we worked together to solve my problem.

6. Have a solution in mind. There are better, more effective ways to let off steam, affect the policies of the company or, if you must, get revenge. This is not the time. When you’re engaging with customer service personnel you should have a desired outcome in mind, and you should stay focused on that goal. The best way to be heard? Be clear, be concise, repeat. And when you repeat, repeat exactly the same words for maximum impact. For example, you say something like, “I didn’t agree to that service, I’m not going to pay for it, and I want you to remove it from my bill.” If the customer service representative tries to convince you to pay, repeat, “I didn’t agree to that service, I'm not going to pay for it and I need you to remove it from my bill.” If necessary say it again -- exactly the same way.


It the tactics above don’t work, you’ll need to take things to the next level. The next level starts by engaging higher-ups within the organization and culminates with an attempt to exert social pressure. In analyzing interviews I’ve conducted on failed customer service transactions, I’ve found that lost time and wasted effort generate even more anger than money back. So consider if it’s worth it to continue or if might make more sense to cut your losses and move on to a different company.

7. “Escalate.” It’s a magic word in customer service circles. But like most magic words you should reserve it for when you really need it to avoid the “cry wolf” syndrome. (Just as you’re keeping tabs on poor customer service transactions, the companies you deal with are also keeping a record of your calls and interactions.) When you’ve gone as far as you can with the person you’re speaking with, ask to escalate the issue and speak with a supervisor or manager.

8. Tell on bad employees. Companies don’t want rude, disengaged or passive-aggressive employees. If you’ve had a terrible transaction, send an email to customer service, write a letter to the president of the company or call the marketing director. You can find these addresses on most company websites.

(MORE: The Real Reason So Many of Us Desire Flashy New Tech)

9. Take it to the people. Post photos or videos of your mangled luggage (who can forget Dave Carroll’s You Tube video of his United Airlines mishap?), tweet the fact that a strange man just walked into your hotel room because it was double-booked (yep, that happened to me and my tweet was much more effective than the hotel staff), or start a social media campaign.

10. Take your money elsewhere. It’s no wonder that the companies with the most notoriously bad customer service are typically in industries which have little competition, or where it’s cumbersome to change providers. A woman I interviewed ended a description of appalling sexism by an airline by saying, “But I don’t think they really care what customers think so I didn’t bother calling customer service. I switched to Delta even though I lost my premier status by leaving the other airline.”

Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.