Tips for Navigating a Call Center (and Getting Actual Customer Service)

Tips for Navigating a Call Center (and Getting Actual Customer Service)

I would like to believe our clients love to work with us solely because of our sparkling personalities and brilliant financial planning insights. Some of what we bring to the table, though, is a bit more mundane. After twenty-five years of solving problems for clients, I have endless practice wading through company phone trees with confusing options (a cable provider, financial institution, tech company, or large retailer) until I reach a human being who can give me answers, persevering until I get the right answer to my clients’ questions. What I have learned has served me well with all sorts of customer service issues, from getting ATT to address a problem with my family phone network to getting Apple to refund a truly baffling amount my son spent to purchase baby dragons for an iPhone game.


Start with Google 

This sounds simple, but it can be vital. If you want to talk to an actual human being at some of the toughest places to find one, you will benefit from learning from people who have come before you. This is especially true if you need to speak to a person from a huge tech company like Apple, Amazon, or Ebay. Their goal is to keep costs low by limiting the number of inquiries that go through an actual person, but we all know there are times where only a human can help us navigate our problem. You also want to be specific about what you’re trying to accomplish when you search. So instead of searching for “customer service Apple,” you want to search for “refund unauthorized purchases by a minor on Apple’s app store.”

How to survive first contact

  • Listen for everyone’s name. Write down the name of the person who answers, call them by their name, and pronounce it correctly. This rule is especially important if their name is unusual because they are from a different ethnic background than yours. It is both a matter of respect and a way to charm someone whose name gets mangled every day in a million different ways.
  • Be polite even if you are frustrated. This should go without saying, but no problem is ever solved more quickly by being aggressive or unpleasant.
  • Don’t be afraid to bail. If you have a tough problem and it sounds like this is your customer service representative’s first day, or if they are distracted or immediately seem uninterested in helping you, then don’t fight the system. Tell them someone is at the door, hang up, and try again.
  • Don’t fight being transferred. You may have been on hold, only to be put on hold again, but if the person you have now can’t help you, let them try to send you to someone who can.

Why you almost never want a manager 

This may be my anti-authoritarian, blue-collar nature speaking, but management can almost never help you better than a well-trained, experienced customer service person. When you have a tough technical problem with any service provider, you want to talk to the person who speaks to a hundred customers a day and has seen it all. The trick is to be a nice person and get them personally motivated to go out of their way to help you.

A good manager will usually back their employees, and a bad manager is usually too removed from how things actually work to help you. I had the misfortune of working for a terrible manager who would tell the customer what they wanted to hear and then duck their calls as he failed to deliver something that was never realistic in the first place. He simply didn’t know how his employees did their jobs.

But you may need a manager 

There are three general circumstances where you are better off with a manager.

  • When the issue is organizational or policy feedback. If you really want to be heard about a policy or procedure that you want to make sure gets on the radar of an organization, then you are better off going straight to a manager. They are closer to the people who are empowered to make change, and the higher up in the organization you can get, the more likely your feedback is to be taken seriously. Even then, strongly consider ditching the phone altogether. In the securities industry, written complaints are taken very seriously and tracked, along with a mandated response. Many verbal complaints have as much force as shouting into the wind.
  • When you need someone with significant authority. If you are asking for a big refund or something that is obviously beyond the authority of the first line of customer service, then it is reasonable to ask to be escalated to management for a decision. If the person on the phone tells you they don’t have the authority to give you what you want, then believe them and work with someone who can help.
  • When you want to give feedback about a person in the organization. You should be speaking to a manager to give praise for exceptional service at least twice as often as you complain. It can make the day of the person you talked to, and I guarantee it will improve your day as well. There are also times when you have a negative interaction, and I know, as someone who runs a business, that I want to know when things are not going well.

I put myself through college working the overnight shift at a call center. Above all, this taught me empathy. I remember, more than twenty years later, customers who went out of their way to say nice things. I also remember moving heaven and earth to work through bureaucracy to help people who just had tough problems to be solved. Usually, when you enter into an interaction with a generous spirit, you will get the result you want.

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