The art of persuasion: 5 things you can say to get better service

It isn’t the horse that makes the wagon go. It’s the carrot you put in front of his nose.

That’s an old Russian proverb, and it reminds me how customer service people sometimes won’t go out of their way to help you unless you persuade them to.

Sure, a true professional will always do the job as required. But don’t you want better service? Here are some time-tested phrases you can use to get it.

“I come in peace”

There have been summer movies in which the aliens are friendly, but usually they show up in giant ships and destroy everything in sight before we even have a chance to say, “Hi, can we help you?” In the same way, too many people confront a service person and immediately declare war.

What should you do instead?

“General pleasantries and eye contact are a great start, just as in any conversation, actually,” says Zac Wallace, who has worked retail for nine years, says. “I’ve had some repeat customers because when you treat a sales associate well the first time, we remember you. Next time, we’ll give you an almost VIP treatment.”

“I know your name and I’m not afraid to use it”

After being on hold for several minutes you hear, “This is … How can I help you?” During the conversation, the rep uses your name often. Meanwhile, you’re thinking “I don’t even know who I’m speaking to!”

Just as you try to memorize the names of people you meet at a party, you should immediately memorize or write down the name of your support rep. If you missed the rep’s name, just ask the person to repeat it. They won’t be offended. When you call people by name, they know you listened, and they appreciate it. Also, you’ll know who to ask for if you need to call back.

I recently called Weber about a problem with my new grill; the first thing I did was write down the rep’s name. Then I addressed her by name. Before hanging up the phone I said, “Thank you, Susan.” And she replied, “Thank you, Mr. Lawrence. Have a great day.”

“What can I expect?”

One reader, a salesperson in the Boston area, says, “It’s Sales 101 — once you gain commitment, pin them to a date.” Deadlines can have a tremendous effect on people. For example, if you call back later, you can state, “The rep named (you did write down the person’s name, didn’t you?) told me she would get back to me by today.” Remember, an open commitment is no commitment at all.

“What he just said”

Many support reps are trained to use paraphrasing to defuse an angry situation. Paraphrasing is the verbal art of restating what has just been said, using different words. You can use the same technique to demonstrate you are listening, and to gain commitment.

For example, if told your request cannot be processed because they don’t have the right paperwork, you could reply, “So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying once you have the document, you will send me a replacement item.” The goal is to gain agreement with your paraphrase.

Agreement usually leads to a great customer service experience.

“Deeds, not words”

Communication experts say that up to 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. Holly Berns, a reader from New York City, remembered this on a trip to Scotland. When she and her husband checked into the hotel, they found out the hotel had given their room to another couple a few hours before they checked in.

The room they were offered was clearly inferior to what Berns and her husband had reserved, so Berns refused the room. She went back to the lobby and politely demanded a room of the same quality. When told that no other rooms were available, Berns asked for the manager.

“When he came over, I explained their error,” she remembers. “He claimed there weren’t any other rooms. I told him I wasn’t moving until he found us a better room.”

At this point, it could have gotten ugly, bu Berns kept her voice and tone low and professional. Knowing how hotels keep rooms in reserve for special circumstances and clients, she reminded him how it was his mistake, and firmly requested an upgraded room for the same price. She knew that, “they would either give me one of those or I wasn’t going to move and all the people behind me in line would grow very impatient.”

The manager refused again, and Berns literally stood her ground.

“I was simply firm, polite and refused to step out of line so the next person could be waited on,” she says.

The hotel staff asked her to move, but she ignored them. Berns’ voice was soft; her actions were loud. After just a few moments, the manager told her a suite would be available the following day.

Ed Lawrence is a consumer advocate based in Boston.

Can what you say change the customer service experience?

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Ed Lawrence

I'm a writer, public speaker, and aspiring career counselor, as well as a consumer advocate who assists the long-term unemployed. I love climbing mountains and cruising to exotic ports. If you meet me on a cruise, let's talk while we drink or play chess.

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  • SoBeSparky

    Empowerment is the key. I talk with so many customer service foreigners (mainly Philippines) who are simply gatekeepers, on the phone line to soothe you, but cannot grant a credit or authorize a price adjustment based on the advertised price. Many times they tell you they will authorize a return, and then nothing more arrives to tell you how to return an item, including the prepaid label. These people are on a short leash, lest they give away the store.

    Other vendors, with usually local English speakers, can immediately make things happen when you call on a defective item, price discrepancy, or shipping problem. They are empowered customer service reps who indeed render service.

  • Robin Harly

    I agree with what you say on this article Christopher. In my experience, whenever I called customer service hotline, the first thing I did was to write their names and, when I explained the issue and mentioned their names a lot during the conversation, they were mostly became very receptive and did what I asked for.

  • flip44

    The very title of the article triggered my response before I read it. I cannot emphasize enough how
    beneficial it is to get the persons name. Then I might start out with, “Brigette, I know you are the right person to help wih my problem.” I repeat her name as often as possible. There were times I got upgrades without even asking for it, just based on that ‘personal’ contact. Then, of course, thank them profusely.
    Many customer service persons read from a script. I make it a point to break into that spiel, asking where are you located, and then saying, “Oh, I have been there. Love your city.” I have had long discussions on travel and family. They love that break in routine. Remember, they are persons,
    not robots.

  • AirlineEmployee

    It’s not that you have to “fake” it or coddle me…….just be nice. Instead of starting off with unreasonable loud demands …..”your airline did this to me or that to me and you’d better fix it”…., try starting with something along these lines……

    “I think we/ or I have a problem, I hope you can help me”……or “oops, I overslept and missed my flight, what can you do to help me get to XYZ today?”…..

    Customers that approach in a softer tone instead of with an angry grimace and loud noise will definitely get a lot from me. I’ve been known to move mountains for those that are remaining civil. Even if the desired results are not perfect, most people will still be very appreciative. The best line I ever heard on a training tape was…..”don’t worry Mr. Jones, we’ll take care of you” (said with a smile). This is best done in person. Unfortunately speaking to someone at an outsourced/vendored call center in India or the Philippines with either get little or nothing done or some false promise that will never materialize just to get you off the phone.
    Conversely, I’ve heard coworkers do nothing but use the “we don’t, “we can’t”, and “no” phrases over and over — infuriates me……TELL THE CUSTOMER WHAT WE CAN DO, NOT WHAT WE CAN’T DO !!

  • Miami510

    I have one slight modification of the excellent advice in this article. When dealing with companies with which I have an account, they usually ask for my DOB, last 4 number on my SS card, or a password. At that point, I say, “Ms/Mr. Joyce, can you spell your last name for me? After they do, I ask for their employee identification number.
    There’s a hesitation while they realize that they will personally be held responsible for hanging up, or any missteps. Subsequently, if the problem is unresolved, I politely (I’m always polite to a fault) ask for a supervisor. At that point, about 25% of the time the person on the other end will resolve the problem themselves.

  • LTMG

    Say something mildly startling but nice to get their attention. Then say what you want to stay. Our words can stick in the others’ longer that way.

  • Don Nadeau

    “Many support reps are trained to use paraphrasing to defuse an angry situation. Paraphrasing is the verbal art of restating what has just been said, using different words. You can use the same technique to demonstrate you are listening, and to gain commitment. For example, if told your request cannot be processed because they don’t have the right paperwork, you could reply, ‘So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying once you have the document, you will send me a replacement item.’ The goal is to gain agreement with your paraphrase.”

    Paraphrasing is part of what is taught as “active listening.” If a person shows anger in her or his voice, speak back calmly. This helps to diffuse the emotional in a situation. In most negative encounters, you should not paraphrase everything said, just the ones leading to agreement as mentioned. Most of the time, a quiet yes or “ah” or some such thing shows that you paying attention.

    Now, all this may seem artificial, but who does not want a more peaceful and civilized world with problems solved? Customer service reps who deal with people in this way, instead of making them more angry, are in my opinion the best ambassadors to strengthen bonds with a company. Nothing builds loyalty more than problems dealt with in a satisfactory way, even if what customers ask cannot for good reason be done.

  • wiseword

    What do you do if they don’t speak English? They THINK they speak English, but it’s gobbledegook.

  • Ann

    Hopefully people realize that not all hotels hold rooms for special circumstances and special clients. We have sellout incentives, meaning that we want to sell EVERY room in the house.

  • Deb Kauffman

    My best intro to “This is Blank, How may I help you?” is: “Hi, I’m Deb Kauffman, and I hope you can help but first, I wanna tell you…I do NOT want YER job! How you all deal with constant complaining is above me, Lordy!” Sometimes I even say, “You might want to get a cup of coffee before you tackle my mess, I’ll wait!” Blank ALWAYS laughs and says sumpin to the effect, “It’s not easy, what can I do for you?” I then forthrightly, with as few adjectives, words even, as possible, lay my problem on the line. BUT, if I’m fairly sure Blank isn’t high enough on the food chain, I give Blank the immediate opportunity to toss my problem upstairs.

    My feeling is that one should be as kind and nice to anyone who holds any power over even a few minutes of yer life. Flip44 is correct, asking where Blank is located, and making a personal connection is great. LET Blank go thru her/his script, be patient, and if you get the same answer 3 times, then insist on the supervisor, nicely, and go thru the same routine. Remember…flies/honey…

  • Bill___A

    Although I was told years ago about one hotel that does do this, I believe when a hotel is sold out, they are sold out.
    I’ve found It is not good to be looking for a hotel room after midnight, the reservations systems aren’t much help!
    I don’t think I’ve suffered the issue of having my room given away but definitely have had troubles finding a room sometimes.

  • bodega3

    Actually a hotel that tells you they are sold out, may not be sold out. As an agent, I am finding the numbers you call to the hotel don’t always go to the front desk or sales office at the hotel. I had a hotel in Reno tell me they were sold out,and it was an ‘event’ weekend, called a hotel vendor we use, got a room. When the client returned I asked if there were any problems with the ‘sold out’ hotel. He said they were not sold out, selling rooms to walk ups and everything was fine for them. I had the same thing happen with regards to a room we wanted in Portland, Maine. I was told the hotel was sold out. No, their allotment of rooms they sell in advance were sold out. We got a room and the hotel had vacancy all that night.

  • Jill the Duchess

    I agree with Deb’s comments below and your article title. It’s all about tone and you can be firm and get the great service and help you need, while still being polite and not a total a@$hole.

    I recently was on a small cancelled flight from Grand Junction to Denver, and second in line at the service desk to get help with re-routing. The first woman in line my was relentless that nothing the poor airline service desk woman was doing to help her was enough. She was hemming, she was hawing, she was “outraged” as she so violently and loudly proclaimed. There was a line of 30 people behind her (who also were needing to be re-routed) and she refused to budge for what seemed like anything short of United Airline chartering a private jet just for her and her teenage son. This is NOT the way to be. She was rude to the one service desk person trying to help her, and frankly to the other 30 passengers waiting for that one employee’s help. Finally a supervisor came out to help, which meant I got the poor employee who had literally been berated by this woman for fifteen minutes.

    I politely approached and apologized for the woman next to me, who had now moved on to berating the supervisor. I simply said, “Wow, you have a tough job! I’m really sorry about the way that woman treated you, it’s uncalled for. I really need to get home to Anchorage, but I’m open to however you want to do it.” We worked through some re-routing options and within five minutes she had me taken care of. It’s not okay to treat people rudely! And because I was kind and firm in what I needed from the airline rep, she put me on another flight carrier. I’m sure she could have done the same for the other woman that was berating her, but I know in my life, I’m less inclined to go out of my way to help those who are rude, down right mean and combative.

    ALSO… I’ve had TREMENDOUSLY great customer service through Twitter. @United in particular has amazing customer service through Twitter. Never underestimate the power of a polite request for help through Twitter. United has helped me every time and it’s fast, easy and great.