Voronin/Shutterstock

Voronin/Shutterstock

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.

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