It’s not your fault. When you call a company’s “800” number with a problem, no one tells what to say – or what not to say.

There aren’t any customer-service etiquette classes you can take in school. Maybe there ought to be. Certainly, call center workers are trained to be courteous and professional, but they don’t always succeed.

I encounter customers on an almost daily basis who have been harassed, humiliated and hung up on by a company representative. Maybe it’s happened to you, too, and you’ve wondered: “What did I do to deserve this?”

Perhaps you just didn’t know about the things they won’t tell you when you call, but should.

1. You really shouldn’t have called
While many call centers are there to help customers, a significant number are meant to deflect or de-legitimize complaints that might result in money-losing refunds. In other words, they’re not there to assist you, but to talk you out of getting the service you think you deserve. Companies love call centers because they can be outsourced (see the next point) and there’s no meaningful record of the call. A more effective way to interact with a company is to send an e-mail, which is a permanent record and more difficult to ignore. But no one will tell you that when you call.

2. I’m not here
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an offshore call center, as long as the service levels are up to par. (Frequently, they’re not.) Unfortunately, offshore call centers try to make you believe you’re talking to someone named “Bob” somewhere in the U.S. of A. Then they frustrate you by repeating your question without offering a solution or simply not understanding you. The fact that a call center is overseas should be clearly disclosed at the beginning of the conversation, if for no other reason than that it will make you think twice before using a colloquialism or making a reference to the time of day.

3. If you ask for a supervisor, I’ll transfer you to a colleague
This is one of the most common call-center tactics, and it’s one few customers actually know about. If you’re frustrated with a representative and demand to speak with someone higher up the food chain, chances are you’ll get to another representative masquerading as a supervisor. Why? Because call-center workers are often penalized for escalating calls to their supervisor. Sending the call to a colleague, who just reiterates the non-resolution, can make you go away. The solution is to ask to speak with that person’s direct supervisor instead of simply “a” supervisor.

4. What’s the magic word?
No, it’s not “please” – although politeness is always helpful. It’s knowing what to ask for, and how. Often, customers will call a company demanding a full refund. When they can’t get it, they’ll hang up in a huff. But they’ve overlooked several other possible solutions, including a voucher or some form of free product or an upgrade – and those are all things a customer service representative might be empowered to grant. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.

5. Being rude won’t get you what you want
Many callers subscribe to the “squeaky wheel” theory of complaint resolution, but it’s actually a perversion of the theory. An effective squeaky wheel is polite, concise and persistent – not obnoxious. Call center workers are people, too, and they are unlikely to reward you for your expletive-laced rant. Of course, they won’t tell you that when you call. Oddly, some call center workers secretly hope you’ll have a hissy fit when you call with an unreasonable demand; then they can hang up on you and get away with it, because the call transcripts will suggest you’re off your rocker. Don’t be the one to lose your cool – it’s counter-productive.

6. Please take the survey if you’re unhappy
Pay attention to those random, optional phone surveys you’re offered before the representative picks up the phone. You’ll want to take it, especially if you’re unhappy with the outcome. Why? Because managers monitor the results and a single negative review can affect a call center worker’s evaluation.

So don’t think that just because you’re done talking that you’re done giving the company a piece of your mind. You might just be getting started.
Next time you’re on the phone with a call center, remember this: What they tell you is often as important as what they don’t tell you.

(Photo: CRASH: candy/Flickr Creative Commons)