In a world that seems increasingly determined to keep us apart, we’re all bound together by at least one universal experience: the frustration of talking to a real person on the phone at a customer service call center. Whether we want to complain, resolve a problem, or simply get information, call center interactions can be a maddening experience. Companies are increasingly hiding their customer service representatives behind phone menus and AI-driven tools, and even if you make contact, the experience is often less than ideal.
While different companies handle their call centers in different ways (and host them in different countries), there are some universal truths to keep in mind—and use to your advantage, if you know a few secret ways to navigate them. These tips won’t guarantee you success in your quest for a refund, a return, or simply an explanation as to why you were shipped you a BTS-branded body pillow instead of the winter coat you ordered. But they will increase your odds of emerging from the call with something to show for your efforts.
A good general piece of advice: Keep calm, and always be polite. Call center employees are human beings doing a difficult job, so remind yourself that your beef isn’t with them, it’s with their corporate overlords.
Your chances of customer service success increase dramatically when you get a human being on the line. Hitting a rigid phone menu is pretty common these days, and it’s frustrating: The automated options often aren’t flexible enough to cover your specific need, and they seem to be designed to stop all but the hardiest souls from actually reaching a customer service rep (CSR).
And that’s because they are. It costs money every time you connect with a CSR, so companies try to keep you away from them as much as possible. So, instead of tangling with their phone menu and hearing “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that” fifteen times until you set your phone on fire in frustration, try a service like GetHuman. Type in the name of the company you’re trying to contact and see if there’s a direct phone number you can dial to get a person, or if they offer a set of easy instructions on how to break out of the phone menu. If you do get a human on the phone, ask for a direct number to call back if your problem needs to be addressed again.
The supervisor trick
It’s an oldie but a goodie—and it does work. If your CSR isn’t helpful, or you’re not getting the result you want, ask to speak to a supervisor. A slightly more polite and less combative way to do this is to ask to speak to “someone who can solve my problem” or similar language. In almost all situations, your CSR is obligated to transfer you upon request, and supervisors are often empowered to do things the common CSR can’t.
Hit zero—or say nothing
If you can’t get any information on how to connect to a human being, try pressing zero on your phone’s keypad. Many (though not all) call center phone menus will automatically dump you to a CSR if you press zero.
If that doesn’t work, have a little patience and simply do nothing. Most phone menus will time out if you don’t respond in any way to their prompts—and dump you to a human being by default. This might take a minute or two, but it often works.
Call during off hours
As you might imagine, call centers experience busy times like any other business, and they tend to align with people’s waking hours. If the company you’re trying to reach offers 24-hour customer service, try calling very early in the morning or very late at night. Most sane, well-adjusted people will be asleep or enjoying their lives, so your chances of getting through quickly (and your chances the CSR will have extra time for you) will be better.
Exhaust the script
It’s important to understand that every single CSR you speak to is working from a script. Companies develop complex algorithms for dealing with customer complaints. These scripts are designed to shorten call lengths—and to avoid outcomes the company finds undesirable (like refunding your money).
But like all scripts, they’re limited. A few simple tricks can help you break free from the script—and that’s when you can really get something done. A few things to try:
- Repeat your demands. CSR scripts usually have a limit on how often the CSR can refuse you—but they won’t tell you that. Most commonly, if you trigger the same script loop three times, the CSR is obliged to transfer you—or empowered to reveal another option they’ve yet to share. So if the CSR tells you they can’t refund you, don’t just accept it—ask again. And then again.
- Stay on the line. CSRs are always on the clock. Every interaction costs the company money, and their job performance is often tied to how quickly they can resolve customer problems. The longer you refuse to end the interaction, the closer you get to being transferred to someone who can actually do what you want, or inspiring the CSR to use some of the power they do have just to get you off the line.
- Jump the script. When trying to cancel an account or get a refund, CSR scripts are larded with alternatives, up-sells, and misdirections. (Ever tried to cancel your cable TV and somehow wound up with three months of free HBO instead? That’s the power of the script.) One trick is to start off by pre-refusing everything—tell the CSR you don’t want freebies, discounts, new services, or anything else, you want one very specific thing. This can short-circuit the script and get you where you want to go much faster.
Call back immediately
If your CSR refuses to see things your way, don’t get mad—change venues. Politely end the call, then call back immediately. You’ll almost certainly get a different CSR, and the experience can often be dizzyingly different. That’s because your call may be routed to an entirely different call center, or may be picked up by a CSR with more experience—and more authority.
Show them the money
If you’re having trouble getting a human being on the line no matter what you try, there’s one last trick to play: Choose the menu option that involves spending money. Upgrade your account, make a purchase, take on the optional insurance—whatever option results in your bill going up will almost certainly get an eager human being on the phone. They may not be the right person to speak to, but now you’re inside the phone menu, and they can transfer you to a more appropriate department.
Customer service often seems like a battle of wills. But it’s also a battle of wits, and these secrets will give you some extra ammo.
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