Why “Playing Hardball” Doesn’t Work

How can you consistently get great results when dealing with customer service? Hint: “Playing hardball” doesn’t work. Instead, use seven basic counseling skills to get the best deal.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC

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Years ago, I was visiting new friends at their home to watch a college football game on TV. (It should be noted that I’m not a big sports fan, but my at-the-time boyfriend was.) The game couldn’t be viewed unless it was pre-ordered through the cable company, so the couple had had purchased the game ahead of time. We were all relaxing in the living room, eating snacks and chatting, waiting to watch some football. When the game didn’t come on as scheduled, they called the cable company… and much to my dismay, my male friend starting yelling and cursing at the customer service representative. I felt embarrassed, and couldn’t help thinking how awful it would feel to be on the receiving end of that call. (It’s not like it was the representative’s fault; they were trying to fix the problem!) At one point, my angry friend got too worked up and ended up handing the phone over to his female counterpart. I thought, Thank god! She’ll smooth this over. And then she proceeded to shout and cuss!

What is it that makes people think they can treat another human being like scum? Why do some believe that yelling, cursing, intimidating, or “playing hardball” is the way to go?

More recently, my husband and I went to a store to pick up an item he’d ordered online. He had previously called the store to ensure he’d be able to use a gift card for part of the balance, and was assured he could. However, upon arrival, we were informed that since his credit card had already been charged, there was no way to apply the gift card to his purchase. My husband was soooo mad! His typically easy-going, relaxed demeanor changed. He started arguing with the clerk; he was rude and sarcastic. Naturally, the clerk became defensive (and somewhat defiant). I wanted to disappear. My husband ended up paying full price for the item. The clerk’s day was probably ruined. I wondered if things would have turned out differently had my husband been his usual friendly self.

Why it is widely believed that “playing hardball” is the best approach for getting what you want?

Think about what motivates you to go out of your way to help; maybe you’re inspired to help someone because they’re friendly (and likeable). Or maybe you feel sorry for them. Maybe you want to help them because they’ve helped you in some way or shown you a kindness; you’re happy to return the favor. It’s less likely you’re motivated to help the angry guy who insults you. So why would it be different with customer service? Customer service reps are human, and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

In my experience, consideration and good manners (thanks, Mom!) go a long way. And I (almost) always get excellent results with customer service. Not once have I played “hardball” or yelled, cursed, or threatened. People typically want to help me. By utilizing one or more of the following therapeutic techniques, you can be more effective when returning an item without a receipt, requesting a lower interest rate, or asking your cable company for a better deal.

1. Unconditional positive regard

Instead of bracing yourself for the worst, anticipate that they’ll be able to help.

As a professional counselor, I value my clients while appreciating their unique perspectives and views. This principle can be applied to a conversation with a customer service representative. Approach them with respect. Be appreciative of their hard work. Treat them with kindness. Instead of, “I need this issue resolved,” try, “Hi [their name], how is your day going?” Instead of bracing yourself for the worst, anticipate that they’ll be able to help. Say, “I’m hoping you’re the person who can help me with…” It’s likely the person you’re speaking with will strive to live up to your expectations; they will be the person who can help you.

2. Empathy

Empathy, the ability to understand another’s perspective and sense their emotions, is crucial to all helping relationships. Empathy is not sympathy or feeling sorry for someone. Sympathy pities; empathy empowers.

Empathy has the potential to open the door for exploration and healing.

To illustrate, I’ll discuss empathy’s role in counseling. Imagine a client who’s afraid she’ll be deemed selfish or weak for contemplating suicide. She recently lost her job and is going through a horrific divorce. She feels worthless; she thinks the world would be better off without her. Empathy drops you into in her shoes and allows you to experience her anguish. To convey empathy, I’d say, “I can see you’re in a tremendous amount of pain. It’s gotten so bad, suicide seems like the only solution.” Empathy validates her suffering and recognizes that her pain is unbearable. Empathy has the potential to open the door for exploration and healing. (In contrast, the opposite approach would be to scold her, to tell her “it’s not that bad,” or to say she’s only looking for attention. All of those things are harmful and would invalidate her struggle.)

When applied to customer service, empathy acknowledges the experience of being a service representative. If you’re empathetic, you understand what they feel. You recognize the challenges of dealing with angry customers who yell or threaten (like my football-loving friends). Furthermore, it’s known that empathy promotes helping behaviors. Convey empathy by saying, “I can’t imagine what you must deal with.” Or “I imagine this job requires a lot of patience.” Empathy has also been linked to persuasiveness. On the flip side, if the customer service rep empathizes with you, you may have a better chance of convincing them to grant your request, at least according to one study.

3. Genuineness

With clients, I say what I mean. I share what I’m thinking or feeling. I’m myself, flaws and all. Genuineness promotes trust and strengthens the therapeutic relationship. When talking to a customer service rep, don’t put on an act. Don’t play tough and/or make threats. That’s not how you’d treat a co-worker or an acquaintance (at least, I would hope not?) And don’t play dumb. Instead of, “I had no idea my payment was late,” try, “My payment was two days late, but since this is the first time, would you consider waiving the fee?” You could also explain your situation: “Honestly, I’ve always been happy with your services, but since the rates went up, I’ve been thinking about canceling. I’ve researched [competing company] and they have better rates. I’m not sure if I can afford your services anymore.” The rep would probably be able to relate (and even empathize), which translates to a better outcome for you.

4. Using names

Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Using a name isn’t a basic counseling skill, but what it conveys is. Using a name conveys respect. It makes that person feel important and valued. Speaking a person’s name also commands their attention. In a counseling session, to make the greatest impact with my words, I’ll say the client’s name before sharing a thought. A name is powerful.

When navigating customer service, repeat the rep’s name after they introduce themselves to help you remember. (Write it down if you’re on the phone.) Use their name throughout the conversation. Someone who feels respected, important, and valued is more likely to help than someone who feels disrespected, unimportant, and unappreciated.

5. Patience

Patience is invaluable in counseling. I’m patient with clients who are guarded and with clients who aren’t ready to change. I’m patient in my sessions; I sometimes sit in silence, allowing for the time to process, contemplate, or sort through thoughts. I’m patient when a client isn’t progressing. (Change takes time.) Lastly, I’m patient with myself when I say the wrong thing or when it seems my efforts aren’t helping. (I remind myself that I’m human; I make mistakes. I can’t help everyone.)

Customer service requires patience. Hold times can be ridiculously long. It also takes time to connect with an actual human. And when you do connect, they could say you’ve reached the wrong department. They’d transfer the call to someone in a different department (who may then have to transfer you again). You’ll probably be placed on hold a few times (and have to explain yourself multiple times). The call could be dropped and then you’d have to start all over again. You may have trouble understanding a rep’s accent. They may be unable to help you if you don’t know your account number (or the first concert you attended, the name of the street you grew up on, etc.) They could ask for a PIN or password you don’t remember creating.

Alternatively, if you’re dealing with customer service in-person, the line could be long. There could be a crying baby nearby or a man with strong body odor standing in front of you. Or maybe the person behind you is in your “bubble”; they keep bumping into you. It could be too hot or too cold in the store. Once you get to the front of the line, the clerk could be new; they don’t know how to resolve your issue. You’d be asked to step aside and wait for the manager, which would take even more time.

Patience is an art; it can be cultivated through mindfulness and gratitude. To foster patience, anticipate that your customer service issue is going to take a considerable amount of time. Expect to run into some unforeseen snags. If you’re already rushed or in a bad mood, just skip it. Instead, make that call or trip to the store when you’re relaxed and have plenty of time to spare.

6. Humor

Okay, this one isn’t an official counseling skill, but it’s one of my counseling skills. What’s more, research suggests that when used appropriately (and never at a client’s expense), humor is a powerful tool for healing. In my experience, humor allows clients to open up and relax. It improves mood and helps clients to view their problems from an alternative perspective. Humor is an important coping skill and may reduce mental health symptoms. Humor connects us; laughing together fosters positivity. Also, never underestimate the power of laughing at yourself. If you can find humor in your flaws and life fails, you can forgive yourself and move on. (It’s refreshing to not have to take yourself so seriously.) Humor makes me a better counselor… and a better person.

Humor connects us; laughing together fosters positivity.

When talking to a customer service rep, use humor if possible. (“Does the warranty cover a four-year old’s mission to see if phones float?”) Poke fun at yourself or your inadequacies. If your issue is even the slightest bit funny, go ahead and laugh. For example, a year or so ago, I had a problem with my FitBit. According to FitBit, I was climbing hundreds of flights of stairs every day. I contacted customer service to report the issue. In my email I wrote, “Although I wish it were true, I can assure you that I have not been climbing hundreds of flights of stairs on a daily basis. Please assist.” They sent a new FitBit. Humor generates positive feelings; research suggests that a positive mood increases helpfulness. For in-person customer service, a smile may increase your chances of getting the help you need. A happy customer service rep is more likely to grant your request.

7. Remaining calm

Composure is the opposite of reactivity. An effective clinician is calm and serene; this promotes healing while reducing client anxiety. Moreover, it’s essential to remain calm in a crisis or with trauma work. Reactivity, on the other hand, is chaotic and ineffective.

When you react, you lose a small piece of your control. The more you react, the more out of control you feel. When fully escalated, you give up all your power; you’ve essentially handed it over to the person you’re reacting to. Furthermore, when emotions are heightened, the logical part of your brain becomes less active. You’re driven by your emotions.

In contrast, remaining calm enables you to respond instead of react. Maintaining composure will almost always benefit you in an argument. Similarly, it’s to your benefit to remain calm when talking to a customer service rep. If you get angry or upset, you lose effectiveness. Research indicates that when negotiating, people dealing with angry counterparts are more likely to walk away from the deal. Expressing anger has limited effectiveness when employed as a negotiation strategy. If you happen to anger the customer service rep, you won’t end up getting what you want, at least according to one study.

To increase your ability to regulate your emotions, practice mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises. Neurofeedback is another tool for training your brain to remain calm.

In conclusion, the best strategies for getting your needs met include respect, genuineness, and empathy. Use a customer service rep’s name throughout the conversation. Be patient. Increase your likability with humor; remain calm (no matter what). These methods aren’t infallible, but they’ll boost your odds for great customer service. (And if you still aren’t getting results, politely end the conversation, hang up, and call back to be connected to someone else.)

Do you have any tips for getting exceptional customer service? Share about it in a comment!

Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell, introvert and avid reader, is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner with a Master's Degree in Community Counseling.

One thought on “Why “Playing Hardball” Doesn’t Work”

  1. I gotta say, I really liked this article. These are excellent communication skills, not only for dealing with customer service issues, but also with any kind of difficult relationship or challenging situation.

    Like

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