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10 tips to getting better customer service

Things sometimes go wrong. Maybe your credit card balance mysteriously climbed or your new washing machine is stuck on spin. Naturally, you call the company for help.

But what happens when the customer service department doesn't offer what its name promises? Here are 10 tips to help get your concerns heard and problems solved.

1. Take notes
Chronicling your problem is essential. Documentation gives you facts to deal with so your emotions won't carry you away. A factual context should make you more comfortable and help you be more persuasive. It also helps customer service representatives by putting the information they need at their fingertips. The easier their job, the more likely they'll be able to resolve your problem.

If you're dealing with a particularly complicated issue, consider recording your conversations. Just be sure to first check your state's laws in this area. Some permit tape recording as long as you are one of the parties being recorded. Others require you to inform and get the consent of the other party before you hit the record button. In addition to keeping track of exactly who said what when, a recording verifies ongoing conversations with customer service.

Whatever method you choose, your documentation should be as complete as possible. Include specifics of your problem, date and time it occurred and your efforts to remedy the situation. Also take down as much information as you can on every person with whom you speak: full name, extension, work location, work hours, other identifying information (seat number, employer ID number or badge number) and what is said or promised regarding your problem. This information will help you contact the same customer service rep again or explain to another department employee or manager the background on your case.

It's important to get more than just a name. Large companies usually have hundreds of customer service reps based in several call centers around the country. It's routine for people with difficult names to take on simpler phone pseudonyms, such as John Smith or Mary Jones. But another employee at one of the company's other call centers across the country might use that same name, making it impossible for you to reconnect with your Mary Jones.

2. Break through the anonymity barrier
Getting your customer service rep's name is a good start. Now you need to build a relationship so he or she thinks of you as a person, not as a problem they want to ditch. Be polite, use humor and ask for sympathy.

"When you're anonymous, it's difficult to get great customer service or a response," says T. Scott Gross, author of "How to Get What You Want (From Almost Anybody)" and "Why Service Stinks and Exactly What to Do About It."

"They'll want to solve your problem by giving it away to someone else."

Remember to speak in a conversational tone, rather than yelling or being patronizing. As Ron Rosenberg, president of Quality Talk Inc. in Centerpoint, Texas, puts it: "Nice people, as a rule, get good service. Mean people don't."

OK, you've exchanged names and you're being nice, giving you a new best friend (at least for the next few minutes). But don't forget who has the power in your new relationship: the customer service rep. It's his or her choice as to what help you'll get, not yours, and you'd better not forget it.

"The employee has the power to follow the rules exactly or bend the rules for your benefit," explains Rosenberg. So you need to do all you can to get the customer service person on your side.

3. Act like they're right, but presume they're wrong
As you build your customer rep relationship, treat the person as if he or she is always right, but expect that he or she is wrong.

"I'll go in acting like the person will take the steps to do the right thing, but I'm assuming in my heart that they will screw it up," says Rosenberg, creator of the Drive-you-nuts.com Web site, dedicated to helping consumers get better service. If your presumption is correct, then your copious documentation will help you sort through follow-up problems.

Retain your composure. It might be difficult at times, but if you let the service rep know you think he's incompetent, you're in trouble. He'll be anxious to palm you off on somebody else or worse, decide he'd rather do anything than help you.

4. Stick to your script
Take a cue from telemarketers: Have a script before dialing the phone and stick with it, no matter what.

Your prepared message should describe the problem and how you want the company to handle it. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. Tim Ursiny, founder of Advantage Coaching & Training in Chicago and author of "The Coward's Guide to Conflict," calls it the broken-record strategy.

This works because a customer service rep's goal is to handle as many calls as possible, meaning he wants to get rid of callers as quickly as possible. If you won't be sidetracked, eventually the customer service agent is going to have to do something.

Next: What can the company do to compensate you for your aggravation?
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