How to Navigate Customer Service Without Screaming

Politely asking for a supervisor isn't rude; it's a timesaver.


When I got my new Dell laptop, I couldn't wait to turn it on and start using it. But first I had to spend an hour on the phone with my Internet service provider because the new computer wasn't compatible with my wireless modem. Then I had to spend two Saturdays in a row on the phone with Dell customer service trying to figure out why the computer shut off and started beeping if I left it on for too long when plugged in.

During one of my last calls to the company, a technical support representative asked me to run an hour-long diagnostic test on the machine. When another representative called back later to check up on how the test went, I had to repeat the entire story of what was wrong with the computer, wasting even more of my precious weekend time.

It turns out I made some mistakes in how I interacted with customer service. I waited too long to ask for a supervisor. I could have been clearer in my requests. And because I kept speaking with different representatives, I ended up wasting my time by having to repeat diagnostic tests and my story. I spoke with Andrea Ayers, business unit president of Convergys, one of the world's largest providers of customer service, about how to get the most out of those often frustrating phone calls. While the company doesn't handle Dell's customer service, it takes calls on behalf of Ann Taylor, the U.S. Postal Service, DirectTV, and others. She offered these seven tips:

Have your numbers ready. Once I finally got a real person on the phone, our call was held up while I tried to turn my laptop upside down to read the service tag code. Ayers recommends avoiding this common delay by having all necessary numbers—of accounts, credit cards, models, and other payment-related statements—at the ready. Ayers says customer service representatives are usually required to identify the person they are speaking to in at least two ways.

Know what you want. Many customers call just to complain without having a clear request in mind. Do you want a refund? A technical fix? If I had expressed what I wanted more quickly—a replacement computer unless the problem had an easy solution—then I probably would not have wasted so much time on the phone. Even writing out a script so you don't forget any part of your request can be handy, adds Ayers.

Don't get mad. Yelling rarely makes any situation better. Plus, says Ayers, "anger is often misdirected toward the [customer care representative]. They are usually not the one who caused your television to stop working." Anger can slow down calls because the representative has to wait until you calm down before proceeding. It is, however, okay to express frustration, says Ayers. When I had to repeat my story and I told the representative, "I am so frustrated. I feel like you're not understanding me at all," that was perfectly reasonable, says Ayers.

Don't call during peak hours. Ayers says customer service lines tend to get jammed during lunch hours and the 6 o'clock drive home, as well as Monday mornings and the days after major holidays. My experience bore this out: When I called customer service on a Monday morning, I was put on hold for an hour.

Embrace automation. While it can be irritating, listening to prompts and pressing numbers in response to an automated voice can be the quickest way to get to the correct representative, says Ayers. (Again, I failed here—I tend to repeatedly press 0 when calling any customer service line because it often leads to a live person on the other end. In the case of Dell, it didn't speed up the process at all; I just got more frustrated as I punched the number.)

Write everything down. "One thing that most annoys consumers is having to call back and retell their story," says Ayers. Customer service calls usually generate a tracking number; be sure to write it down so if you call again, the next representative can look up your history.

Ask to speak to the manager. I didn't do this because I didn't want to appear to be insulting the customer service rep I was speaking with. But Ayers says not to have such reservations. "If you're not satisfied, and you've been clear with the agent, we would encourage you to ask to speak to a supervisor. That's what they're there for."

As for my laptop saga, I ended up returning the computer and getting my money back. But I'm left feeling like I deserve some sort of monetary compensation for my wasted time. Next time, I plan to ask for a supervisor, and a refund, far earlier in the process.