As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Be Financially Proactive

This article was written by in Money Management. 6 comments.

Before I got married, I was never really vocal about problems I had with companies. If the food I ordered at a restaurant was the wrong order, I usually wouldn’t say anything. If I had extra fees in my checking account at the end of the month, I’d chalk it up to coincidence and think it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t like asking people for things I didn’t know for sure were mine.

After my wife and I married, and we became 100% responsible for our bills, somewhere inside me an internal light switch flipped on. Maybe it was because the money paying for these products and services was mine, or maybe I just got fed up with getting jerked around, but I started to find that there were a lot of things I could do to get rid of a fee, fix a problem, or simply lower my bill.

1. Ask productive questions. Don’t ask yes or no questions when you’re on the phone; find new ways to express what you want. Saying things like:

  • “I’d really appreciate it if you could do…”
  • “What can we do about…?”
  • “Please remove this fee/change this thing.”
  • “I’m considering switching services, what can you do to help me stay with (company)?”

It’s so easy, especially over the phone, to say no. Don’t give them that chance.

2. Be direct. Sometimes it can be intimidating to call someone and tell them you think they made a mistake or that you need something to change. I think this is the main reason I originally hated calling. However, I had a great experience with a company that helped me to realize it’s better to ask and be told no than to not ask at all.

My wife and I are involved in a start-up company and have been making more and more phone calls. Two months ago, we realized early on that we were going to run out of minutes on our cell phone plan, and we wanted to change our plan and buy more minutes. When I called, I told the person on the other end of the phone exactly what was going on. The customer service rep told me that I wouldn’t be able to change our plan until the end of the month, but that she could give us each 900 free bonus minutes. This saved us, as paying for minutes over our monthly amount would have been killer.

If you find you start running into problems when you’re asking for what you need, find something you can use as leverage. One of the best things (if it’s true) is your long history as a customer of the company. If you’ve done a good job of paying your bills on time and haven’t caused any major problems, they’ll be more likely to want to help you out. Be persistent and don’t let a simple ‘no’ deter you.

3. Know the situation. Paying attention to bills, letters from the companies you work with and deals offered by other companies can help you when negotiating. Because of the high cost of customer acquisition, many companies will be willing to cut you a deal to keep you as a loyal customer. It’s also much harder to dispute a fee you received a letter about two weeks earlier.

Make sure to keep track of who you talk to, when you talked to them, and exactly what they told you. This information will be very useful if you have to call in about the same situation again. Sometimes companies make honest mistakes, and usually they’re happy to change them.

4. Be realistic. Don’t chew out the person on the other end of the phone. They didn’t cause your problem. Even though fees or a company mistake might have you frustrated, yelling at the customer service rep makes them want to help you even less.

Having worked in customer service before, I can say that I worked so much harder to help people who were frustrated but reasonable, rather than the people who just called and yelled into the phone.

In today’s economy, there are few things that aren’t negotiable in some way. Doing some research and then making a phone call could save you quite a bit of money. Don’t let these huge companies jerk you around. It might be easier to just sit tight and pay the fees you don’t understand and eat the food you didn’t order, but it sure is cheaper to do something about it.

How about you? Has there been a time when you’ve been able to get a problem solved or a fee reversed?

Updated October 3, 2009 and originally published October 1, 2009.

Email Email Print Print
About the author

Jeff is an aspiring advertising professional with goals to start his own business. He is a reformed saver who blogs regularly at Stretchy Dollar in addition to his weekly column at Consumerism Commentary. View all articles by .

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous


1) “Lower my credit card interest rate or else I quite.” That got me a 5% lower fee.

2) “Match me the interest savings at this other bank.” They did.

We just have to ask.

Reply to this comment

avatar 2 Anonymous

We went to a restaurant and they charged another table’s bill to our card. It took a bit of explaining (it wasn’t until the manager listed the items on the bill and I denied eating/drinking any of them) but eventually we figured it out. I felt bad, since I assume the restaurant would never be able to collect on that dinner they served to someone, but in the end that’s not my responsibility. It was a big difference, since all my table had were a few appetizers, and the other table had a bunch of steaks etc. as well as drinks.

Another time, I had to debate with a manger in person. I tried to exchange a something, and the clerk didn’t tell me what I was getting for my return until after the transaction was complete. I was unhappy with the amount so I had her reverse the transaction. However, she didn’t do it right, so I walked in and out with the same item but $4 less. I had to go back and explain it to the manager for a good 20 minutes. We both got quite frustrated, but eventually we figured out that he thought I had left with both the old and the new item. Even so, before we realized that he was willing to give me my 4 bucks back just because he was sick of arguing about it!

Reply to this comment

avatar 3 Anonymous

Dinner in a restaurant with the family, I had soup and chicken/rib combo. The table was a little full so I put my side plate under the soup bowl and plate. When I had finished the ribs I put the bones in the soup bowl. These were BIG bones, hanging over the side of the bowl. The Hostess is a friend of mine from years back and she stopped by the table to say hello and see how the meal was. Everyone said it was good and then I said in a low voice “BUT I have a small complaint”. She was surprised and worried asking me what was wrong. I replied while pointing to my bowl “there were BONES in my SOUP!” She was instantly relieved and laughed as she took away our dishes. As she was going back to the kitchen she said to the bartender “Customer complaint! There was bones in da soup!” as she showed the bartender the bowl with the rib bones in it. They both laughed, the manager overheard the complaint/response and became very concerned. She rushed out to the bar to find out what had happened, why the customer was mad and as she came out she said to the hostess “Comp the meal!” My friend, the hostess said “no no it’s a joke, I know the Guy. look at the bones!” The manager looked, laughed and said “comp the meal”. Sometimes it pays to be an idiot! ;)

Reply to this comment

avatar 4 Luke Landes

I went all the way to the CEO of Wachovia Securities when they started introducing a $50 inactivity fee. No luck, they said I was notified of the fee and would not reverse it. I moved my money out (paying another fee to do so, though I was reimbursed by the new brokerage) and have not looked back.

I have had much more success with Wachovia Bank (different than Wachovia Securities) in reversing fees. They introduced a fee a few years ago for using “Direct Web Connect” for downloading transaction data into Money/Quicken, and I had some kind of marker on my account to prevent that fee from being charged to me in the future.

Reply to this comment

avatar 5 Anonymous

I’ve had success negotiating credit card rates down and getting phone bills reduced. In all of these cases, I treated the person with respect.

But I’ve had a lot less luck when I let my frustration get the best of me.

Reply to this comment

avatar 6 Anonymous

If I purchased something under $20- $30 that didn’t work, didn’t fit just right or broke right away I would never return it. I would just give it away, replace it or donate it because the few dollars didn’t seem worth the hassle of returning it. When my husband was laid off we were in a tight spot. I noticed I had several small items that were new/unused that could be returned. Everything still had tags on it and I had to hunt for receipts, but I had about $125 in small item returns just sitting around the house.

I was pretty shocked at how much money I was wasting by not returning things. $10 here, $5 there, $15, $20…. it really only took a few items to get to $100… and I wouldn’t have just left $100 on the table.

Now I am more organized. I keep my receipts in a special wallet and if something needs to be returned, I take it back right away. Most stores have very reasonable return policies. I am a fair and honest customer and never intentionally buy something with the intention of returning it, but if something legitimately needs to be returned I am not embarrassed to do this anymore.

Reply to this comment

Leave a Comment

Note: Use your name or a unique handle, not the name of a website or business. No deep links or business URLs are allowed. Spam, including promotional linking to a company website, will be deleted. By submitting your comment you are agreeing to these terms and conditions.