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

Customer Service: Politeness vs. Demands

This article was written by in Consumer, Featured. 19 comments.

The prevailing wisdom when dealing with customer service representatives is to just keep repeating, “Let me speak to your supervisor,” until you eventually get what you want. Every time I read this, though, I get defensive and annoyed. I can’t forget that year I spent answering the phones for Bank of America, and the myriad of emotions I’d go through in a given day. Sure, BofA is an obscenely big multi-national corporation that probably deserves some serious punishment for its role in our recent financial collapse, but it’s also run entirely by human beings, and the customer service department are the human beings you talk to the most.

I learned a couple of very important lessons as a CSR that are in direct conflict with the “let me speak to your supervisor” rule.

Lesson 1: A friend is more likely to help you

As a CSR, when a customer made a human connection with me, I was always more eager to find ways to help them. Of course I always stayed within the rules (well, almost always), but we bank employees had a surprising amount of leeway for actions such as refunding overdraft charges. Not that that’s really a problem, anymore.

When a conversation begins with understanding, I find that progress is easier to make. So now that I’m always on the other end of the phone line, I start with humility instead of anger. For example, pretend I’m talking to someone who just introduced himself as Alex:

Hi, Alex, my name is Smithee. I’m hoping you could help explain something that’s got me really confused.

  • Write down (or just temporarily learn) his/her name. Use it conversationally, but especially near the end just before whatever changes that need to be made are about to be made.
  • Acknowledge that he/she is an independent, intelligent human being with feelings. They will reciprocate that point of view on you, too.
  • Remember their position: they’ve been talking to people with problems like yours for hours. Believe it or not, they like it when they’re able to help. Give them a chance to help you.

Sometimes I’ll go all out and just start with nothing but a little humor:

Hi, Alex, my name is Smithee and I’m afraid I’m totally ignorant, but I hope you can help.

This opener always seems to get a chuckle from the other end, which makes both of you feel good.

Using this method has been successful for me: people don’t get mad at me, and I don’t get mad at them, and I don’t have to ask to speak to a supervisor. Sure, supervisors get brought in sometimes, but it’s always their idea first.

Starting with friendliness, I get fees reversed, special deals made, you name it. When I used to call the cable (or satellite, or FiOS) company, I always ended up paying less per month for more channels, or higher bandwidth.

It’s not all hugs and puppies, of course.

Lesson 2: Even your friends can’t always help you

The other thing that bugs me about the “let me speak to your supervisor” rule is the innumerable times I personally witnessed irate customers being passed up the line, to no avail. If you’re calling with an unreasonable request (for example, this all-too-true story: “I wrote a $500 check two days before I got paid, sure, but you guys knew I’d get paid on Thursday, why did the check bounce?!”), no amount of yelling will fix the situation. You’ll simply end up ruining other people’s days, ten minutes at a time.

Ask yourself:

  1. Was this my mistake?
  2. Even so, do I have a good history as a customer? (Oh, the data these CSRs can look up…)
  3. Can I spare five minutes to walk off some steam and try to identify with the point of view of someone with a worse job than my own?

If the answers to all of those are yes, then please pay it forward instead of stealing it backward by taking that five-minute walk.

Are there exceptions? Of course! Sometimes the big behemoth is the one who screwed up. But mostly, it’s us customers who made the mistake. If you can sound like you’re willing to laugh it off, the company will be more willing, also.

That’s been my experience, anyway.

Additional photo: melloveschallah

Updated May 6, 2010 and originally published May 4, 2010.

Email Email Print Print
About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I liked this post, and it has always been my belief that one gets more flies w/honey than w/vinegar.

Reply to this comment

avatar 2 Smithee

I almost included that phrase myself, but then I thought, “Well, who wants more flies?”

Reply to this comment

avatar 3 Anonymous
avatar 4 Anonymous

Good timing of this article. I’ve dealt with United Airlines customer service 5 times over the past 35 hours now and STILL don’t have my bag that they lost. The mistake was clearly mine for expecting them to put my bag on the plane, or delivering it in a timely manner after losing it. The agents keep making requests to the airports to expedite delivery, but claim their hands are tied otherwise. The issue is ownership of solving the customer’s issue when the company has failed. Friendly or not, when they fail, they need to step up and take action, which United is not doing.

Reply to this comment

avatar 5 Anonymous


I used to be a baggage handler for a United Airlines subsidiary… One of the things that sucks the most about this process is, as you’ve noted, that the people you speak to don’t own the process.

Do you actually know where your bag is? (That is, do the agents have accurate scan records for the location of your bag?) Baggage delivery is typically done by a contractor who checks periodically and picks up whatever is ready for delivery. At my location, I think they came by every two hours.

I’m guessing, though, that from your use of the word airports (that is, in the plural) that you likely flew into a smaller airport with limited service and your bag is still at the hub. One of the downsides to using smaller planes is that the cargo hold space is quite limited. In this case, if the cargo holds are full, your bag must wait until the first flight with space. They can’t/won’t bump someone else’s bag to accommodate your bag, because then they’d have two people inconvenienced.

Finally, operationally, the system moves masses of people with masses of bags, and isn’t set up to handle individual exceptions to the process. They simply don’t have the man power to send one man to find one bag. Your bag works its way through the system without regard to the number of times you call. It works its way through the routing listed on your bag, and when it gets to the final destination and has been sitting there for awhile, the agents check in the computer to see if there are any claims for that bag, and if there is an address on file for delivery. If there is, then the delivery stuff is set up. Quite frankly, calling over and over just wastes your time.

If you’re absolutely certain you know exactly where your bag is, and it just seems like nobody cares, try getting the number for the station manager and call them directly. They’re people with enough clout to bend/break some rules and make exceptions.

Reply to this comment

avatar 6 Anonymous

I can really relate to this. When I sold advertising at a newspaper, I tried to be helpful to everyone, but would really go above and beyond extra to help out the people who were nice. Nice people stand out, that’s for sure.

Reply to this comment

avatar 7 Anonymous

I messed up once when I ordered checks – completely my fault (gave The Wife’s maiden name instead of my last name). I asked if they could help me out, but I was hesitant to say it was my fault. THE MOMENT I DID – the CSR said she’ll send me new ones for free lol. She literally waited until I would admit it

Reply to this comment

avatar 8 Anonymous


I’ve worked in customer service (although not in a call center) for several years, and I tend to agree. Getting cranky might work for some people, but TBH, when I got a cranky customer, I did my best to *not* give them what they were whining for, and instead, gave them just enough to get out of my hair.

The funny thing is, though, that the only true awful customer service experience I ever had was with a credit union who wouldn’t respond to anything but faxes. Yeah, if you wanted to change your address, you still had to fax it in. I wrote them a couple of snail mail letters regarding some issues with my account — I even sent them certified return receipt requested, just for fun. Guess what, they never responded. I ended up calling someone with an office, and yelling at them for a few minutes. Strangely, I actually got what I wanted after being polite didn’t work. I felt sort of crappy for doing that, but I also felt they shouldn’t have totally ignored me either.

Now, I will say that Amazon made my day when I accidentally sent my wife’s textbooks to an old address. When I called them up and said “oops” they immediately refunded my money and sent the order to my correct address… just l like that. (Made up for the time that when a product I ordered had a price drop the next week, they told me the only way they’d give me the new price was to return the old order. I wasn’t going to go through the hassle for $5.)

Reply to this comment

avatar 9 Anonymous

Having worked in the last 10 years in Call Centers for: Automaker [big 3], Teleco ISP, Major Wireless Provider and others, asking for a Supervisor prior to exhausting all attempts with the representative is a fool’s errands.

Why, you may ask. In all of my cases, I knew more how to fix a customer’s issue better than any Supervisor. Most supervisors were not fully aware of the mechanics of the issues, but were tasked to follow and track the metrics of the workers under them.

But then rarely did I have the customer who asked for a supervisor as I took ownership of the call at its onset and did my best to demonstrate to the customer that I could solve or answer their questions.

Also the CRM software very many times limited my ability to access or record or find what I needed. But being resourceful, I found workarounds. That is something, I believe, that many do not know about.

Reply to this comment

avatar 10 Anonymous

Whenever I call a customer service department I always keep in mind that it’s not the person answering the phone whom I’m angry with — it’s the company. So even when I’m really ticked off, I always speak courteously.
If I feel that I’m being treated dismissively then I try to remember what Miss Manners said: You can never be rude in response to rudeness — you can only more polite. So even though steam might be coming out of my ears, I’ll use phrases like, “I’m afraid that won’t work for me” or “No, I believe that since this is the company’s error, the company needs to take responsibility for making things right.”
And you know what? I can’t remember the last time I wound up with the gooey end of the lollipop. When you are polite, people often go BEYOND what they “have” to do.

Reply to this comment

avatar 11 Anonymous

I agree with this too. Usually if you are nice, things go your way. On the rare occasions where things haven’t been going well and I’ve gotten angry, I usually at least tell the person on the phone, “I realize that this is not YOUR fault, but I’m very frustrated” and I find that if I say that, they are more willing to help. The only time I really yell is when telemarketers phone me several days in a row with the same offer that I have consistently refused! But at least we have a do not call registry now where I can make complaints about that.

Reply to this comment

avatar 12 Anonymous

Having worked as a CSR in the past, if I had a standup supervisor, they would let me make the call, then back me. In many borderline cases, I got to decide, even if it was the supervisor on the phone

Reply to this comment

avatar 13 Anonymous

My boss would ask me, “What do you think is right?”

I would tell him what I believe to be the correct/fair action and he would back me. Sometimes he may question it, and ask me why I thought this way. No matter what my final decision was, as long as I had a valid reason for it, he would back me.

So, just because someone asks to speak to your supervisor, it doesn’t always mean they will get there way.


Reply to this comment

avatar 14 Anonymous

I think we have been conditioned to believe that “the customer is always right.” Unfortunately, this is quite often not correct, and in the wake of a generalized statement of that power, people forget that they have an obligation to be a good customer, just as much as a company has the obligation to be kind and respectful to you. It is in their best interest to help you so that you will continue to purchase from them. If you meet them halfway, you will get much better results. I make lots of warranty and RMA claim calls, and despite having to deal with scripted answers, i find that if i am polite and use some of the tactics described above, i get fantastic results out of companies that others complain about constantly.

Reply to this comment

avatar 15 Anonymous

I am a supervisor at a call center, and I do have the authority to bend rules and make decisions that the CSR’s under me do not have, however I don’t HAVE to bend the rules. If a person is rude to me or my agents, I will follow whatever guidelines are set in place and I will make the choice to not bend the rules. 99.99% of the time I back up my CSR’s in whatever decision they have made. The other .01% is most often a training opportunity for my CSR and if I don’t back them up, I always tell them why and how to handle the situation going forward.

I have been on both sides of the phone, and I have learned that if the customer (be it myself or someone else) is a jerk, they will only receive the bare minimum of service. But with a smile, of course.

Reply to this comment

avatar 16 Anonymous

I really like this. I’ve seen a lot of people get their way through yelling, threats and bullying and it seems like an increasingly common practice in our day and age based on the word from my friends in the banking industry. I’ve even seen situations in which people say up front, “If you want to get your way, you need to go in there and yell at someone.” Um. . .

The worst is when companies and organizations actually make a habit of giving into rude ‘negotiation techniques’–it’s just encouraging the behavior.

Reply to this comment

avatar 17 Anonymous

Great tip on the “other side.” I always make sure to treat the CSR with respect.

Reply to this comment

avatar 18 Anonymous

I’m passing this on to so many people I know. I have worked in CSR type jobs for almost 10 years (5 years at my current job), and I may have a bit more authority than most (I’m something between a low level CSR and a supervisor, so I get a LOT of cranky customers) I am much more willing to help a customer out if they treat me with respect and have reasonable requests.

Keep in mind, I’ve had some angry customers in the past. I once had a customer who spent about 2 minutes on the phone just cussing me out when the first rep they worked with was not able to assist them. I just waited patiently till they were done, then asked them “Do you feel better now?, if you have calmed down, perhaps you can explain to me your problem and I can see what I can do.” Granted, I know I didn’t give this customer everything they were asking for, but they did seam to be a bit better after they were able to vent for a few minutes.

Funny thing is, a lot of the time that’s all it is, they just need to blow off a bit of the steam before they can think clearly. I know I am one of the few CSR’s that I know can handle this (I’ve seen a customer make a coworker cry more than once), and that is the part the customers don’t see.

So, I have to agree with everything in this article. It’s amazing how much a little kindness goes a long way.


Reply to this comment

avatar 19 Anonymous

Good advice, though I’d offer one bit in return to CSRs. When a customer asks to speak to a supervisor, don’t ever say “they’re just going to give you the same answer”. Nothing pisses me off more than hearing that from a CSR. First of all, in my experience I have often encountered supervisors who have the ability (and yes, sometimes knowledge) to help me better than the front line CSR. And second, even if this is true, at least let the customer try to make their case to a higher authority.

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.