Trouble With Customer Service Agents?

How to get what you want—nicely.

Posted Aug 15, 2008

As somebody whose profession revolves around scientifically studying how and why people are persuaded, I'm often asked if there are any persuasion tactics that are guaranteed to get people to say "yes." The truth is that anyone who tells you that they can help you do anything all of the time is either selling you snake oil or peddling their new book. Although it is the case that I'm peddling my new book (Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, co-authored with psychology and marketing professor Robert Cialdini and UK business consultant Steve Martin. Buy your copy today!), I'd never make such exaggerated claims. What I can say with confidence is that the science of persuasion helps us understand what approaches we can take to increase the likelihood -- sometimes by a modest amount, sometimes by leaps and bounds -- that others will give us what we want.

But when pressed recently to identify a particular strategy that I personally find to be highly successful, highly reliable, and soundly backed up by the science of persuasion, one stood out: If you've ever contested a mysterious charge on your credit card, tried to resolve a problem with your computer, or wanted to return an item to a vendor, you've probably encountered stubborn customer service agents -- people who seem nice at the outset but change their tune when they realize complying with your request will cause additional work on their part. To change their orientation toward you, try the following: If you find toward the beginning of your interaction that the customer service agent is being particularly friendly, polite, or responsive -- perhaps before you get to your toughest request -- tell the agent that you're so impressed with his or her service and knowledge so far that you're going to write a positive letter or e-mail about your interaction to his or her supervisor as soon as you get off the phone. After getting the agent's name and the supervisor's contact information, you can then get to the more complex issues at hand. (Or, even easier, you can tell the person that you're so happy with the service that you'd like to be transferred to the agent's supervisor when you're done so that you can pay the person a compliment.) Although there are a number of psychological reasons for why this might be an effective strategy, the norm of reciprocity -- one of the best-studied norms in psychology -- is a powerful factor here: You've offered to do a favor for that person, so now that person is going to be motivated to return the favor. So long as you follow through with your promise, the strategy is an ethical and effective one.


In future blog entries, I hope not only to detail the lessons that scientific research can teach us about how to be more persuasive, but also to analyze how communicators, marketers, and candidates go about persuading their audiences to support them. If you have any questions about the persuasion process that you'd like to see addressed in future entries, please leave a comment.