How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying


The other day I was out grocery shopping, and I saw a sweet deal on my favorite soda. I go through the stuff like most people go through water, so I jumped on it. When I got to the counter it didn’t ring up correctly, and I brought it to the clerk’s attention. He said it would ring properly after the sale finished, but it didn’t so I brought it to his attention again. Long story short, the soda was mislabeled. I had to go through a bit of a song and dance, but I got my money back (and the soda too!), which was pretty nice.

The experience reminded me that I’ve had plenty to say in the past about bad customer service, but having been on both sides of the retail counter plenty of times, I’ve also seen plenty of bad customers. While the retail experience has been perfected from art to science (quite literally), the retail customer doesn’t seem to have changed much from the dark days when I plied the trade. For those of you who might find yourselves in a customer service crisis, here’s some tips on how to get the most out of the situation.

Be Polite – I can’t think of a single situation in my life (other than a fistfight) that hasn’t or couldn’t have been improved by being polite. I’ve seen a lot of people try to intimidate store clerks and managers, either physically or socially, and I have to tell you it almost always backfires. Being polite at the least keeps the situation in the realm of negotiation, which means you might get something, rather than demand, in which case you’re far more likely to get nothing.

One of my favorite misconceptions in retail is “the customer is always right”. I don’t just mean this as a factual misconception, I mean this as a misconception in the sense that anyone in retail does or should believe this. Maybe if I only had a handful of customers come in on a regular basis and my livelihood depended on them, then maybe I would consider this phrase, but still unlikely. In this day and age, when most retail is as anonymous as an online chat room and I have no reason to believe I will ever see you again, why should I go out of my way to put up with your crap? Because you’ll badmouth me to all your cheap friends, who are as likely to pull the same stunt as you are? Yeah, that’s a threat.

Here’s another way to look at it: suppose I came to your office one day and told you that you were doing everything wrong. I (very loudly and obnoxiously) explain how you should be doing your job, running your business, and handling every situation, even though I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about, and chances are better than even you saw be stealing some rubber bands from the supply closet fifteen minutes ago. Then, to top it all off, I insist that I know how to run your business because I worked in a similar business for a summer in high school, thus implying that any idiot can do it.

Would you at all be inclined to give me anything I want under those conditions? If so, you’d be the first.

Be Patient – The next biggest sin I see people committing (and I do this too, but I try not to) is that they assume there should be someone ready to help them as soon as they need it, especially if they feel like they’ve been wronged somehow. I get this, I do. You paid good money for a specific product or service, and that product or service was not produced. You want satisfaction, and the longer you have to wait, the more you feel you are being cheated, because your time is also valuable.

Here’s the thing: They’re (usually) not making you wait on purpose. Most stores understand that having an unhappy customer standing around fuming does not make them look good to the other customers. But there are other customers to consider, and that’s assuming someone is even aware of your needs. Then there are certain procedures they need to follow, which if they don’t could mean they lose their job, which means a lot more to them than your displeasure (and trust me, they will never get fired just because you asked to speak to the manager and they were following the procedures).

Most of all, if there’s any flexibility to be had in this situation, you want it to work for you, not against you, and the fact of the matter is you are not in the position of power that you think you are. They might prefer not to lose you as a customer, but the more of an asshole you are the less they care, and there’s no law against not giving in to your unreasonable demands. Even on the (very off) chance they’re in the wrong, what are the chances you’re going to sue over a can of tomatoes or even something as big as a sweater? Slim to none, and they know that. So cool your jets.

Be Flexible – This one’s a little tough to internalize, but it’s important. Most people go into a customer service situation expecting they are there to right a wrong. Not so. You are going into a negotiation, and the rules are a little fuzzy. There may be laws that apply, but do you know them? Do you really think the kid behind the counter does? And does anyone really care? There’s store policy, but that usually has some leeway to it. And then there’s custom and convention, which are pretty weak guidelines at best.

So understand that you are not there to right some moral wrong. You have a situation you want resolved, one were you feel you were not treated fairly, and you have a specific preferred resolution in mind. That’s nice. You might even get that. But be open to the possibility that there are in fact laws, policies, or even customs and conventions that are going to work against or even completely prevent you getting exactly what you want. And that’s even assuming you are completely right about the situation, which I’ve seen all too many times isn’t the case.

So now what? Well, you can resort to screaming and demands and see how far that gets you (usually escorted out of the store), or you can be flexible. Oftentimes unless you are completely in the wrong store managers will prefer to find a negotiated middle ground where the customer walks away feeling satisfied, and you can use that fact to your advantage. If you were expecting a full refund, maybe a partial refund, or a discount on a future purchase or exchange. Be open to alternatives.

Be Firm – This goes hand in hand with being flexible. Unless you are completely in the wrong (in which case you should make as quick of a retreat as you can), stand by your guns. Don’t let the manager or anyone else try to bully or snowball you. I’ve seen plenty of times where they will pull out a circular or ad and say something like “that was last week’s sale” when they forgot to change the signage in the store, even though we both know their own store policy is to honor their posted prices.

There’s no need to be a dick about it, but make sure to stand your ground and be aware of your position. The best thing to do in these cases is to simply refuse to argue with them. If they pull out the circular, nod and say something like “I’m sure that’s the case, but the posted price on the shelf was different.” This way you aren’t engaging them, but you are refusing to be scared off as well. And notice: still polite. Eventually (if you are patient) they will likely offer some recompense. If you’re flexible, you should be able to get something satisfying.

UPDATE: Within a few days, I got a chance to test out my own advice. Check out what happened.


123 Comments on “How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying”

  1. pontenmipiel says:

    Estoy totalmente de acuerdo con algunos de vosotros, salir vivo y sin enfadarte de una situación así, requiere de mucha paciencia,escuchar, y desde luego hablar claro y asegurarse de que tu interlocutor te ha entendido.

    Si os parece bien podíamos seguirnos mutuamente todos, ya que compartimos ideas parecidas.

    saludos desde VALENCIA ESPAÑA!! pontenmipiel


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