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. segmation says:

    I think the best way is to be polite. No body likes to be with a grumpy person. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  2. mommao says:

    You always catch more with honey than you do with vinegar! Remembering that the person on the other side of the counter is an acutal HUMAN BEING and not some object for you to treat any way you wish is a good first start… good list!

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      Excellent point. Back when I was “public facing”, as it were, the sweetest words in my ears were “I’d like to speak to your manager”. It was almost always some jerk who thought he/she could steamroll me, found out that wasn’t the case, and then wanted to “go over my head”. Thankfully I was almost always blessed with managers that backed up their employees (unless the employees were obviously in the wrong).

      Moral of the story: It’s not a magic phrase, it just means you’re going to annoy two people. Use it with care.

    • Being sensative to others is always good brand marketing. I have had to go through so much in my life to find out that Carma is really real. the application is a whole nother thing. Love of self and others will remind you to treat others as you would desire to be treated.

  3. When in doubt, ask. The worst they can say is No. I’ve gotten thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of discounts and free merchandise over the years simply by asking for it. If you say it with confidence, cheerfulness, and courtesy, it will not only be heard, it will be appreciated. And they’ll want to see you come back.

    Plus, comment. Comment when it’s great service and comment when it sucks–not to the employee, to the manager. Managers and supervisors are usually surprised when I go out of my way to track them down just to tell them what a great employee they have. I make it a point to request that they let the employee know someone gave them a kudo, too.

    Conversely, I will not hesitate to let a manager know when they have a dick in their ranks. Chances are, it’s not the first time that person has received bad marks. Then again, maybe insulted customers have let it slide again and again and this is the first anyone’s hearing of it. Either way, if the incident is nasty enough, the manager usually hands me a gift card to soothe my wounds. Which works just fine for me.

    Example of great employee:

    One of those people who walks you all the way to the other end of the store to show you a product, make sure it’s what you’re looking for, and then asks you what else is on your shopping list that they can help you with.

    Example of a dick:

    Dick: “Why don’t you try one of our hoppy beers? They’re on sale.”
    Me: “Because I prefer stouts. I’ve never liked hoppy tasting beer.”
    Dick: “That’s just because your palate is underdeveloped. If you drank more hops, you’d like them.”

    Fifteen minutes later….

    Manager: “Please enjoy this $25 gift certificate on us. We’ll have a word with that employee.”

    And that’s how you do THAT.

  4. Great points. It seems as though everyone is so angry nowadays and just looking for a quarrel. More flies with honey, right? Well, except for Woody on Cheers, but dead squirrels are nasty.

  5. Sarwat AJ says:

    Yes , very right, if there are marketing tactics then there are also shopping tactics .

  6. Jacob Barlow says:

    Thanks! I like it a lot.

  7. janeydanes says:

    I agree that by being polite and firm when talking to a customer support representative will really help you in getting something positive from the negotiation process. Thanks for sharing. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Everyone in the world needs to read this article. I’ve worked in ten different customer service jobs, and trust me, the list of times I’ve had to deal with everything you just said is enough to fill the entire length of every encyclopedia. Thanks for posting this!

  9. Jnana Hodson says:

    Stand your ground is the one I need to hone more. That, and speaking up in the first place.
    I tend instead to just blow up later. Ahhh!

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      I’ll admit, I have had that problem from time to time, but I’ve gotten better. I’ve also found that when I do speak up, I usually get some sort of satisfaction, and then I don’t end up blowing up later. So it’s a double-win for me.

  10. Having also been experienced both sides of retail, I completely agree and think your tips are great!

    http://daphneharaburd.wordpress.com/

  11. lillian888 says:

    I wish I’d had this printed out to hand to every salesperson I’ve ever trained. It’s too bad that so many people on one side of the counter or the other feel the need to turn these situations into power plays.

  12. S’all about being polite

  13. RobiniArt says:

    Hey, would you mind helping me negotiate with my landlord? I’ve tried your techniques and the are NOT working! Haha! But, he’s a special case.

    But I do agree. Politeness and kindness go a long way. Great post!

  14. […] one of my favorite non-travel blogs did a post today on “How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying” He lays forth 4 basic principles for accomplishing this. I quite agree, but of course my […]

  15. I’m in the service field and I can assure you the saying is true, “you get more with sugar”! Good post!

  16. I have seen some customers treat people trying to help them just terrible. While I have never worked in retail, I know you get a lot farther just being nice to someone. Congrats on being freshly pressed thanks Angelia @ http://dixielandcountry.com

  17. Reblogged this on delusionalbint and commented:
    some very good advice about both sides of customer service disputes…

  18. ErinLYYC says:

    Bang-on! Great post. More people should read this!

  19. yep politeness is the way. It always shocks me how rude some people can be, and having worked in the service industry for years when I was younger, I know what it’s like to have some obnoxious idiot shout at you, so I always try to be patient in restuarants etc. merci for the post!

  20. Found you on Freshly Pressed. My method is always to kill them with kindness. I like what you wrote- could also be “How to be a decent human being.”

  21. Great points. I worked retail, part-time, from 2007 to 2009, as the recession deepened and our uber-wealthy clientele became ever more persuaded we needed to be spoken to very slowly in words of one syllable as there was NO way we could possibly have college educations…as all of us did. It was a depressing eye-opener to see how rude some customers could be, just for the amusement value.

    My book about retail work has a list of six reasons they get away with it, and one of them is the knowledge that many of us, in this economy, really do need those jobs…

    http://malledthebook.com/

  22. From my experience in customer service, politeness goes a lonnnnnng way. But as you rightly point out, part of being polite is being fair. Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you’re asking for.

  23. preciousgold says:

    Great Article!!! I wish MORE people would act this way/promote this behavior! I think it’s also important to remember the person your typically dealing with is no the person that made the product, mislabeled the sale or had anything to do directly with the problem at hand, they are customer service REPRESENTATIVES, meaning they represent the store to provide service to customers seeking help. Thats their only job title. It breaks my heart when I see people yelling at counter clerks or sales people about a problem the person had no control over. =)

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      I’m right there with you. I also wonder exactly what they think it will get them (other than a stroke). I used to have a manager who actually looked forward to people like that, just because she enjoyed telling them “no”. But if you came forward with a respectful attitude and were polite, you usually got some sort of resolution, because we WANTED to keep your business. My favorite threat from the screamers? “I’ll never shop here again!” Really? Promise?

      • preciousgold says:

        haha sadly enough my Mom an exact example of “the complainer” customer and it makes me cringe every time. I love her to death but my approach and demeanor in life is vastly different. Great Writing =)!

  24. Great post! It seems that people forget the value of a good old fashioned smile.

  25. Thank you so much for posting this. Having worked retail most of my life, I’ve become quite jaded due to people’s apparent disregard for other people’s feelings in situations exactly like the ones you described. Everyone needs to read this list.

  26. […] How To Get What You Want Without Really Trying. […]

  27. miamivoice says:

    Great advice, and very simply explained. So many people skim over these basic essentials and then wonder why things don’t work out or why they don’t get what they want.

  28. Be polite? What are you, Canadian? If you’re not, you’re welcome to join. ๐Ÿ™‚

  29. desithediva says:

    Great post. You don’t have to act ugly to get what you want

  30. so true…and being polite is so so so important..it is so irksome when the customer, even though he may be right, starts yelling or calling names.
    very useful tips.
    thanks for sharing

  31. I just posted on how to argue and win every time (with my 9 year old). It’s not quite the same list.

  32. ivybanerjee says:

    Awesome!!! The old fashioned politeness is just as charming as it was then.

  33. Great tips and I totally agree! No one achieves anything by losing their temper or being unreasonable.

  34. otionblog says:

    I like your objective point of view. Sorry for commenting, but I can’t help myself – soft drink is sooo bad for you, please don’t drink it like water!

  35. bernasvibe says:

    This are fabulous tips! And I can’t agree more…That #1 tip? Its been proven time and time again, or least in my life. Being polite , in life, can soften even the most grumpy folks you encounter. Real talk…

  36. bliss steps says:

    ~ Great post, Bob! It was like I am reading ‘Psychology Today’ in WordPress. Being polite applies to everything I think and yep, it goes a long way. There’s no use being rude ‘coz it won’t help solve the problem in the first place. Btw, congrats on being FP! You know, I am trying the 21-day habit of not being rude (being patient, punctual, nice, etc.) but I broke it. Your post reminded me to TRY AGAIN. Hopefully this time, I will make it. Here’s my story: http://thelurkerslist.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/smile-learn-live/. Cheers!

  37. Sofia says:

    Hi! I once worked in retail pharmacy, so I can completely relate to all this! Also, in that position you are usually the last person in the medical chain that a distressed patient or family member of a patient comes to, and thus feels like shouting at… so sometimes you have to be incredibly patient!

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      I’ve worked a lot of retail jobs (I even worked in a bank once, so I know from stressful situations), but I can’t even imagine working in a pharmacy. I know how grumpy I am when I show up to the pharmacy, and if there’s anywhere I’m likely to break my own rules it’s there. Incredibly patient indeed, and much respect to you!

  38. Good post! Scratch that. Great Post!! I can’t count the sheer number of times I’ve wanted to deck someone or at least bonk them on the head with a bottle of bleach, in the supermarket lines, and sometimes even at high end stores. It’s so fricking annoying. I mean, there’s a guy who’s trying to do his job. Your kids are mixing the scanned and unscanned piles, popping bottles open and generally making a nuisance of themselves, and to top that, you yell at the poor fella for charging you the right amount, when really you’re the dunce at math? What would it take, like five extra seconds (or three?) to say please and thank you? I’ve never worked an aisle in my life but honestly, it’s basic common courtesy!!

    Thanks for writing this. It’s going to cut down on my bleach bonking time if people get it into their head the right way. ๐Ÿ˜›

  39. ghostlydaisies says:

    Great post, great points. Being a grumpy arsehole to customer services gets you no where.

  40. Mike says:

    Calm and assertive – gotcha. Well written – thank you for these insights.

  41. bronsonfive says:

    Awesome. Never has common sense sounded so glorious.

  42. Bill says:

    Reblogged this on BillsPlace and commented:
    Very helpful. Most folks will be able to learn something from this article.

  43. Keri says:

    This is so true and you inspired me to do a travel-specific version (http://www.heelsfirsttravel.com/2013/03/25/how-to-get-what-you-want-without-really-trying). What always amazes me the most is people think it’s ever ok to raise your voice when talking to someone in public. Even prefacing it with “I know this isn’t your fault” doesn’t make it ok to yell or scream.

  44. My husband’s favorite phrase, being a dick (usually mine too). I like your idea of going into a negotiation. That term actually came to mind recently when I tried my negotiation skills with USAirways. Their skills were better than mine, evidently, since I didn’t get what I thought they owed me, but I did get the opportunity to try negotiating which I view as worthwhile practice. You make very good points here. Congrats on Fresh Press.

  45. clever but I’d imagine it works…

  46. Having also been on both sides of the counter, I have noticed a marked decline (and maybe it has to do with where I live as well) in customer service. Many customer service people are down right hostile now. I’ve never agreed with the whole “customer’s always right” thing, usually preferring to add my own “unless he’s an asshole” clause to the end, but now a lot of the so-called customer service people will basically shit on you if they know that you have no recourse (I had a particularly nasty encounter with my local electric company, because they know I basically have no choice in who supplies my electric, for instance.)

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      I hate to say it, but I’ve seen a fair bit of this too, and I have to wonder if this isn’t a backlash against the entitled attitude of customers (who in America seem to have internalized “I’m right”) or if it’s a matter of simply lower hiring standards, lower wages, and poor training. Or maybe I’m just a crotchety old man and think everything was better when I was younger. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I agree! I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe Americans are very entitled! (I’ve mentioned that as the root of the violence problem in this country as well…but that’s another story.) I think in the case of the electric company, they are used to dealing with poor people (I live in a very poor area) who can’t pay their bills, have probably heard TONS of excuses, so when someone has a legitimate problem, they have NO sympathy… But that still doesn’t excuse NO MANNERS!

  47. S.C. says:

    These are excellent common sense ideas. I’ve served and been served, and every time I feel like my service is lousy, I think of what that kind of job usually demands. Unless I see the worker just standing around gabbing on the phone or something like that, I don’t say anything.


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