Confessions of credit card customer service reps

They're rewarded for getting you off the line; that 'supervisor' may not really be one


Confessions of credit card customer service reps
Confessions of credit card customer service reps

Credit card customer service reps are your first point of contact when you have a question or need something from your credit card issuer. But how much power do they really have? Does it help to ask for a supervisor? Is there anything you can say to increase your chances of getting what you want? tracked down five former or current real-life credit card customer service reps to find answers. (It wasn’t easy because many call centers are offshore, and banks have strict rules about talking to the media.) Here, their true confessions about what it’s really like to work in a credit card call center and their best insider tricks for getting what you want from your credit card company:

1. We get a bonus if we get you off the phone quickly. You’ll win points with us if you say right away why you’re calling. We’re tracked – and rewarded – based on how fast we get you off the phone. Goals vary based on the bank (three minutes is common), but shorter is always better. We also get punished if we put you on hold for too long. In addition to monthly cash incentives, some banks give out daily incentives – such as a $5 cash gift card – to the person with the shortest call times.

2. We are on the hook to sell you products. We are all under pressure to upsell, whether it’s credit card protection, credit monitoring or balance transfers. We often have daily, weekly or monthly quotas, and we get rewarded if we hit those sales goals with bonuses and other incentives. “I hated it,” said John Walko, a former customer service rep at a Bank of America call center. “You call just to ask a question, and I’m trying to keep you on the phone to sell you something. I tried not to push it, but the boss would listen to my calls, and I’d get dinged if I had too many calls in a row where I didn’t make a balance transfer or credit protection pitch.”

3. We have no control over your interest rate. Banks make decisions about your interest rate and credit limit based on your credit and payment history, not how nicely you ask. “We put your information into the computer and it tells us if we can offer you a lower interest rate,” said a former Capital One rep who left the job in 2013. “You either qualify or not. There’s no point in begging.”

4. It’s easy for us to waive that late fee – just ask. Most of us have a surprising amount of discretion to refund over-limit fees, finance charges, non-bank ATM fees, returned payment fees and, especially, late fees. Just make sure you say, “Can you please remove this fee?” because some banks have a policy of not offering unless you explicitly ask. “At Chase, our policy is to waive one late fee every six months,” said a Chase card rep. “It’s as simple as click and look.” We may have the power to waive more than one fee in that time period for a customer who has a particularly good excuse, but we’ll get a slap on the wrist if we do that too often.

You call just to ask a question and I’m trying to keep you on the phone to sell you something.

— John Walko
Former Bank of America call center employee

5. It is possible to get your annual fee waived (at some banks). Some banks allow reps to do this, some don’t, and it may depend on which card you have. “We could waive the annual fee on some cards, but the company tracked us to see how often we did it, and we’d get in trouble if our numbers were too high,” Walko said. “My advice? Keep calling until you get the right rep, and be extra nice. Tell us how long you’ve been a customer. Share a personal situation if you have one. But don’t go on and on, because we’re being timed.”

6. The worst callers make us cry. “I saw more people cry at the call center (including grown men) than I’ve ever seen anywhere,” the former Capital One rep said. “I was a manager listening in when one of our new reps got berated by a man because she couldn’t waive a fee for him. He went ballistic and called her some of the worst names I’ve ever heard. She quit in a week.” (Turnover in the industry is exceptionally high.)

7. If you’re abusive, you’re branded forever. If you’re rude or use profanity, most banks will put a note on your account that labels you a “verbally abusive caller." “You can’t delete it,” the former Capital One rep said. “So even if it was years ago, when you call in today, every customer service rep will see that and be on guard.”

8. Your opinion can make or break my paycheck. Most of us get paid a little more than minimum wage, but we earn bonuses based on customer reviews – the survey or email you get at end of the call. Too many bad reviews, and we get disciplined and extra training. If our numbers don’t improve, we can get fired.

9. We know when you’re lying. We keep very detailed records showing when you’ve called, what you and the rep talked about, and what actions/resolutions were taken. So, don't use the same excuse twice, and don’t tell us you were promised something that you weren’t.  “People will call and say, ‘I’ve never been late my whole life and I just want you to waive the fee this once,’” a rep said. “But I can see on my screen that you had a fee waived every few months all year.”

10. My computer may tell me you’re not worth keeping as a customer. “If I go to close your account, my computer gives you a color-coded risk score: Green means retain and red means don’t retain,” said the Chase customer service rep. “If you’re green, we can make some specific offers. We may say, ‘We’d like to show you that we value you as a customer by giving you a $50 statement credit (or 1,000 bonus points).’ But if you haven’t used your card for two years, then we’re not making money on you, so you’ll come up red. The retention tool will tell me just to ‘reinforce card benefits,’ which means I can’t offer you anything. I can only tell you what’s great about the card.”

People will call and say, ‘I’ve never been late my whole life and I just want you to waive the fee this once.’ But I can see on my screen that you had a fee waived every few months all year.

— Credit card customer service representative 

11. We dread calls from senior citizens. Not because we don’t like them, but because they tend to do things more slowly and they like to chat, so the calls can take longer. “You’ll get an older gentleman stumbling around looking for his statements. You can hear him walking across the house saying, ‘I know I have that statement somewhere. Let me get my glasses,’” one former rep recalls. ‘Then he’ll say, ‘Do you hear my birds? I love my birds. I’ve had birds since I was 10 years old,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, noooo … You are killing my call-time bonus.”

12. Going on a racist tirade won’t help your case. More than half of our calls are from people who are already frustrated or angry, but if you have a condescending or irritated tone, it just makes us less willing to help. “One of my most memorable calls was a customer who had a credit limit of about $600,000,” recalls one rep. “He would spend $40,000 to $50,000 a month, but pay only the minimum. I might have the numbers wrong, but what I do remember very well was that he had accrued about $10,000 in interest alone. He called to ask us to waive it all. I couldn’t do that, but I did offer to shave off $1,000 of interest as a sign of goodwill. Instead he went ballistic, talked to my supervisor (who had a thick Spanish accent), got even madder and went on a racist tirade. In the end, he didn’t get anything waived.”

13. I have no idea why your card was replaced.  If you get a new credit card with a new number because of possible fraud, “that means our bank got a report from MasterCard, Visa or AmEx that indicates your card might have been compromised,” one rep said. “But we have absolutely no way of knowing where, how or when this happened, as the networks do not disclose this to us. So save yourself a phone call.” 

14. Social media threats can be effective. “Threatening legal action can raise some eyebrows, but threatening to go on social media with your issue? That actually escalates your issue even higher for a prompt response,” according to one rep.

16. You have no idea what kind of stress we’re under. “With the sophisticated dialers they have, as soon as we hung up, another caller would be on the line,” said Ajay Pandya, who worked at Discover Card Services from 2001-2010. “They really manage to micro-seconds. There’s no time to breathe or take a sip of water between calls. And you can always see on the screen how many callers are waiting and the average wait time. If the numbers aren’t good, they threaten to ship your job to China or India.”

We have an escalations department for when people get angry and demand to talk to a supervisor. The only difference between them and us is that they were really good at telling people ‘no.’

— Former Capital One customer service rep

17. My “supervisor” may not really be a “supervisor.” In many cases, “supervisors” aren’t managers, but more experienced customer service reps who have better problem-handling skills. At some banks, such as Discover, “the higher you went, the more chance you had of success,” Pandya said. At other companies, talking to a supervisor rarely helps. “We have an escalations department for when people get angry and demand to talk to a supervisor,” said the former Capital One rep. “The only difference between them and us is that they were really good at telling people ‘no.’”

18. We hear from a lot of mentally ill people. Some call us every day at the same time, to ask about their (nonexistent) credit cards. Others make threats. “People would say, ‘I put a bomb in your call center’ or ‘I know what kind of car you drive,’” Pandya recalls. “And then there were the men who tried to flirt with the women who answer, like asking what they’re wearing.”

19. Just because I have an accent doesn’t mean I’m offshore. While it’s true that many of us are located in foreign countries, U.S.-based call centers also employ a lot of immigrants with accents. We had one guy from Malaysia, and every fourth call or so, he got a customer asking to be transferred to someone in the U.S.,” the former Capital One rep said. “No one believed him that he was in the U.S.”

20. It’s shocking how often people don’t remember what they bought.  People call all the time, outraged about fraud on their account, but once we give them more information, they realize it’s a legitimate charge. “If you’re not sure, we can give you a more detailed explanation than what you have on your statement,” the Capital One rep said.  “A lot of times I can even pull up the receipt and send you a PDF of the signature so you can to see if it’s yours.” 

See related: 5 times it makes sense to call your card's customer service, Poll: Most who ask get late fees waived, rates reduced, Consumer bureau expands complaint data

Published: May 13, 2016

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Updated: 10-26-2016

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