Credit card etiquette
How to politely win when credit disputes and problems arise
Etiquette pop quiz: When credit card problems arise, how should you respond?
A) Subject the unfortunate bearer of bad news to an indignant rant replete with colorful expletives about their maternal lineage.
B) Cower in fear and meekly cave in to whatever demands are made of you.
C) Drop your emotions before you reach for the phone and calmly work toward a solution in a businesslike manner.
If you answered "C," you're not only correct, you're also one of those rare souls who can maintain focus and decorum while stifling the urge to reach out and crush someone.
Granted, blowing your top feels great, especially when you're the aggrieved party sorely abused by the big mean mega-corp. The problem is, not only is said mega-corp pretty much unassailable on an emotional level, but their customer service representatives (CSRs or reps for short) are your one best hope for resolution. It may not feel like it, but they're the solution, not the problem. Why blow at them?
"It's difficult because emotions build," says Jay Seaton, area president of the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Cleveland and a 30-year veteran of credit counseling. "When you feel yourself trapped and lose a sense of control, the tendency is to think, 'Here's my one chance and I'm going to explode, I'm going to get mad.'"
Don't get mad, get results
You may not have control over your immediate credit crisis, but you do have significant control over how you respond. The combination of a little organization, a nonemotional businesslike approach, and a touch of telephone etiquette can produce the results that ranting and raving only delays.
"I tell people to go into it with a game plan," Seaton advises. "I don't personalize that rep; whether that person is argumentative or helpful, I'm just thinking, how can I get closer to what I want the outcome to be? Don't put off your plan by their approach to you."
Neither a blowhard nor a doormat be, advises Seaton.
"I think there's a place for firmness," he admits. "I can remember a couple of instances where I've been fairly firm. I've never hollered, never screamed, never personalized it in terms of saying things about people. But I've been pretty firm with folks."
Bear in mind that if your complaint involves a billing dispute, talk alone won't cut it: you'll need to resort to writing to guarantee your protection under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Be kind, organized and patient
Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and author of "How Do You Work This Life Thing?" answers etiquette inquiries at The Emily Post Institute. She has witnessed firsthand the wonders that the fundamentals of etiquette -- consideration, respect, honesty and sincerity -- can work in a customer complaint situation.
"Put yourself in the rep's shoes," she suggests. "They have a really hard job dealing with people who often scream with them on the phone. I try to think that if I can be their nice customer, they're going to help me out more."
Post offers these phone tips to get better results:
• Use the rep's name: "You're going to yell at a company, where you might not yell at a person."
• Organize before you call: Have all relevant statements and account information in hand before you dial.
• Call when you have time to wait: "These calls can be really long and really tedious. Don't do it five minutes before you're going into a meeting."
• Keep a detailed log: Notes of previous conversations will help advance your cause.
• If you don't make progress, ask for a supervisor: "Just keep asking in a gentle tone, using the word 'please,' and eventually you'll get a supervisor," she says.
• Don't take abuse: "Don't tolerate verbal abuse. If a rep or debt collector becomes abusive, say, 'I would like to speak to your manager immediately.' If they continue, say, 'I will not respond to another phone call or another piece of mail until I speak to someone who is going to respect me as a person.'"
What's the appropriate etiquette when a CSR has a thick accent?
"If you have a really hard time understanding people with accents, just admit that up front," says Post. "Say, 'I'm terribly sorry, but I have a hard time understanding foreign accents.' It's putting it on you; it's not 'You talk funny' or 'Why can't I get somebody who speaks English?'"
'Sir, your card has been declined'
How should you handle that delicate movie-scene moment when your credit card is declined after a dinner with your boss or prospective in-laws? It requires a bit of finesse on both sides.
"As a former waitress, I would simply bring the card back and say, 'I'm sorry, this card isn't working' or 'Our machine isn't taking this card. Is there another one you would like to try?'" says Post.
"As the customer, don't be embarrassed, simply give them a different form of payment. Even if you know it's an absolute mistake, don't make a big show of it."
Does anger ever help in such an awkward money moment?
"It never does," Post says flatly. "It does two things: a) it makes people around you uncomfortable, and b) it shows that you can't keep yourself under control. Those are both bad reflections on you."
Sympathy for the CSR
We consumers would probably benefit by logging a few hours in a CSR's headset.
Liz French, president and CEO, and Janet Dearmond, vice president of quality, training and development for Customer Service Review Inc., help companies improve their call center performance.
Some of the challenges are easily handled. If a call center is located in a foreign country, for example, it will likely have a special queue for customers who can't translate heavily accented English.
The bulk of CSR training involves teaching reps how to defuse angry customers and control their own emotions when tempers flare.
"They can't take it personally," Dearmond says. "The customer is not really mad at you, they're mad at the situation. If the rep acknowledges that, apologizes for the situation and takes ownership in trying to understand the situation, most customers will let them try to help them."
But even the most stoic rep will sometimes lose it. Have you ever been suddenly disconnected in mid-rant?
"That happens," French admits. "That definitely happens."
Dearmond teaches a better approach: "We train reps to never hang up on the customer, but we do train them to make the customer aware of their behavior: 'I'm really trying to help you and if you will just settle down and lower your voice, our conversation could progress more productively.' Often that will defuse them somewhat and they will be a little more civil about letting the rep do their job."
If rant you must, Dearmond says the CSR manual provides an endgame to your harangue.
"If it gets just totally ridiculous, we advise our reps to say, 'Mr. So-and-So, I'm really sorry about your situation, but I think it would be best that you call back at a time when we can talk about this in a civil manner."
Do you have a tale of where courtesy worked? Or where etiquette failed? Write Editors@CreditCards.com.
See related: How to ask for a lower interest rate
Published: April 28, 2008
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