Raise your hand if you’ve been a victim of Comcast customer service.
“The Man in the High Castle” keeps stuttering, then stopping. As the internet drops out, I gird my loins and prepare to call Comcast. I punch in my account number and personal information, infuriated because I know the customer service representative will immediately ask to hear them again. That is, when they finally answer; the expected wait time is 14 minutes.
After explaining the problem three separate times to three separate people (and receiving three separate sets of unhelpful responses) I hang up, exasperated. There’s a reason why Comcast’s customer service was rated the worst in America for seven years.
This is how I dealt with customer service before I learned how to be a dick.
I learned to harness my inner asshole by watching my mom. A strident liberal, she understood that companies and government agencies habitually push unfair agreements on customers and constituents. As the David to their Goliath, you have to fight the system. You don’t have to be mean, but you must remain firm.
I got my graduate degree in dickishness in Hong Kong, where I worked as a journalist in the late 90s. Hong Kong is known for many things but customer service is not one of them. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone is working two jobs to afford their sky-high rent. Or maybe the city’s former British colonial overlords taught citizens not to expect good help (after all, they were mere subjects, and Britain is infamous for its brusque, unresponsive service).
When you contact Hong Kong customer service, the first thing the representative tells you to do is wait. When they finally listen to your complaint, they endeavor to dismiss it as soon as possible. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have the right form or document. Other times they cite “company policy.” “Our company policy” is a time-honored Hong Kong brush off, the ideal way to avoid giving you what you want.
A colleague from my television channel taught me to emulate Hong Kong’s “tai tais”?—?cranky, rich women characterized by their leopard print jackets, Armani shades and Coach bags. They bark orders loudly and prefer to speak in English, rather than Cantonese (English is the language of Hong Kong’s former colonizers, so English gets things done). Tai tais act as if their time is worth thousands, even if the only item on their to do list is shopping. When they hit a wall, they invariably demand to speak with a supervisor.
Maybe dick isn’t the right word. I don’t want to be a monster just to make a point. I want to stand up for my rights as a customer. As consumers, we pay to receive a service. If there’s a problem with it, the company that accepts the money owes you a resolution.
I’ve worked as a customer service rep, so I know that bad service is usually not the representative’s fault (there are exceptions to this, of course). Sometimes the issue is a lack of training, but most of the time, it’s company or agency policy. In the BBC article, “Why It Pays To Be Grumpy And Bad-Tempered,” science journalist Zaria Gorvett writes that when a representative is unable to help you, it’s a sign that the company “does not value your interests highly enough.”
Studies show this disinterest triggers an angry reaction that can be traced back to our primitive history. Gorvett argues that this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, she says harnessing these feelings of rage can help us to become more powerful negotiators.
Gorvett writes that when companies dismiss you, the proper response is “aggression…to help them see their mistake.” Aggression involves two things: the first is “inflicting costs.” In the Stone Age, this meant violence, but today it means escalating the problem to a supervisor, or threatening to tweet about how much the company sucks.
The second is “withdrawing benefits?—?loyalty, friendship or money.” This means threatening to cancel your subscription, or telling a company you’ll take your cash or business to their competitor.
Turns out Yoda was wrong and Emperor Palpatine was right: “I can feel your anger. It gives you focus…makes you stronger,” the Sith lord teaches. Armed with this knowledge, I developed a powerful alter ego; I call him “Bad Josh.” And when it comes to receiving better service, Bad Josh is an Olympic champion.
Since discovering my alter ego, I have deployed him at strategic intervals throughout my life. First, there was the time I discovered that data overages had pushed my cellular bill up to $259. After calling customer service and learning that nothing could be done, I asked to speak with a manager. I argued that the overage charges hadn’t been made clear; I stressed what a loyal customer I’d been and how much my plan cost. Finally, I threatened to cancel my service and take my business to their competitor. After literally hours on the phone, I went from owing the company $259 to having them owe me $79!
Then there was the incident with my washing machine. After numerous repairs, my Whirlpool washer-dryer finally stopped working. I called Whirlpool Hong Kong and demanded the secretary connect me with the CEO. When she refused, I kept pushing until she gave me his fax number (it was the 90s). I faxed a polite, but forcefully worded letter. It went something like this:
“As an American, I feel this product does not uphold the level of quality I have come to expect from the Whirlpool brand. If I am not compensated for this poorly functioning machine, I will write about my negative experience to all my friends. And I have a LOT of friends.”
Within a week, a top-of-the-line washer-drier with computerized controls arrived at my door. It worked like a charm.
Years later, after returning to the US, I made another call to Comcast. My girlfriend was horrified (bordering on traumatized) when she heard the way I alternately bargained and threatened my way through the call.
“You can’t talk to people like that,” she said. “I’m not targeting the rep,” I countered. “It’s the predatory policy I object to.” I pointed out that I always tell them, “I know this isn’t your fault,” but I don’t back down. We ended up with a decent monthly rate, $10 HBO and reasonably high-speed internet.
I eventually made good on my threat to “withdraw benefits.” Comcast’s draconian policies, understaffed service department and poorly trained reps finally caused me to flee, first to Sonic.net and later to RCN. When I call those companies, I’m immediately put in touch with a human who is knowledgeable about the product, and trained to value my business (Comcast finally learned their lesson?—?as of last year, the company is no longer the worst).
I’ve since retired my alter ego. I’m hopeful that Bad Josh won’t ever need to come out and re-traumatize my girlfriend, but if he ever is needed, I know exactly where to find him.