Complain and Win: 4 Tips for Calling Credit Card Customer Service

By Karen Haywood Queen
A sense of dread fills many of us when we think about calling to report a credit card problem. The countless minutes spent listening to soul-destroying hold music — only to wind up with an unhelpful customer service agent who drops your call — are enough to make even the most proactive cardholder procrastinate.

But once you get a human being on the line, there are things you can do to make the process a little smoother. Being a premium cardholder doesn’t hurt, but even late payers can use their status to their advantage. It just takes a little know-how and common courtesy.

Need to steel your resolve? Remember that you are the customer. It’s not likely your credit card company will fire you for a legitimate complaint, says Beverly Harzog, author of “Confessions of a Credit Junkie.”

But remember that the rep will be looking at your account and may discover, for example, that your credit utilization ratio is too high, she cautions. “Sometimes when you call and they take a close look at your record, they may see something that makes them a little bit worried — and it may have nothing to do with what you called about. I know people who weren’t cut off from their card, but they got their credit limit lowered after calling. You do open yourself up for scrutiny.”

Still, if you have a legitimate complaint or suspect fraud, you need to call. “You have to take up for yourself,” Harzog says.

With that in mind, check out these tips for mastering the credit card complaint process.

1. Be specific but brief

Be ready to state clearly what you’re calling about, whether it’s a specific defect or even that the item was nice, but you didn’t need it at that price, says John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting in Alexandria, Va. Have your receipts, any reference numbers from previous conversations and other documentation in hand, Goodman says.

Get to the point. Although some call centers are moving away from strict time limits on reps, you still may lose the call center employee’s attention if you launch into a long-winded tale, Goodman says. Instead of, “‘My kid was sick and I had to go to the store and then … ,’ stick to ‘Here’s my issue and here’s what I want,'” he says. “Half of consumers when they call aren’t able to articulate in one sentence what they are looking for. Say, ‘Here’s what the ideal solution would be for me, how close can we get to that?'”

It may help to put your thoughts on paper before you get on the phone, advises Harzog. “Write down a little script so you’re very clear of what the problem is and why you think it’s a problem,” she says.

2. Play nice

No matter how angry you are, keep your cool. “No one is really going to want to help you if you act like a raving lunatic,” says Harzog.

Besides, anger makes you less articulate, Goodman says. “The minute you become emotional, the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome takes over. Blood drains from your head and you’re not able to think as clearly,” he says.

A little honesty goes a long way. Admit any part of the problem that might be your fault, Goodman says. And don’t blame the agent for whatever the bigger issue is. “Tell the rep you know the problem is not their fault — this reduces their defensiveness,” he says. “If you made a mistake, apologize for taking their time — they will want to help you.”

That’s how Elizabeth Hanes of Houston approached the situation when she lost a credit card during a move.

“I not only had to report the card stolen, but I had to report I had a new address, which sounds pretty unbelievable,” Hanes says. “My fear was they would suspect I was an identity thief and that’s what I told them when I called.”

She advises others to be completely frank and self-deprecating. Hanes told the call center rep she didn’t know how to proceed. “It made them feel empowered,” she says. “They said, ‘We can help you with that.’ It was the smoothest transaction I’ve ever done over the phone.”

3. Try, try again

What if the first rep you get can’t or won’t resolve your issue? First, ask if someone else can help. “Say, ‘I’m really sorry, is there someone who might have more authority?'” Goodman says.

But here’s the inside scoop on the world of call centers: While supervisors may officially encourage reps to come to the boss with a difficult caller (that would be you), the rep may also face disincentives — from the scowl his supervisor gives him when he tries to pass her a call, to demerits on his performance appraisals for each escalated call.

Faced with those repercussions, the rep may tell you that a supervisor is not available. Of course, if the call is being monitored, he could get in trouble for lying, but that may be a chance the rep is willing to take. “In most call centers, only five to 10 calls per rep are listened to per month, so the chances are low that they will get caught,” Goodman says.

If the employee can’t help and the supervisor isn’t available, that’s your cue to try your call again later. Call centers often have hundreds of employees, Goodman says, so chances are slim you’ll get the same rep.

Don’t pretend it’s the first time, though. Many call centers have systems that note calls so there’s a good chance the second person will see you’re not a first-time caller that day, Goodman says.

“Instead, say, ‘I was talking to someone and they didn’t seem to have the expertise to help me,'” he says.

4. Use your status

Yes, premium and longtime cardholders may get better service. The buzz phrase in a few companies is “flexible solution spaces,” Goodman says. That means that although reps have to comply with federal law in treating customers equally, they are often given several possible protocols to address customer problems, he says. “When you have a platinum customer and he says his payment has gotten lost, you’ll tend to believe him and give him more rope than you’d give someone else,” he says.

Although the rep may know when calling up your account how long you’ve been a customer and what kind of account you have, it doesn’t hurt to remind them.

“Some of the elite cards have a 24/7 concierge service,” Harzog says. But, “if you’re calling the generic number and have a really elite card, be sure to tell them what kind of card you have. I haven’t had anyone tell me that it made a difference. But especially if you’re paying an annual fee of over $100 for a card, it’s reasonable to get extra attention.”

At the other end of the spectrum, if you sometimes pay bills late or not in full, it doesn’t hurt to bring that up either, according to Goodman. “You could say ‘I’ve paid you guys $400 in service charges and interest over the past year — you’re making a lot of money off me,'” he says. “That could be persuasive.”

Karen Haywood Queen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in AARP Bulletin, Better Homes and Gardens, Costco Connection, Executive Travel, Family Fun, Smart Grid Today, Smart Homeowner, US Airways magazine, and many other publications. She also writes for businesses. Karen lives in Williamsburg, Va., with her rocket scientist husband and two children.