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The Customer Retention Department: Every Man's Oprah

May 7, 2008
No matter how old, or what sex you are, you probably love getting free stuff. You've seen that episode of Oprah every year, where grown women lose their ever-loving minds over a pair of sandals. They might not even like the sandals they are getting. They just know something better is just around the corner.

Chances are, you can't get a ticket to Oprah's show, much less that particular show, as getting on there is completely random. If you're a guy like me, you could care less what Oprah says about, well...anything. I'd still smile and take the free stuff if it was offered.

I have good news for you guys: Better things are around the corner. There is department in pretty much every corporation that has the authority to give you free stuff. It's called "Customer Retention". See, as a consumer, even in a contractual situation, you have the right to complain, or at least ask for a better deal. CR is the only department that has the right to grant you the free stuff.

Why in the world would a company give stuff away? Well, it cost them quite a bit in the form of marketing, reputation management, and good, old-fashioned elbow grease to get you in the first place. Marketing data suggests that it will take them 12 times as much to get you back if they lose you. If you do the math, you can see why a little hush money would be worth paying out. Why lose money, when they can break even for awhile, and then continue to turn a profit?

Let me guess, you think I am full of a foul-smelling substance? Fine. Let's take a walk back to the ultra-competitive days of dial-up internet. Do you remember a little company by the name of AOL. What did they do marketing wise? Hmmm...I believe you dedicated a small room in your house to all those promotional install discs they sent you. Then, you signed up for your 90 hour free trial. This, as fate would have it, was exactly how long it took to download a song.

You were happy, until you figured out that everyone else received a free CD as well, and all numbers at AOL were busy. You decided to call and cancel. Here's where CR stepped in. They said " Oh, I am terribly sorry that you are unhappy, we'll give you another month of our service free." Since they were such terribly nice people, you decided to to take them up on their offer. After this month, AOL increased their ability to handle your areas call. Then they billed you at the full $30-a-month for the next 4 months. You kept forgetting to cancel. When you finally got around to it, AOL had a slightly worse, but better deal for you: $19.95 for the next three months. You eventually canceled. The CD's kept coming, long after you switched to Compuserve, Prodigy, or even DSL. They spent tons of money trying to regain your business.

Do you believe me now? Or....can you hear me now? Ah, the customer retention gold mine, Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T. These people want your business. See, what phone companies don't tell the general public, is that they don't start making a profit on any customer until the very end of a two year contract. The infrastructure, hardware development, and customer support(..ha...ha) cost them quite a bit. Once they reach the end of that term, however, they just watch the money roll in. For this reason, they love it when you get sick of your old phone, and decide to become an indentured servant at the end of your first two year term. Oh, yes. More money, zero effort. Who wouldn't love a deal like that?

Ding.ding.ding.ding....the consumer, or as like to refer to them: YOU. So, how do you get free stuff? I'll start with Sprint, as an ideal example. Although they have been a really lousy service provider (except for their mobile broadband product), they are fairly aware of their sub-par reputation, and their customer retention is extremely attentive. How attentive? Well, let's see. When my company mentioned to switching to AT&T, suddenly, Sprint found a way to chop off 25% of our bill. Then, they gave us 2 months(nearly $3000) of service free. "But", you will say, "you're a company. You have leverage that I don't." Alright, I'll give you another example: I know a guy that has received a top-of-the-line phone from Sprint every single time he has asked for it. He's just an average customer, with a line for him and his wife. This is not the the bargain basement, $30 promo phone. This is the tricked out $400 PDA, with all the niceties included.

How does he do it? With a single call. He rings up Sprint, asks for their customer retention dept., and will not speak with anyone but customer retention. This is a very important step. In fact, it's the only step, and it is very hard to implement. Why? Nobody wants to send you to Customer Retention. Customer Retention is the place most people send you've spoken with first level support, and a couple of supervisors. You can skip all that junk by just requesting them in the first place. After that, you and Customer Retention just have to come to an agreement on terms. Our friend with the free PDA just gives his demands, and Sprint gives him the tracking number for his new phone. No muss, minimal fuss.

I would also state the only rule, which explains the reason for the only step: Don't talk to people who can't help you achieve your goal. If you don't know it already, phone centers are divided into teams and hierarchies. They are also bound by certain rules. Do you know what their first rule is? Never offer to let someone talk to your Supervisor. Whatever you get from a company's first line of defense, you will have to ask for. Customer Retention is way up the ladder where conflict resolution is concerned. They are the nuclear option. I repeat: Ask to speak to them FIRST.

Now, I must also state that you will have varying degrees of success with this method. Some companies aren't as generous,are too small to offer these benefits, or just don't care. If the company you are dealing with falls into the last category, you are better off arguing your way out of the contract, and moving on. For those who are willing to hang in there, a treasure trove of services, discounts, and flat-out awesome await.

By the way, don't abuse this information. Don't call just because you can, and certainly not if this your first month of service. These companies want to retain customers, not bottomless money-pits. You want a great deal and even better service. Putting them out of business will not get you either. However, if your company is not delivering these things, don't be shy about taking your pound of flesh.

Now, go forth and reprint this article, help others get the service and money they are due. I'm going to see if Oprah has a Customer Retention department.
About the Author
Kurt Hartman works hard, plays hard, fights for truth, justice, and uses entirely too many commas. His day job is as an OTR analyst for a company that sells giant otr tires. Who does that? Kurt does.
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