Getting to yes when a company insists no refund

Does it take a media firestorm to get a refund these days?

A European airline recently charged a ticket change fee to a passenger rushing home after a tragedy hit his family. Only after an uproar in the media did the company reverse the fee. But consumers don’t, and shouldn’t, need the press on their side to get treated fairly.

Experts offer tactics and strategies for getting customer service reps to go off their script and give a refund.

Christopher Elliott, author of the forthcoming book, "How to be the world's smartest traveler," offers several strategies for breaking through customer service snags.

For one, try asking: "Are you reading from a script?"

"That takes them by surprise," said Elliott, as there's usually no scripted reply for questions about the script itself. 

"They have to resort to actually talking to you. You get them not just to read, but to listen," he said. From there you can start to negotiate person-to-person and work towards a satisfactory result.

Elliott said other tactics include:

Ask for the employee's direct supervisor. Asking just for a "supervisor" could get you transferred to the agent in the next cubicle, who will just say the same things as the first.

Ask a question they can't have in their script. Try "How's the weather?" or "How did you come up with that policy?"

Empathize. Use "please" and "thank you," liberally. "Put yourself in the position of employees who are constantly being abused by consumers who find the policies as absurd as they do," said Elliott.

Watch your tone. Know the difference between "please" and "OH PLEASE!"

If a customer service rep still won't get off a script, call someone who isn't reading one. Consumer advocate Tim Duffy will often call up a company's vice presidents at their desks, using phone numbers gleaned from Hoovers business directory. For those who feel daunted by the prospect of calling up a company executive, he recommends consumers write down their own script.

The day before a customer calls, said Duffy, they should write down exactly what the problem is, then read it over the next day and shorten it as much possible. Leave out any sob story details, unless they're germane to the issue.

"They don't need to know that you're a mom or senior citizen," he said, the executives "can see they're looking for sympathy and it weakens their case."

Duffy recommends simply presenting the problem in the most straight-forward way possible, and asking, "can you help me with it?"

The key to success, he said, is "the attitude you use."

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