April 23, 2006

The Art of Leveraged Bargaining, #2
Old Sprint Phone

You’ve been a good phone. But it was time for an upgrade.

We have a whiteboard in our kitchen with lists of To-Do’s for both my wife and me. As we complete a task we ceremoniously erase the entry and give each other a high five for a job well done. It doesn’t happen often so we make a point of celebrating. The items that make these lists are the ones that never seem to get done: hence the introduction of the whiteboard to elevate their status and to keep us from forgetting.

High on my list: call Sprint to renegotiate our cell phone contract. It’s not a pleasant chore but one I am good at. I’ve devised a list of strategies for getting the most from my cell company and I rely on them when my contract is ready to be renewed.

1. When you want anything of importance from your cell phone company call their rentention department. The cell phone industry is highly competitive and margins are tight. They want to keep your business.

You might remember my major discovery back at the turn of the century: when you want anything of importance from your cell phone company, call Retention. They have all the power. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT waste your time talking with anyone else. They do not have the ultra secret codes to get you what you want.

It was definitely time to renegotiate. Our calling plans were from the Mobile Phone Jurassic period. We had two separate accounts with more minutes than we could ever use (let it be known we do not live with our phones permanently affixed to our ears). We were paying way too much and our phones were old. Coworkers and friends would often stifle their surprise to see my quant little black and white screen. “What?! You can’t download In-A-Gadda-De-Vida as a ringtone??”

I’ve had this task on the whiteboard for six months. But I was waiting for THE phone to come out. I didn’t know what that phone was but I scoured the gadget Web sites weekly to find it. I thought about a Treo. But, quite honestly, I had no desire to be connected 24/7. I wanted a phone that got good reviews for quality and battery life, something that was small, and something that might make my transition into the future more graceful.

When we were in Puerto Rico, my old phone worked for one call and then went on an eternal search for a connection. Nada para el resto del viaje. Nothing for the rest of the trip.

It was time.

The day after we returned home I did a quick search of the phones available, looked at reviews, and prepared to do battle. As always I rolled up my sleeves, walked into the quietude of our bedroom and requested not to be disturbed until I came out triumphant. My wife and girls cheered me on as we said our goodbyes and I closed the door. I dialed Retention.

Note: Sprint’s Retention Department is now known as Account Services. When I queried the agent about the name change she said “Yes, we’ve had numerous names recently. This one seems to have stuck.” No matter. They still hold the power.

2. Before doing battle gather your assets. Know what you have to bargain with. Also know what you want from them. But be reasonable.

My initial volley: I told them that I held three phone accounts and that I was looking to renegotiate. And if I didn’t get a good deal there were other companies I would seek. My tone was soft, not demanding, but clear: if I didn’t get all I desired I would walk. I was simply stating my goal at the outset. I wanted to put us on one of their family plans and I wanted to add my mother-in-law as well. “Oh,” I said, “in addition I want two free Samsung A920 phones.”

Samsung A920 phone

Pretty high-end phones and I wanted two of them for free.

“Well, those are pretty high-end phones, Mr. Gates. I’m not sure we can give those to you for free. Let me check with my supervisor.” She put me on hold for ten minutes and then announced: “We can give you the phones for $75 each. That’s the best we can do.” I asked to speak with her supervisor. She put me on hold. She never returned. After thirty minutes I hung up and redialed.

3. If you don’t get what you want from one agent, say thank you and call another. Always ask for your agent’s name and ID number. Keep notes of your call for future reference.

This time I got Lawrence who promptly gave me his name and ID number. I reissued my request, this time adding that we were long-time customers. He pulled my account up on his screen to verify. “Yes, I think we can work something out,” he said immediately. “We don’t ordinarily give phones like that free. Our profit on them is marginal. But I think we can work it out.”

He, too, had to check with his supervisor. But he quickly returned with the good news. “We can do that.”

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts. Watch your mail. Cell phone companies often send you coupons for lower rates. Ask if they give employees of your company discounts.

Now on to the finer points of the deal. Things went quickly from there on. I had a coupon that would give us 10% off the bill each month for the two year period of the contract. Done. Free roaming was included (great, now I can make calls in the subway, where Verizon holds the monopoly on coverage). And, to make matters just that much sweeter, I had found out that being a Smithsonian employee would net me another 15% off the monthly charge. Done. Cell phone companies give discounts to many company employees, not just government workers. Check it out.

With all the discounts, our monthly charge per phone dropped 42%!

5. At the end of your call, restate what has been agreed upon. Make sure your new plan and any discounts appear on your bill.

Lawrence told me the phones would arrive by Tuesday. Great. But here is the critical point: once the negotiation is completed, make sure it actually takes affect. In an earlier negotiation the deal was sealed but the new plan never appeared on my bill. When I called to find out why no one knew what I was talking about and I had to start from the beginning. That’s when I discovered the nirvana of Retention.

We must rely on those magical computer screens these agents keep referring to. Everything depends on the your history as outlined in their database. And, as I was to discover, there are many screens agents must look at to get to your final truth.

Like most support centers Sprint does not allow customers to call back a particular agent. If you’ve gotten great service from one or if you have a problem, there is no way to get back to them. You get a new representative each time you call so the only continuity is the calling history they pull up on their computer.

6. If you are getting new phones follow up the next day with them to get a tracking number.

Monday I called to get tracking numbers for our brand new phones only to find out that the order had been cancelled by the warehouse. Why? Because the warehouse expected to see either a customer payment for the phones up front or a credit issued by the agent. None existed so with a flick of some computer switch the warehouse cancelled.

If I hadn’t called to get a tracking number I would have never known there was a problem. When I asked if they could contact the warehouse I could hear my coworkers laugh when I repeated three times: “What do you mean the warehouse is in India. You mean Indiana. India?”

I feared my “deal” with Sprint was in mortal jeopardy. But Jennifer, my agent du jour, was kind. She explained everything was fine but she would have to issue a credit for the free phones. Since the total credit was over her allowed limit she would have to get her TL to approve. She kept mentioning her TL without ever explaining just what a TL was (in my post-telephone “around-the-watercooler” conversation with my cubicle-mates someone suggested it meant Team Leader. Ooooh.).

But her TL wouldn’t be in for two hours so she’d have to call me back. We arranged a time in the early evening when I would be able to deal with this at home. She never called. I waited an hour before making my final call to Account Services. I never heard from Jennifer again. But my new agent Tammy took up exactly where Jennifer had ended. Obviously her TL was in close proximity and the credit override was duly issued post haste. Thanks be to God those screens accurately reflected my version of the truth.

7. If they have fouled up your order, ask for a little extra.

I pushed for an upgrade to overnight delivery of the goods from India (know when to push for just a little extra, especially after you’ve been wronged). Granted. By Thursday the phones arrived. But the return address was Kentucky, not India. This fact, minor as it is, remains an interesting mystery. Perhaps they say the phones are coming from India so you won’t expect them anytime soon. Low expectations yield happy customers. Yeah, that must be it. Certainly the fact that one part of the company has no idea what the other part is up to has nothing to do with it.

Now I’m spending my weekend rekeying my 141 contacts into my new cool phone. With newer phones Sprint can transfer your phone list electronically. But my phone was so old I had to do it manually.

It’s been a rainy weekend here in DC. Just perfect for sitting in front of the TV to watch old episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse while creating my new address list. The synchronicity is not lost on me: Pee Wee’s world is filled with interesting characters who border on the unbelievable. So is Sprint’s. Lawrence, Jennifer, Tammy, and all their TLs —and let’s not forget everyone in that warehouse half way around the world. You guys have a special place in my heart.

With each contact I enter I want to call that person to tell them about my good fortune and even better phone. I’d love to call the warehouse in India too to thank them. If only I could.

If only I could.

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All the same and very different: I too renegotiated my cell phone contract.

I have a new game, since I am self-employed and can’t get any real benies. I negotiate a new phone every year. I keep my same contract and I play a game with myself of how to use less minutes.

There is new growing evidence that using a cell phone more than 1 hour a day for 10 years can result in a brain tumor. However, there is growing evidence that wifi, cell phones, and cell phone towers are creating a form of voluntary and involuntary exposure to electro magnetic frequency and radiation that zaps your immunse system, clarity, energy or makes you more vulnerable to a neurological disorder.

So now I am creating a new game that I am actually going to write an article about in the short term: healthy accessories for mobile life wizards.

I am starting to identify them..stay tuned.

Posted by: Lavinia Gene Weissman on April 23, 2006 5:05 PM

Do your tips only apply once one is out of his/her contract and onto a month-to-month. I still have a few months left in my contract and am always told that they can do nothing until its up. Then again, I’ve never talked to the retention dept. :)

Posted by: Jason Adam Lee on April 24, 2006 10:28 PM

The above is absolutely wrong. There is no evidence that cell phone use or EM radiation is harmful to anyone at all. None, zip, nunca, nada.

You can always tell when someone mentions the “immune system” effects of something. That phrase virtually guarantees that quackery is nearby.

Posted by: peej on April 24, 2006 10:54 PM

I have been with Cingular for about 3 years, ending one contract and then starting another. I am on a plan that has the right amount of minutes for me, but I am unhappy (bored?) with the phones I got. Is this enough of a reason to renegotiate, or am I being too nitpicky?

Great article, btw.

Posted by: marshall on April 24, 2006 11:22 PM

Jason and Marshall, I would think that you have greater bargaining power when the companies know you can leave to go to another company at any time. Therefore, it’s good to do your major bargaining when you hold that card. They have you locked into the terms you agreed to if your contract is current.

Of course, I also am of the mind that it never hurts to ask. But the chances are less than if your contract was up for renewal.

Posted by: Jeff on April 25, 2006 9:33 AM

Great advice. I followed a link from the consumerist.com to your blog. Thank you!

Posted by: lysa on April 25, 2006 12:28 PM

Concerning the warehouse in India: the agents you speak to place the orders for phones. Agents in India actually translate the order from the semi-user-friendly order the agent places to instructions for the warehouse. The warehouses are actually in the US.

Posted by: Juan (former Sprint employee) on April 25, 2006 2:49 PM

I’m amazed how many times a Cingular agent has told me “no”, and I’ve said “thanks”, hung up, called back, and been told “yes”.

I think it also pays to call your cell phone company’s customer service line every few months to shuffle your plan around a bit. You’d be suprised how many times you’re still paying for something that should be free or cheaper.

Posted by: Joseph Nilo on April 25, 2006 3:16 PM

Thanks Juan for explaining that. So why did the Sprint employees I spoke with think the warehouse was in India?

Joseph, I agree. As I said earlier, it doesn’t hurt to ask. A few months back when Verizon lowered their DSL rate from $30 to $15 (for a bit slower speed) I thought I’d have a tough time moving to the lower rate since I was in the middle of my year contract. Turned out not to be a problem and I cut my DSL payment in half.

Posted by: Jeff on April 25, 2006 4:24 PM

One of my visitors pointed me here as a response to my pleas.

The Retention dept. was indeed able to help me. Thanks much for your advice here.

Posted by: Alex on April 25, 2006 9:25 PM


Quoted and linked on my blog.

EXCELLENT post, inspiring. Absolutely WILL take your advice in December when my Cingular contract is up. HTC Wizard, here I come. :)

Posted by: lach on April 27, 2006 1:21 PM

First time haggler here.

Inspired by your post I too called and renegotiated my contract. Apparently the folks at Verizon who have all the “secret code power” are in the “telesales” department (which is different from “loyalty” or “retention” — both of which I landed in on different calls).

Haggling with them was tougher than I expected and involved several calls back and forth. The whole thing took about a business day.

I asked for two free Motorola v325’s with no activation fees (one account was new).

I got one phone for free, one for $30, no activation fee and a free “accessory kit,” which was valued at $50 on the VZ website (this was, technically, in lue of the free phone).

Even though I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, I still saved about $140 — plus my cellphone bill will be about $10 less a month.

Thanks for your article.

Posted by: Beck on May 8, 2006 4:18 PM

Does anyone know how to reach retention at Verizon Wireless?

I called customer service, told them what I was looking for and asked for retention. And all I got was put hold while they talked to a supervisor. They offered me an early upgrade, with a phone at the new contract price. I wanted a free Razr.

Posted by: Poekicker on May 8, 2006 9:06 PM

Just as an update to my initial post here: I just noticed that Sprint is now offering free calls after 7 pm for their family plans. When I renegotiated my contract a couple weeks ago that wasn’t available (free calls started at 9 pm). So I just called “Account Services” and simply asked them if they could change our free call time to seven. No problem and no charge.

Posted by: Jeff on May 12, 2006 3:33 PM

Does anyone know what the equivalent to Retention is for T-Mobile? I’ve been out of my contract for a year, meaning my phone is at least a couple years old, so an upgrade would be nice. Do you usually have to agree to a new contract in order to get the goods, or can you remain on monthly payments and still win?

Posted by: Jane on June 1, 2006 2:05 PM

Jane, when you get to your first live person tell them you want to cancel. They will connect you to T-Mobile’s version of Retention.

Successfully renegotiating your contract is dependent on the amount of leveraging power you have. They cell phone companies want you to re-up for two years. If you are in the position to “give” that to them, then you have more bargaining power.

Posted by: Jeff on June 1, 2006 2:36 PM

Good post. This has lots of information that isn’t really secret, just not well-published by Sprint (and, I assume, other cellular carriers). The corporate discounts (if you work at a nationwide chain, ask about a discount), the regular retention offers (% of your monthly bills after being with Sprint 2+ years), and the discounts on phones are all pretty standard.
The big things to remember when wanting new phones is that it’s usually determined by how long you’ve had the phone—not your contract date, because you are typically required to sign a new agreement each time you change your plan. And, if you’re only a few months away from your contact date, call in and ask if you can get a discount or something on your monthly bill by signing a new agreement. Those offers usually appear when you’re within 6 months of the end of your contract.

Posted by: Russ on June 15, 2006 2:40 PM

With Verizon, you can’t just call back and try again with a different agent. They log EVERYTHING. When I tried this the second agent read back to me pretty much my entire conversation with the first agent. Then she just stuck to the script (of what the first agent said) and wouldn’t budge.

Posted by: Pete on June 20, 2006 11:39 AM

I’ve done customer service for Verizon Wireless and support at a cable company. Most wireless phone companies outsource customer service. I know for a fact that Verizon and T-Mobile do because I’ve been inside those call centers. They tend to keep things like sales and retention in house. That’s why they have the magic powers.

Most call centers do not allow agents to make return calls. It’s not that they don’t want to, they aren’t allowed to. You don’t understand that folks who work in call centers are clocked at what they are doing every call, every minute. Not being in queue to take a call counts against you. That’s why you weren’t called back.

And just for the record, customer service reps don’t like to be threatened. Saying that you’ll go somewhere else is one thing. You will get better service and are more likely to get a credit if you treat the customer service rep like a person who is just trying to do a job.

Posted by: Teri Pittman on June 22, 2006 5:15 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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