April 23, 2006
The Art of Leveraged Bargaining, #2
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.”
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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