It's happened to all of us: Just when we need something most, it breaks.

Just when we thought all the bills were paid on time, there's a late charge.

Inevitably, our stressful lives become more so when we cross paths with a customer service center.

And oh, can it be frustrating from the get-go. Long menu options, multiple transfers, computer-generated messages telling you how "important" your call is, and how "all agents are busy," and how the next agent will be available in about 23 minutes.

Yuck. But in many cases, that's hardly the worst of it. Once in the comforting hands of a live agent, your problems may be just beginning.

Agents, especially in technical support, often are given standard scripts.

So no matter how hard you try to convey your knowledge of the product and its problem, you'll still be asked to check the power cord and on-off switch.

And with banks and financial services, you'll be asked annoying account-verification questions and may even have to endure a sales pitch before getting started.

Companies have outsourced most call-center work -- a lot of it to India -- in an effort to reduce cost.

On the plus side, however, today's more enlightened companies realize most of us represent revenue and profit, not just cost. Still, getting good service can be challenging.

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

Here are some ways to get better results from customer service -- or at least avoid making your task harder.
  • Establish rapport.

    Before getting started (or while waiting for some piece of account information to show up on their screen), send a friendship signal. Agents are human, and most will respond and be more helpful. Ask where he or she is, what time it is and about the weather.

    While you're at it, ask whether agents work directly for the company (most don't) and how empowered they are to deal with your issue.
  • Work toward a solution.

    Amicable is good; constructive and collaborative are even better. Most agents want to help; in fact, today it's more likely they're graded on their success in helping you the first time rather than how quickly they end your call.

    So help them find a solution -- it makes their job easier, and yours, too. Know your product information, serial numbers, account numbers and purchase date before you start. And offer a compromise, such as waiving the late fee if they can note on your account you've used up your "freebie" for the year.
  • Know your value to the company.

    Play the "defection" game, but only to a point. Companies want to keep customers -- but some more than others. Most have an idea of your value -- that is, the amount and profitability of your business. So they might just let you defect!

    But if you're really valuable, you can push a little harder. Think about what products or services you've bought. Once, when I read off a list of products I owned, the agent immediately handed me off to a special escalation group.

    And realize that most agents work for a third party, not for the company you want to do business with, so appealing to them about their company's image might not work.
  • Be persistent, but not angry.

    The adage "bees are attracted to honey" works here, too. Agents are human, and at some point they will give up on you. It's easy when you're 14,000 miles away.

    Escalate wisely and as a last resort. If your agent has been helpful but ineffective, explain that to the supervisor. Supervisors deal with hostile customers all day, so if your approach is different, it will stand out, and if you help them, that will too.
  • Time your call wisely.

    Finally, calling at the busiest times is usually not a good idea. Chances of getting an effective escalation are less. But don't call on Saturday morning or at unusually odd hours, like 1 a.m.

    Call centers are staffed to handle normal, peak and reduced loads in the time zone where you are. Normal times, like weekday afternoons or early evenings, work best.

    However, if your customer service reps reside overseas and your call is likely to require escalation, a late-night call might work -- you'll gain access to the more empowered and less busy day-shift personnel.

Always keep in mind, while it seems like you're dealing with a system, you're really dealing with people within that system. Business, no matter what, works best on a "win-win" basis, and customer service is no exception.
Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book, "The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.

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