Sean McAuliffe’s business, International Key Supply, suffered financially when the pandemic began. So he set out to cut operating costs for the New York-based distribution company. He canceled a few services, and for more important ones, he contacted the providers to request deferred or lowered bills.
First, he emailed, only to receive unhelpful replies.
Then, he called — and every one of those same companies he had emailed agreed to temporarily pause or lower his bill. McAuliffe estimates that these conversations saved his company thousands of dollars, which helped prevent layoffs.
This technique can work on the individual level, too. If you’re willing to chat on the phone, you can save money and, often, time.
How a call can help
Is the idea of talking to a real-life stranger on the phone about as appealing as waiting at the DMV or getting blood drawn? Join the club. In 2019, gadget trade-in website BankMyCell conducted an online survey of more than 1,200 millennials in the U.S. When asked if they sometimes feel they need to summon the courage to make a phone call, 81% of respondents said yes.
But if you can push yourself to pick up the phone, a call to customer service is often the best way to request a favor that will save you money. You can ask to have a bill lowered or deferred; a credit limit raised; an interest rate lowered; a fee waived; a service or booking canceled without penalty or just about anything else.
All it costs to ask is time and potential phone-call awkwardness. And the worst thing that can happen is the stranger on the other line says no. (But read on, and you’ll probably get them to negotiate.)
Phone calls are also the way to go to resolve errors, such as unwarranted late-payment fees or duplicate charges on a bill. Ira Rheingold, executive director at the National Association of Consumer Advocates, recommends regularly scrutinizing your bills for mistakes.
"Do not expect the company you’re dealing with to always be accurate," he says. "When things don’t look right, they’re probably not right, and you should follow up on it."
Even if you’re not necessarily trying to save money, jumping on the phone may help you understand a nuanced money topic more quickly (and maybe more accurately) than spiraling down an online search hole.
Call your insurance agent if you don’t understand how your policy works or if a certain something is covered, for example. Call your credit card issuer to learn why you were rejected for a new card. Or call your health care provider’s billing office to identify head-scratcher charges. (Just in case you don’t know what "INJ MED IVPUSH EAADD SEQ SUBST" means off the top of your head.)
How to prepare for the call
Before picking up the phone, get clear on the outcome you want, says Stephanie Richman, certified financial planner and regional director of Northern California/East Bay at EP Wealth Advisors. Knowing this goal and clearly communicating it will help make for an efficient and effective conversation.
Also, consider the motivations and interests of the company you’re calling, she says. That will help you anticipate their questions, answer them and ultimately encourage the other person to help you. So, in practice, that may mean asking to defer this month’s water bill and explaining how you’ll be able to catch up on payments by your next due date.
Ahead of your call, gather relevant paperwork, such as a copy of the bill you’re asking about or your insurance card. And pull up your history with this company. Let the customer service rep know if you've been a loyal customer for a long time or if you’ve gone years without a late charge. The company will likely be motivated to keep a customer like you around.
Finally, "be prepared to have patience," Rheingold says. This call may take a while and, yes, become tedious or frustrating. Set aside some distraction-free time when you’re feeling good, not when you’re irritable or hungry.
How to make the most of the call
OK, you can articulate exactly what you want and have armed yourself with information (and maybe snacks). Time to dial. Be kind to whoever picks up as you clearly state your request. When McAuliffe, the business owner, made his calls, he said he was simply honest with the service providers about what he needed.
"It was more about working together than trying to strong-arm them," he says.
If the person on the other end denies your request, or if it seems they’re sticking to a script, Rheingold recommends asking to speak to their supervisor. That person is probably in a better position to help.
"There’s nothing wrong with working your way up the food chain," he says.
As you climb said chain, remember your manners. "You can ask for a supervisor in a nice way," Richman says. "Assertive does not mean aggressive."
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.