How To Win At Bureaucracy

Have you ever had one of those moments where a big company or institution did something that was really nasty, evil, unethical, illegal, or just plain not nice to you? And then you called to complain and ask for help and heard those awful words “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do to help you”? Well I’m here to help. I have written How To Win At Bureaucracy. You’re welcome.

1. Understand how Bureaucracy works. Bureaucracy is structured. The pee-ons are are the bottom, and the President or CEO is at the top. The pee-ons don’t make the rules, they just enforce them. The outline of your strategy is to (1) be nice to the people who can’t do anything to help you, (2) get them to escalate your call, (3) be even nicer to the people above them, and repeat until you get to someone who can do what you want them to do.

2. Don’t be a jerk. When you call a company’s number, the first customer service person you talk to will probably not be able to help you. Your problem is not their fault.


So be nice. Be polite. Be civil. The person you talk to is a pee-on. They’re sick of smelling the pee, honestly. They go in to work every day and people are rude and unkind to them. Customers say, “Your company is evil,” and they smile and say “Well how can I help you?” They calm down really angry people. And occasionally they hit the mute button and swear at them. So be nice to them, and they will be nice to you.

Also, know that they only have three options:

1. Say no to your request and get you to hang up.
2. Escalate your call.
3. Hang up on you.

Hanging up on customers is usually against policy, but customer service representatives, or “agents,” will at their own discretion sometimes make exceptions to this rule if callers are particularly unkind to them. They’re not getting paid enough to listen to you swear at them. If they can get you to hang up, the company wins. If you’re nice and don’t hang up, they’re stuck with option number two.

3. Know the rules. The rules state that if a customer was given a perception (the wording is usually that someone “set the customer’s expectation”) the customer will usually get what they expected. The words “I was given the impression that…” are very powerful. Companies get in trouble for not keeping their word. It’s a great way to lose customers.

4. Have a case. If you say, “I called Australia fifty times last month and I didn’t expect to get charged a dollar a minute!” you have no case. Usually, this information is provided in very clear terms when they give you your contract. On the other hand, if someone at the store told you the America plan meant you could call anywhere in the world, unlimited, for free… then you just might have a case.

5. Don’t accept their version of the story; stick with yours. The first (and maybe even the second) agent will phrase your story in such a way that it appears that it should have been blatantly obvious that their policy was their policy. Your job is to either (1) demonstrate that the policy is unreasonable and you didn’t know about it when you signed up or (2) demonstrate that you were given the impression otherwise. For instance…

Me: “We signed up for an unlimited picture message plan. It seemed obvious that we should have been able to send and receive as many pictures as we wanted.”
Agent: “Well, you signed up for unlimited picture messages, but that doesn’t include a data service. You got picture emails and you clicked the link and it downloaded the picture.”
Me: “Well, I was given the impression that ‘unlimited picture messaging’ meant that we would be able to send and receive as many pictures as we wanted without getting charged extra. Doesn’t that seem reasonable?”

This sounds obnoxious, and it kind of is, but it works. They want to reframe your story into one that sounds obvious that you knew what you were doing. Don’t take the bait. And when they say “There’s nothing I can do to help you,” say, “Well is there anyone there who can?” They will not transfer you up until they have run out of options.

6. Know what you want. If you call customer service wanting something vague, nobody will be able to help you. If your cable stopped working yesterday during the big game and you want to not have to pay for that day PLUS getting an on-demand movie or two for free for your inconvenience, you can probably get it. If you got ridiculous charges on your cell phone bill that appeared from nowhere that you didn’t cause, you’ve probably got a case. But if you’re just mad at the company and want someone to swear at, get a life.

7. Be reasonable. If your free cell phone stopped working like it was supposed to, don’t call customer service hoping for a droid. It’s not gonna happen. But if you do ask for a droid, the worst they can do is say no. You can ask for that to give them the impression that you expect to get a droid, and they’ll be relieved when you accept one of equal value to the one you have. If your cable goes out for a day, don’t expect the whole month for free. You can ask for a little more, but don’t reach too far.

8. Don’t take no for an answer. Be polite. Be nice. The person who is telling you “no” is only following procedure that they didn’t write. But as long as you’re talking to people who are beholden to procedure that says they can’t give you anything, you won’t get anywhere. Keep asking to talk to someone higher up when the person you’re talking to runs out of options. If they can’t help you, or won’t, call back and talk to someone else. If you keep pestering them they’ll eventually let you talk to someone who can help.

9. Be prepared to hold. It may take an hour or more, but if you’re determined and your request is within reason, you can usually get what you want.

10. Be nice. Did I mention this already?

David Schell worked for customer service for a well-known computer company for a year and a half and learned more about bureaucracy and rude customers than he ever wanted to know. He escaped from that job and went back to college for film production.

About David M. Schell






4 responses to “How To Win At Bureaucracy”

  1. Kristen Marie Avatar
    Kristen Marie

    haha. Nice post! That method was very helpful in getting my cell phone replaced! 😀

  2. Rebekah Avatar

    Hey, thanks for the suggestions. I’m working on an issue w/ Blue Cross/Blue Shield right now and will try your suggestions the next round of calls!

    1. DaveSchell Avatar

      I hope it helps! I can’t promise that this *always* works, but it’s the best method I know, and if you get anything, this’ll probably be the way.

      Also, with BC/BS, the first person you talk to might actually be able help you. Maybe.

    2. DaveSchell Avatar

      Let me know how it turns out! 🙂

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