Argue Your Way Out of BS Service FeesS

Fees, overages, and penalties seem to be an intrinsic part of the modern service industry. But you don't always have to pay them. With a single phone call, you can convince a company to waive, forego, refund, or cancel almost any fee. Here's how to make someone say the magic words that keep your money in your pocket.

Negotiating a fee is not that different than writing a term paper. Start with a single defensible position and build your case. First, define your goal. Do you want a $7 "check processing fee" waived? (Seriously, Wells Fargo, what is that?) Do you want Verizon's dreaded $350 smartphone Early Termination Fee reversed? First, you first have succinctly express exactly what you want. This will help you stay on point when you're talking to account reps and will serve as the basis for your platform.

Next, gather your supporting facts and grievances—anything you can use to bolster your position. If you're trying to get out of, say, paying an ETF, have a good reason as to why you should be allowed to do so:

  • You're moving, because of work, to an area that the carrier doesn't support. If you've had service problems in that area already (dropped calls, failed calls), document several instances in detail.
  • You have a compelling personal reason—like, the death of a parent who was paying your bill (don't lie about that).
  • You are a member of the armed forces and are being deployed. This can be combined with "moving because of work" for added effect.
  • You've lost your job, are financially destitute, and currently calling from a van down by the river (good luck).
  • If you're lucky, your provider may have just changed the terms of the contract. This is your golden ticket. Any time a carrier adjusts their fee schedule, payment options, rates, or any other aspect of the contract, you can easily claim material damages and back out of the agreement. Check for notices of such changes on your monthly statement.
  • "ETFs are a tough game. The thing is that the only real way you can get out of one is if you can prove that a change to your service or to the contract is 'materially adverse,' i.e., that it has an impact that drastically alters your agreement in a way that harms you," explains Chris Morran of the Consumerist. "The big problem here is that most front-end customer service people will just flip blankly through their available scripts when you mention materially adverse changes to the contract. Additionally, most wireless providers now grandfather in old plans so that customers have harder times claiming material adverse contract changes."

Finally, put all these facts on paper. Organize it however you wish—a checklist, outlined notes, whatever—so that you can prioritize your argument and stay on point. Make sure you have your account number, latest bill or statement, a pen for jotting down notes and names. Most importantly, keep a calm, friendly demeanor.

When you call, be friendly and obstinate. But don't be a dick. You've gotta keep it pleasant and professional. Remember, you are asking for help, not demanding recompense. The fastest route to indefinite hold is to unload on the first minimum-wage peon what picks up at the call center. Relax and smile. A rep can hear a smile over the phone.

That said, don't be a doormat either. These people are trained to tell you "no." Don't accept the first "no" you hear—it's probably coming from someone that doesn't have the authority to waive a fee, anyway. State your case. Get your rep's full name. Sometimes that act alone is enough to get an authority figure involved. If nothing else, it gives you a point of contact.

This can be the first of many steps to navigating the bureaucracy. Block out some time—any call might last an hour. But simply staying on the line can work to your advantage. Call centers need a high rate of turnover to be efficient, so the longer you're on the phone, the more urgent it becomes to resolve your issue. If it takes too long—or becomes clear that the rep assisting you is unable or unwilling to help—politely state that you would like to speak with someone higher up.

If a talk with a manager isn't going anywhere, you can threaten to close your account. Phrase it in business terms. How much money have you paid this company in the last few years? The amount is likely much more than the fee you're facing. Tell them how long you've been a loyal customer, how you've never missed a payment, and how you don't want to take your business elsewhere. (The only problem with this method: They can call your bluff.)

If you still can't get anywhere, write a succinct letter or email to the senior PR, sales, or customer support executives. (The contact information is usually buried on the company website or on business information databases like Hoovers.) Explain your complaint and what it will take to fix it. Include relevant details, and end with the promise to go to the BBB, FCC, or the the local department of Consumer Affairs. Say you're ready to contact consumer protection websites like Ripoff Report or the Consumerist. The prospect of a PR shit-storm might get some attention.

While you're taking the media approach, try social media. You might not get a response by tweeting a complaint, but in can sometimes work, depending on the company. If you tweet to @twcablehelp, the company's reply will still tell you to call Time Warner—but you may find they're already working on your case.

[Good Housekeeping - eHow 1, 2 - Lifehacker 1, 2 - Public Speaking - Image: Kevin George / Shutterstock]