How can I be more assertive?
May 6, 2011 6:09 PM   Subscribe

I want to be more assertive. Just had an annoying customer service experience from which I think I could have got better results had I been more assertive. Need tips. Details within.

I have no problem being assertive in my personal life, i.e with my husband or family. But I am a total pushover with strangers. I want to be more assertive but I find it so hard to be anything other than polite. I want to be assertive without being an asshole. Yes, I am female.

EXAMPLE: This just happened. I would like to know how I could have been more assertive without being a demanding jerk, by making the other person feel belittled. I don't want to resort to cheap measures such as insulting the other person. I DO NOT want to be a jerk. And I know it's possible to be respectfully assertive but I do not have the know-how...

We went to Ikea a few days ago in a rented car because we do not have a car. We bought a cot. It took a long time to get there and get what we wanted and get it home and return the car, etc (ie it was not easy or fun and it took hours).

Then I was unable to assemble the cot because one of the screws we were given was the wrong size. (I am absolutely sure about this - there were 3 the right size and one was too short.) I called Ikea the next day to see what they could do, thinking they should deliver the right screw asap because the inconvenience was entirely their fault and we couldn't use the product.

When I spoke to the guy he said "Well the best thing would be for you to come in and pick up the right screw." I said "That's not really possible because we don't have a car..." and he said "Well we could send it to you, but it will take 3-5 working days." To which I said, "Can't you send it express post?" and he said "No." So then I said, "Well can you make sure it's posted on Monday?" (today is Saturday) and he said "No, I don't know when it will be posted." So I agreed to this, which, given that today is Saturday, we won't get it until Wednesday at the earliest, which is TOTALLY ANNOYING because we want to use the goddam cot now.

Anyway, I am annoyed with myself to agreeing to this inadequate solution. I wish I had had the guts to insist that they deliver the screw today, or at least post it express mail on Monday so we would get it on Tuesday, which would still be annoying, but better than regular mail.

How could I have asserted myself in this situation? Was I out of line to expect more? I feel that another person could have got a better outcome by being assertive. But I really don't want to be an asshole. The schmo I spoke to probably couldn't do more than what he did, should I have asked to speak with his supervisor...???

Totally irritated with Ikea AND myself for being too polite. How would you have handled the situation?
posted by beccyjoe to Human Relations (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think you did just fine. It would be quite unusual for IKEA to deliver a screw or to promise a mail-by date. I doubt that the customer service rep there has any power to authorize things like that.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:23 PM on May 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's absolutely possible to be respectfully assertive, but you have to be patient. I've found that the following things work really well for me:

1) Be apologetic, friendly, and appreciative. It sounds like the "nice" part isn't what you're missing, but if you clearly come across as someone who doesn't feel entitled to an exception and who will actually appreciate a little extra effort, people will be more likely to go out of their way to help you.
2) Always be willing to take blame, and treat the exception you're asking for as a favor. "I realize this isn't your fault, and I totally should have (made this reservation by the deadline), I'm sorry for the trouble. I'd really appreciate if you could do me a favor in this case..."
3) Be more patient than they are. For many people in customer service, "no" is an easy way to get rid of someone; if you make things take more time than it would take to just give you what you want, they will often do so.
3b) Be willing to politely, cheerfully ask to speak to a manager. When the manager arrives, repeat polite, cheerful, appreciative schtick to them. They're often empowered to give you things the initial person couldn't, such as next-day shipping, or may have more information.
4) When someone does go out of their way to help you out, genuinely thank them.

The only time this approach has failed me was when a regional company was actually trying to scam me, and I ended up shouting at the CEO on the phone. But that's it.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:24 PM on May 6, 2011 [15 favorites]

5) Oh, and of course sometimes the things you're asking for either aren't possible or aren't realistic, and it's up to you to know what those cases are; again, sign off politely.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:25 PM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Neither here nor there, but I would've popped over to my local hardware store and bought a screw for 25 cents or so.

Not sure about your neighborhood, but express mail in the U.S. is very expensive. IKEA is a discount retailer, and you should probably adjust your expectations accordingly.
posted by jon1270 at 6:26 PM on May 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Having spent no small amount of time waiting my turn outside of IKEA's returns desk, I don't think being assertive would have helped you much in that situation (I've watched a succession of formerly calm, collected people wearing very expensive and lawyerly business attire leave in near-tears after trying arguing in vain with IKEA counter staff). It's very likely the CSR you spoke with on the phone had no control over when the screws would be mailed: he's tethered to a phone headset, tapping your request into a database and he's got no control beyond that. It's incredibly unlikely he's going to be the guy rummaging around in the spare hardware bin and sticking your screws into an envelope and he probably has no entry on his screen to authorize priority shipping.

But, here's what I do when I want a CSR to go above and beyond: I'm extremely nice to the CSR, sympathetic to the frustrations inherent in a job that is largely about telling people 'no' and I immediately offer to pay for the expedited service up front (even though yes, it's not at all my fault I was given the wrong widget). I do this all the time and I have never ever been taken up on my offer to pay extra but 9 times out of 10, my widget finds its way to me quicker than originally quoted if there's even a remote chance the CSR can influence the process.
posted by jamaro at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

This is not an issue of not being assertive; I think it's an issue of your impatience giving you an unrealistic notion of customer service and what kind of power you actually think the fellow answering the phones at IKEA actually has.

The "schmo" (i.e., the almost-certainly underpaid phone rep) you spoke to most likely is not empowered by his employer to do anything more than the solution he offered you. Different companies give their employees different latitudes to make things happen when solving problems like this; some companies might have mechanisms in place by which a customer service rep could do what you're asking, but it's not a universal thing. But think about it: this guy is not the person who's going to put the screw in the bag and mail it to you, nor is he the supervisor of the person who's going to put the screw in the bag and mail it to you. The screw may be bagged and mailed from a completely different location from where he's located. There may literally not even be a way for him to communicate a special request like yours in the computer system where he would need to request the extra screw.

Sure, you could have asked politely to speak to a supervisor to see if there exist any other options, but that's it. And really, this is IKEA, not some high-end design store; the clienteles are totally different, and so the customer service profile is going to be pretty different, too.

On preview: you're a kitty's general tips are spot-on -- always be friendly, clear, patient, sympathetic, and express gratitude in these situations. I have found the words "thanks, I really appreciate it" or "I'd be grateful" tend to go quite far when they're said absolutely sincerely. Try very, very hard to rein in any sarcasm or impatience in these instances, even if you're initially getting the brick wall in return.
posted by scody at 6:35 PM on May 6, 2011 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I have found that the opposite actually works. Don't be demanding, but ask, upfront, clearly and nicely for *exactly* what you want. "Hello, I really, really need your help. I need to assemble this cot now. The only possible way would be for you to express it to me, I really hope you can help me, I would appreciate it so much!"

Asking directly but with a pound of sugar makes it easy for them to help you. They just do as you have asked but they feel like a hero, not like a chump.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:37 PM on May 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am kind of a purchasing PITA because if something is a bit effed up the company hears about it, and hears about it until I have what I had intended to buy. Relentless polite paragraphs, writing up the chain of command, for corporate slip-ups small and large.

But... I would let this one go.

Your goal with this stuff should be: get what you paid for. Also: stay human; "do unto others" etc. Ikea is a cheap furniture retailer because you have to haul the flat boxes to your rental car and sometimes get the wrong screw. They are not unconscionable, they are not behaving poorly -- they will mail out the screw. Sloppy? Sure, but there's a price point at which one understands (I feel, at least) that everything is not always going to be perfect.

A reasonable person would've ended it there; this doesn't call for escalation. This is the sort of thing where only a jerk would've gone further. Ikea's solution is reasonable. You are not being wildly put out. If you were, and you are very angry with Ikea, you might have insisted that they come and pick up the cot because you were going right out to buy it again at a second store. You are focusing on the hassle with the car; that's not part of your Ikea hassle, not Ikea's fault at all.

But, your question is "How can I be more assertive?" By being polite, by trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes, by gently climbing up to the next levels when needed, by knowing when to drop stuff. What will it take to get what you intended to buy? State your cases plainly, using photographs as often as possible. "Here is what I found when I opened the box." Explain your miseries briefly, remind the company of why you like them and why you will hopefully continue to patronise them. If there is an easy way to fix things, spell it out, even if it's a little out of the ordinary return-to-sender: "I am writing in hopes that you can suggest a glue, as I like this and don't really want to find myself having to return it. Given that it arrived broken, I am hoping you can also mail me the recommended glue..."

Usually you will get wonderful results just from these simple inquiries. Sometimes you will find there is a form-letter knee jerk which does not satisfy, and then you gently escalate. And then things are tickety-boo, usually, and you mention this on your Facebook and Twitter, about how wonderful True Beanery's beans are and what nice people are running the company and so on, and resolve to buy only TB beans until death. Alternatively, they don't fix a damned thing, and then you mention it on your 'feeds,' upload pictures of the damaged goods all over the internets, and tell the postmistress so she can mention it to anybody picking up a box from that company.

But part of being shrewd with this stuff, part of being admirably assertive, is knowing when to drop it. (A long learning process can be required for that one -- speaking from experience there.) If you tell the person running the company that the goods you bought there sucked and the response is 'Too bad' -- relax; this will do them in before long, and they have much more at stake than you do.
posted by kmennie at 6:37 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: great tips @you're a kitty - thank you, and @jamaro. These seem like excellent rules to live by. I am always nice, I just give up quickly because I can't think of how to go about asking for more in a nice way.

@jon1270 - yes, that is reasonable. But it's not actually a screw that I'm missing, I just said that for ease of explanation, it's stick of metal with a loop at the end, I don't know if it's a common piece that comes in standard sizes or not. But otherwise yes, this would have solved my problems quickly.

And yes, I realise the guy I spoke to couldn't do any more for me, I just wondered if anyone else could have.
posted by beccyjoe at 6:41 PM on May 6, 2011

One thing I've had good luck with -- not that this probably would have helped you here -- is opening with the assumption that it will be easy for me to get what I want. "Hi, what's the procedure for getting a replacement frambulator express-mailed out to me? I bought one of your fine products the other day, and one of the frambulators was the wrong size. That's no big, it happens, but I really need to put this cot together ASAP. . .what do I need to do to make this happen?"

Lead with what you want. Otherwise you'll be boxed into a rhetorical corner when what they offer you isn't good enough. Don't be a jerk, but do budge slowly; make them do the compromising work.
posted by KathrynT at 7:06 PM on May 6, 2011 [13 favorites]

you have great advice in here about expectations and service and CSRs. a point to add - there's no reason to keep talking to the CSR after the first "no." as soon as that happens say "thank you for your time, __________. may i please speak with your supervisor." you don't have to keep asking or haggling or any of it. you got your no, so now it's time to go up the food chain. that's how you can be more assertive.
posted by nadawi at 7:22 PM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I had this exact problem--wrong screw from Ikea--and when I called them I was polite and said something like "I don't seem to have the right screws," and I even asked if I could come and pick up the replacement screw. The rep was very sweet ("oh that's awful!") and mailed out a pack of screws next day delivery, no charge. Maybe you just got a new guy?
posted by lovecrafty at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2011

First off, ask yourself if your request is reasonable and if you purchased this item from a mom and pop down the street what the procedure would be to get the situation rectified. Lets assume, that after the short reflection, you see that your request is both reasonable, simple to implement, and otherwise seems to be a no brainer, you are in a good position to get done what needs to be done.

Once you get a live support person, you need to figure out what level of support the company wants to provide. I work for a company with a pretty stellar technical support wing: they are pretty close to the gold standard for support. The support reps there are empowered to make any necessary exceptions - which means needing a supervisor is rare. However as I said, that's not the norm. That means, that the first thing I want to find out is: can this person help me make the accommodation that I need. If they waffle, I ask directly. If not, thank the rep for their time, and request a supervisor.

Once you have a supervisor, restate your case, explain to them the predicament and the reasonableness of your request very briefly. It is important to start getting a supervisor to agree with you, to start seeing the things you are saying as reasonable, soundly argued and the right thing. Tell them you like the product. Ask them if they like the product. Tell them about your excitement about the product. Ask them about their own excitement with their product. Now explain how what is wrong is both an impediment to the excitement of the product as well as something that tarnishes the company's name in your eyes. Let them know that this is a simple request - a reasonable request - that ts something that could happen in a small business, and now - unfortunately - through no fault of either the supervisor - nor yourself, you now find yourself on the long tail of support. By this time you should have chewed up about 7 minutes of a regular reps time and 7 more minutes of a supervisor's time... state this as further evidence that you are "long tailing" it. You are ipso facto: the exception.

Now ask the queston: how do we make this happen? - not can you make this happen? but HOW do we make this happen?

Case in point:
My wife damaged her phone, I contacted the phone insurance company and they informed me that her phone was no longer a replacement option - so her phone would need to change. This meant that the clip for her old phone was now useless and that was not a product that they could replace. Originally they were going to charge me for the replacement deductible of the phone, and then I was going to have to go out and replace the case as well.

With the first rep, I explained my case, and I asked for a discount. He did not have the authority to do so and told me I was SOL about it. I explained that the purpose of the insurance was to keep the phone in as functional a manner as possible and be up and running as quickly as possible if the phone died. I explained that a carry case for the phone was now going to cost me $20-30 to replace on top of the deductible when - if they had the original phone would be just the cost of the deductible. They repeated no, I asked for a supervisor.

Repeat the story to the supervisor, as well as let the supervisor know that the prior rep I spoke to was professional, courteous, knowledgeable, but unimpowered to be able to do the right thing. I asked for a case - response no - as it was non-standard equipment. I asked for a discount again since the insurance basically put me out the difference - no. I went back to asking for a case - and this is where the door opened up: the supervisor stated that they didn't carry cases as accessories. So, I asked them what accessories they did have, and could I at least get a comparable priced accessory. To wrap things up, I paid the full deductible- which I didn't mind because I got a new car charger out of it, which I needed anyway.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:52 PM on May 6, 2011

>I had this exact problem--wrong screw from Ikea--and when I called them I was polite and said something like "I don't seem to have the right screws," and I even asked if I could come and pick up the replacement screw. The rep was very sweet ("oh that's awful!") and mailed out a pack of screws next day delivery, no charge. Maybe you just got a new guy?

lovecrafty, the OP gave this update: "It's not actually a screw that I'm missing, I just said that for ease of explanation, it's stick of metal with a loop at the end, I don't know if it's a common piece that comes in standard sizes or not."
posted by virago at 9:10 PM on May 6, 2011

You may find the book Getting to Yes helpful for learning negotiation strategies. I took a graduate-level conflict resolution course that used this book, and personally found it very insightful.

I also used to work at Ikea (not in returns though), and in my experience the managers very much support the front line staff. My managers, as well as the store manager rarely overrode store or company policy, and the CSR would have definitely stuck to the store policy on an issue like missing parts, since it is very common. Don't beat yourself up wondering whether you could have escalated this for a better result - it's possible, but unlikely.

I think the result you got was reasonable, and as other posters have noted, you really get what you pay for at Ikea. In future, a way to avoid this type of problem is to inspect your furniture before you leave the store. There should be an "inspection table" near the returns area, where you can open up your box and check that everything is there that is supposed to be. It's a hassle, but maybe less of one then what you went through with the cot.
posted by just_ducky at 10:32 PM on May 6, 2011

"Was I out of line to expect more?" In this particular instance with IKEA, yes. I think you recognize that.

But for other situations, in which you may not be out of line, some thoughts:

I took a really great Assertiveness continuing education class once, and I can say that we learned the exact OPPOSITE of what You'reAKitty states in his/her first two suggetions. You don't apologize just because when being assertive, and you don't take blame for things that are not your fault. That's the opposite of being assertive actually. (In the class, we talked extensively about how women especially give away their power by over-apologizing.) Here is the website of the lady who taught the class (back then at Emory):

After I took that class, I saw a noticeable change and others did too and said so. Here is what I practice: Smile, be affable. If there is a problem, let's say you're charged the wrong price for something, start off with "Actually." "Actually, the price on the shelf said $3." If there is resistance, "I'd like to speak to a manager please." If the manager is an a-hole as well, "Okay, I want to cancel my entire transaction, and I would like to get the address or phone number to the corporate office. Thanks." I've actually done something like that before and each time the managers backed off and gave me what I asked for. In business, the bottom line is to know your value as a customer.

The terms are a bit different when practicing assertiveness in your personal life because oftentimes there is no "right" or "wrong" and the terms of the relationship are different than with strangers. However, you say you are okey with assertiveness in your personal life so I will leave that alone.

Good luck in your journey. (And on that webiste I gave you, check out Dr. Tillman's blog.)
posted by GeniPalm at 5:30 AM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Does your piece look like this? These can be found at any hardware store anywhere.
posted by desjardins at 8:37 AM on May 7, 2011

> Was I out of line to expect more? I feel that another person could have got a better outcome by being assertive.

Having been on both sides of this sort of conversation, I both sympathise with your frustration and agree that being more assertive in this particular situation would not have changed the outcome.

Part of the 'problem' here is that the CSR is being honest with you about what he's able to promise; it sounds like there are real, physical constraints on how fast he can get that screw to you, and it's genuinely not possible for him (or his supervisor) to alter those constraints.

To hypothesise,* if you spoke with him on a Saturday, it's possible that requests he puts into the system can't be actioned until Monday. Although the physical action of posting a screw seems trivial, actually getting it done at their end might require any number of unknown steps or personnel; this might take one day or it might take two. (Flagging your request as urgent may or may not be possible, and may or may not make a difference.) Let's say your request is properly received into the system on Monday morning, and actioned 24 hours later, on Tuesday morning. You'll receive the screw on Wednesday. This is a pretty fast timeline, from their point of view. It's possible you'll get lucky, and the screw will get posted on Monday, and you'll get it on Tuesday—but the CSR representative has no way of predicting this or making it happen, so he doesn't want give you unrealistic expectations.

I have seen numerous situations where a customer, thinking that 'assertiveness' is the missing ingredient, has pushed the CSR (or supervisor) into making a promise that is impossible to guarantee; as you might imagine, this inevitably results in further disappointment for the customer later when the promise isn't fulfilled.

(In no way am I implying that this is the customer's fault, by the way. Sometimes, assertiveness really is the missing ingredient; company logistics are opaque to outsiders, and it's really, really hard to tell when being a bit pushy will make a difference and when it won't.)

In other words, I think you did just fine.

* I don't know the inner workings of Ikea, but have comparable experience elsewhere.
posted by hot soup girl at 10:12 AM on May 7, 2011

I'm a CSR (in-person, not over the phone) and like other posters have said, I like it when customers just say, upfront, exactly what they think is an acceptable solution. That puts me in the position of saying either "Sure, I can do that. Have a nice day!" or "I'm not in a position to offer that and here's why." My advice is in line with other posters: Don't apologize if it isn't your fault, which it was not in this case. Also be aware that it probably isn't the fault of the person you're talking to. If they just say "no", ask "why not". If they say something about not being allowed to, ask for a supervisor. My magic phrase is "If you can't help me, I need to talk to someone who can."

I think the advice about determining whether your request is reasonable or not is spot on. I personally wouldn't be surprised if a retailer told you to fuck off with your missing piece, so them mailing you the piece is a good solution in my book. Express post is unreasonable, IMO.

A lot of people think being "assertive" (which to me is usually people being dicks) is the key, but really it's a game of communicating what you want clearly, and understanding why that might not be possible from the company.

I will admit though that some of this depends on the skill of the CSR. I always try to phrase things as "This is what I can do/can be done by (company). I can't do what you're asking because of (reason). If that isn't acceptable, third party options exist." And if I know any other ideas they could try (like buying a screw from a hardware store and returning it when our free one arrives) I let them know. Some CSRs just basically tell you you're SOL.

I think you did well. A truly meek person wouldn't have called back :)
posted by katybird at 2:46 PM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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