Something I learned from my mother-in-law

My parents taught -- and still teach -- me a lot. They taught me to fix things - we lived in Turkey for a large part of my childhood and that was long ago in the Dark Ages when circuit breakers were sold refurbished with copper pennies, and we used silk hose as carburetor belts.  Okay, maybe not the silk hose, but the story about the circuit breakers is true.

I learned to cook and to bake from my Mom.  I still call her, often, with questions about recipes and how to make something.  Also, when I put the batteries in wrong (don't judge me, the little image was super-tiny).   Gardening, finding my way in a strange city, traveling, you name it.  They really taught me very much.

My mother-in-law also taught me something important.  I didn't meet her until I was in my thirties and she scared me a little bit at first. My mother-in-law is a formidable woman.  She worked as a successful real estate agent for many, many years, and after her retirement she joined FEMA and flew off to catastrophes and disaster areas to help people a few times a year.  She did this way into her 70s.  She played softball until only a few years ago.  She travel to Russia with her kids in the 80s, before the wall came down.  Just to see how it was there, you know.  She is a feminist and thinks Germany is great because our political head is a woman.  When my daughter turned out fierce and driven and competitive -- I didn't have to look far to see who she got it from.

My mother-in-law doesn't really cook or bake, and she doesn't garden, but she taught me something very valuable:  How not to accept "no" for an answer. 

She never accepts a negative answer from a sales person or anybody, really.  I've seen her get free upgrades to Economy Plus on United for nothing but good words.  Try that one day and see how hard that is -- they usually make you pay though the nose for the privilege of a few more centimeters of legroom.  She gets discounts on memberships she doesn't even have - and the rental agent knew that.  She always tries to get a bargain but it's never embarrassing, and that's an art.  I don't think she pays full price for a lot of things.

How does she do it?   

Well, she is always polite.  She'll tell a little joke maybe, or a personal story.  She treats the person behind that desk (or on the phone) with respect, and that goes miles.  It seems people rarely treat customer service with respect and courtesy.  It really does pay off when you do.   She switches on the charm and yeah, I think David has that from her.  She's firm, and insisting, but never annoyingly so.

I watched her for years, and listened, and learned.  I apply her tricks, I adjusted them to, um, my style, and it very often works.  Not always, you know.  But in many cases, this has saved me lots of money and hassle. 

That's how I got a Kingfisher shelf on a plane to Bucharest, and a Rio bookshelf on a plane to Armenia.  (The people at Rio, who I had to -- gently -- harass into sending the shelf parts super quickly, still remember that story - "Oh, you are the woman who took our shelf on the plane to Yerevan!")   This is how the check-in agent at Lufthansa smilingly accepted a big fat bag as non-oversized and saved me 50 Euros ("presents for my kids - you know, we live in Kosovo and...") this week.  This is how I got the hotel manager to change our rooms without the change fee which was 180 Euros. 

One caveat:  With health insurance agents, you gotta be extra firm, and also a bit threatening.  I think they get whipped if they give you something, even if it's something they owe you. 

So here are my mother-in-law's tricks, slightly modified: 

  1. If you don't have a person in front of you, do call them.  Never use email to complain or ask for something - you need the human touch.
  2. I always pay attention to the name of the person answering the phone and use the name during the conversation. Believe me, they notice that. (I scribble it on a piece of paper because I have a very bad memory for names.) It changes the relationship in a subtle way.
  3. I tell something about myself, usually about how the kids are involved in this.  Four kids usually soften everybody's heart.   Four sick kids, four kids waiting for presents, and so on. I apologize for the trouble but I never grovel.
  4. I'm always friendly and polite.  
  5. I never lie but I do exaggerate a little bit sometimes.
  6. If they can't do anything for me, I never get bitchy -- I thank them and go my way.  It's plain good behavior, and I like to think that it pays off at some future time. 
  7. If they could help me, or even if they were just super nice about not being able to help me, I ask to speak to their supervisor and say a few kind words about them. That's just fair play.

That's basically it.  Take down their name and number if it's something you need to follow up on.  These days, with call centers everywhere, chances are slight that you'll deal with the same person.  But if you ask for someone they know, the new customer service person you are dealing with is automatically going to treat you more courteously.  Use the same tactic with everybody, even with the nasty (US) immigration officer.  Stay calm and friendly and non-intimidated with the latter.  It will surprise them. Also, most immigration officers don't like jokes.  But they do like it when you blame your American lawyer husband for everything and get annoyed at *him*, not them -- sorry, husband! But that does actually work really well.  I realize the whole "how to get through US immigration without too much hassle" maybe deserves its own post one day.

So, thank you, M, for this valuable life skill.  It has served me well and I will pass it on to my kids. And my readers.