Picture this: You walk into your local supermarket, grab a gallon of milk, and then tell the cashier that you’d like to pay less for it—and sure enough, the store obliges. And you repeat the process time and time again, resulting in savings of hundreds of dollars over the years.
It sounds pretty ridiculous, right? And yet, that’s how I’ve approached paying for another of life’s necessities in the last couple of decades. Namely, cable television.
OK, maybe cable isn’t as much a “necessity” as food and water—unless you really, really have to catch “Downton Abbey.” But it’s a basic household expense that can be easily bargained down with a relatively quick call to a customer service rep. I make such calls about every six months and almost always talk my way into a better deal. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I knocked about $15 off my basic monthly Time Warner Cable package, which includes cable, phone and Internet.
Now, there’s arguably more reason than ever to seek out such savings: With Comcast’s recently announced buyout of Time Warner, consumer advocates and cable industry observers fear that cable prices may go up. Then again, even if prices stay the same, it seems silly not to make the effort. We’re talking 10 minutes on the phone, folks. (Or you can do your bargaining online, if you prefer.)
But before you make that call, it’s important to understand why cable providers are willing to bargain in the first place. It all has to with how the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed the marketplace by allowing phone companies to compete with cable companies (and vice versa) and by allowing each to offer a “bundle” of services. The result? Not only are more companies vying for your cable (and phone and Internet) business, but your business is also that much larger—a $50 basic cable service bill is now probably a $100 bundled bill. So, if you move your business to the competition, there’s some serious money involved. “Today, when a customer leaves, they take everything,” says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan.
Still, it’s not a guarantee that Time Warner—or for that matter, any cable provider—will cut you a deal. But over the years, I’ve learned how to be a better bargainer, and I’ve also talked to industry pros about what you can do to up the odds of lowering your bill.
Here are my eight takeaways:
1. Call at set intervals
Just because you get a bargain one month doesn’t mean you can ask for another one the next. You need to pace yourself accordingly. Most cable providers will offer you a deal—typically, a lower bundled price or free extras (like a movie channel)—that’s good for half a year. The bet they’re making is that you won’t remember when the six months are up. My advice: Don’t let them win that bet. (But if the deal they offer is good for, say, three months, you can adjust your call schedule accordingly.) Still, Time Warner says it welcomes a call at any time, especially given the many options and offers it almost always has on the table. “We want to hear from a customer any time their interests or budget changes,” says spokesman Rich Ruggiero.
2. Do your homework
Sure, you can call and play Willie the Whiner and say you deserve a better deal—just because you’re such a nice person. But you’re more likely to make an effective case if you can quote a promotion you’ve been offered by a competing company. Just save those mailers you get—or even if you toss them, just look on the competition’s website and see what they’re offering. Then, ask your provider to match the deal, or—better yet—beat it. “I think of it like buying a new car. You know the prices at different dealers so you can negotiate,” says Dan Rayburn, a telecommunications industry analyst.
3. Learn to separate the good deals from the bad
When I recently called Time Warner, the first “deal” I was offered had me paying about $15 extra each month. Granted, it was for a package that included faster Internet service and additional cable channels, but my goal was to save money, not spend more of it. Eventually, I got the savings I wanted, but it’s important to understand that deals can be deceptive: In fact, sometimes a lower-priced offer may be no bargain at all if it means a reduction in services. The bottom line: Make sure you know what you’re getting. And be aware of the fact that any time you call a cable provider about a potential deal, you run the risk of being “upsold”—it’s the telecommunications industry equivalent of being asked, “Do you want fries with that?” (Time Warner spokesman Rich Ruggiero says the company simply wants to give customers the opportunity “to try products and services they may not have.”)
4. Know what’s important to you
As long as we’re talking about separating the good deals from the bad, it’s also important to separate the relevant from the irrelevant. A case in point: Almost every time I call my cable provider, I get an offer that involves free or low-cost HBO. There’s just one problem: I don’t watch much HBO anymore—I prefer getting DVDs of the couple of HBO series that interest me and avoiding the time-wasting trap of watching too many middle-of-the-road movies. As I’ve learned, a bargain is only a bargain if it’s something you actually want.
5. Play nice
The whole attracting-flies-with-honey thing applies to cable providers, too. If you get angry when you’re trying to negotiate, you probably won’t talk your way into a deal. (Even if your anger may be justified by past issues, such as service outages or long wait times.) And while you can threaten to leave the company as a bargaining tool, it’s a card you shouldn’t play too often, since it becomes somewhat meaningless in that boy-who-cried wolf way. If anything, you may be better off establishing that you’d like to stay with the company because you like their product. As with any service provider, cable companies often recognize the importance of customer loyalty.
6. If at first you don’t succeed…
This isn’t about calling month-after-month for a new deal when you’ve already gotten a great one. Rather, it’s about what to do when you’re flat-out rejected for any kind of deal. Sometimes, the simplest solution is to call back a few days later. A different customer-service rep may be authorized to offer a different deal. And the promotions themselves frequently change, as Time Warner itself admits, so each day potentially brings a different offer.
7. Learn to love the lock
When you call for a deal, cable providers will sometimes ask you to lock in a package, so that you’ll be unable to cancel penalty-free for a set period of up to two years. The obvious risk is that during that time you may find a better offer (or you may decide to cut the cord altogether). But experts say lock-ins can be to a customer’s advantage, since there’s a good chance that your cable bill will increase. “I’d lock in for the next 10 years if I could,” says cable industry expert Dan Rayburn. (But if you do lock in, there’s probably little point to calling back every six months—wait until the lock period is about to end.)
8. Pay your bill on time
It may be obvious, but for a cable provider to want your business, you’ve got to show that you’re a good customer. And if you can’t keep to your end of the deal going by making regular, on-time payments, you’re not in much of a position to bargain.
Written by Charles Passy of MarketWatch