After a recent hospital stay, I opened one of dozens of health care-related bills and found one for $21.47 for the TV and phone in my hospital room. I never used the phone. I never used the TV. Yet here was this bill — one that my health insurance would not be covering — telling me I owed money for a service I never used.
Now most people would get on the phone right away to dispute this error, but I hesitated. As an agreeable people-pleaser, calling to disagree felt scary. Deep down, I was terrified of the word ‘no’ — both hearing and saying it.
I’d think: It’s hopeless anyway; they’re just going to tell me I have to pay. And then I’d rationalize not calling by telling myself it was “only $20,” or whatever the bill amount was. If the bill in question was higher, sometimes I just wouldn’t even pay it.
Every once in a while, I’d get up the confidence to call. But at the first sign of disagreement, I’d panic and hang up — and then send in the payment.
As my financial life became more complex with a mortgage and two kids, I realized my shut-up-and-pay (or not pay) strategy couldn’t continue. Those smaller charges were adding up. And the larger ones I ignored were hurting my credit when those bills went to collection. I knew I needed to find another way.
Inspiration came in the form of my two-year-old daughter negotiating over school clothes. I realized she was a pro in this delicate art form: pleasant, curious and dogged in the pursuit of her own happiness, despite hearing several "no’s" from her mama. I could learn a thing or two.
And then it hit me: Instead of perceiving the person on the other end of the phone as an enemy, I would approach them as a collaborator — someone who could answer my questions and help me get what I wanted.
So, back to the hospital bill.
Calling with no plan was the old Jill. This time, I took 10 minutes and did my research. I called the insurance company first. Then I wrote down exactly what I wanted the outcome to be. Finally, I wrote down in big letters, “What if they say no?” and scribbled some thoughts about what I’d say next.
Prepared, I picked up the phone and pleasantly introduced myself. The man on the other end sounded like he’d had a long day. I detected annoyance. Bad start, but I forged ahead. After calmly explaining my situation, I asked how I should proceed. He reminded me that my insurance didn’t cover this and explained it was a separate service.
I paused. This is normally when I’d agree and hang up. I looked at my notes and asked a question instead: “I don’t remember signing up for these services. Would you be able to send me a copy of the document I signed that said I authorized those charges?”
“Ma’am,” he replied,” you are automatically enrolled in the services and should have received a document in the hospital for you to sign if you wanted to opt out.”
Bingo! This new information gave me just the leverage I needed. I explained: “I never received paperwork to opt out. I was never given the opportunity to decline these services. What should I do next?”
He responded, in a huff, “Ma’am, did you use the TV or phone in your room or not?”
“I did not,” I calmly replied, ignoring his tone.
There was a long pause, during which I made sure to stay quiet. He came back and agreed to give me a one-time credit for the bill.
I thanked him, hung up and broke out in a happy dance. I couldn't believe it! The amount was irrelevant; this was a breakthrough moment. Since then, I’ve gone from timid bill accepter to expert nice-lady negotiator. In the past year alone I saved over $4,300 in fees, discounts, health insurance copays and incorrect charges by having the courage to get on the phone and negotiate. Want to do the same? Here are my tips for getting the outcome you want:
Have a written plan. If you usually get flustered on the phone, don’t wing it — be prepared. Before each call, write down the exact outcome you’re seeking and how you hope to get there, including possible roadblocks and how you can get around them. It’s important to have something (anything!) to say when your emotions get rattled.
Get your facts straight. Knowledge is power in this situation, so keep all documentation of bills sent to you, have specific dates ready and always read the fine print on any policies so you can speak intelligently and confidently on the phone.
Ask open-ended questions. Before a call, write down 10 questions you could ask the person on the phone. This can help move the conversation forward when you may otherwise feel stuck.
Be neutral and pleasant in your tone. If you’re angry or upset about a bill, give yourself some time to calm down before reaching for the phone. I used to think I had to turn into a jerk to get my way, but in my experience I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. Being pleasant, making a connection or even cracking a joke can help grease the wheels between you and the rep.
Have a plan for a no. Instead of fearing an initial "no," learn to embrace it. Don’t be discouraged — just keep asking questions until you can find a creative way around it.