In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, then-CFO of The Motley Fool (now Managing Director of Motley Fool Ventures), Ollen Douglass, joined host Alison Southwick and contributors Robert Brokamp and Dayana Yochim. Ollen shared his advice for how to negotiate your bills. And we learned that Alison was mean to a vegan for no good reason. Plus, Dayana Yochim shared etiquette for splitting the dinner tab.
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This video was recorded on August 17, 2021.
Alison Southwick: We’re still taking a break, but don’t worry, because we’re dusting off an oldie but goodie that features our then CFO, Ollen Douglass, offering his advice for negotiating your bills. We talk a lot about cable companies, but the advice can be applied elsewhere. Time to send it over to pass to Alison, who is still foolishly — with a lowercase f — paying for cable. Also, why was I still mean to the vegan? Onto the show.
This is Motley Fool Answers, I’m Alison Southwick, and I am joined, as always, by Robert Brokamp and Dayana Yochim. But wait, there’s more. We have a special guest today and that is Ollen Douglass. He is CFO of the outrageously amazing company, The Motley Fool.
Dayana Yochim: Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
Southwick: Yeah, I was going to say, maybe you’ve heard of it. Ollen, thanks for joining us today.
Ollen Douglass: Thank you very much for inviting me, Alison.
Southwick: Ollen is here because not only is he an excellent CFO, he’s also a master negotiator.
Douglass: Thank you very much.
Southwick: Yeah. Today, you are going to help our listeners hone their negotiating skills and lower their bills by putting the screws to their cable companies and other service providers. We’re also going to answer your money etiquette questions on splitting the restaurant tab and then we’re going to discover who wins the race to the bottom for the worst customer service in America.[…]
There are a few things that bind us together as human beings, as our mutual hatred of our cable provider, and thanks to consumer reports, we now know that the worst of the worst is, and actually, this is not just of cable providers but of all companies, the worst of the worst is, do you want to guess, Dayana?
Yochim: I could just say Comcast.
Southwick: Ollen, what do you think?
Douglass: I’m going with Dayana.
Southwick: Yeah. Well.
Robert Brokamp: Dayana’s the worst.
Yochim: I am the most hated provider.
Brokamp: Of podcast information.
Yochim: I would like to accept this award on behalf of the people who set me up for failure here.
Southwick: Oh, Dayana. I’m sorry, you are not the winner. It’s actually Time Warner Cable.
Yochim: Yeah, or the other one.
Southwick: The other one. Right. Pretty much, it’s between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Yeah, they have the worst customer service of all, which we don’t actually have in Virginia. Where I am, we have Comcast. I don’t know, does most of the rest of the country have Time Warner?
Yochim: It’s pretty clear.
Douglass: Explains a flag. I saw it going past Comcast this morning. It said, “We’re not last.”
Brokamp: I did not know what that meant.
Southwick: Not No. 1.
Yochim: Way to go. I did a little research here and found that the best-rated pay TV provider according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index is AT&T U-verse.
Southwick: Which I don’t even know what that is.
Yochim: Has anyone even heard of it? Here’s how you get to be the best-rated pay TV provider. You have 69% satisfaction.
Brokamp: Right. In other words, the DD+.
Yochim: Yeah. Good for you. Yeah, it earned that by having its ratings fall less than Verizon Fios and DIRECTV, so we’re essentially cut talking about the worst.
Southwick: They’re not the worst of the bottom tier, it’s something we’ve never heard of before and probably not available in our area.
Yochim: No. It’s the best house in a really bad neighborhood.
Brokamp: The only kid in class who’s not going to be held back but barely.
Southwick: But you still have to do summer school, sorry. Had any of you guys tried cutting the cord at all? Because millions upon millions of people are doing it.
Yochim: I keep whittling away. I kept chipping away at the cord. I got rid of most of the cable channels except for HBO, which was offered as part of the package. I want to see it. I want to back-off it even more.
Southwick: Yeah. Have you guys tried to cut the cord off?
Brokamp: I did. We had Verizon Fios, but actually switched to Cox to prove Verizon that we really are serious, and then Verizon gave us a better deal and so we switched back to Verizon all in the span of two weeks. It did mean we had to sit at home waiting for the cable person, but it did work.
Douglass: I actually went the other way and went for a bundle and I had my phone, Internet, and cable through Comcast because they offered me such a great deal.
Southwick: Later in the show, you will find out how he got such a great deal and couldn’t pass it up. Part of negotiating as we’re probably going to learn is being able to walk away if you need to. Save this for later, put it in your back pocket. If you are looking for advice on how to cut the cord, there’s a few things that I think are great. TechCrunch recently did a diary of a cord-cutter, which is great because it goes through some of the emotions that you might feel. Hurt, denial, betrayal, other kinds of stuff. Then also, gizmodo.com has a great article on how to cut the cord and ditch cable once and for all. Again, put that in your back pocket because that might come useful when you do end up calling Comcast or Time Warner to negotiate your bill. When money gets weird or complicated, you better call Dayana. She’ll fix all of your awkward money situations, and today’s question comes from Audrey. She wants to know. “I’m a vegan and I don’t really drink a lot of alcohol. When going out to dinner, I don’t think it’s fair to split the bill down the middle when all I had was a salad and water and everyone else had drinks and steak. How do I avoid paying more than my share without looking stingy and cheap?” First of all, Audrey, from your description of yourself, I seriously doubt that people are inviting you out to restaurants and enjoying your company.
Southwick: I’m just kidding. I’m sure she’s a lot of fun. The last sober vegan I met on the show was a hoot.
Brokamp: As she eats her lettuce and tomato and that’s it.
Southwick: All right, Dayana. What’s your best advice for Audrey?
Yochim: This is a pretty common scenario when you go out in a group, and everybody is just ordering willy nilly and maybe you don’t order appetizers and stuff, or you’re not a big drinker. I asked Lizzie Post this question. Lizzie Post is the great-great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post, perhaps you’ve heard of her. She revealed a really polite way to stick within your spending habits, spending and eating and drinking limits without coming across a total killjoy. She said the best way to handle it is to head off the whole thing immediately. For example, before you order, the waiter will come, say something like, “Hey, guys. Tonight, I really just feel like getting a salad. Can we do separate checks? It’s going to be easier on the waitress.” You pre-empted the conflict. Now, let’s say the check comes and it looks like everybody’s going to split the tab and you’ve seen this and suddenly all the credit cards get thrown at the middle of the table.
Southwick: Everyone throws their credit card at someone, and yeah.
Yochim: Yes. At that point, you need to say, “Hey, guys. You know what, I only ordered a salad, so here’s what will cover my meal and tax and tip.” I think cash is a great way to-
Southwick: Oh, I know all about you in cash, Dayana.
Yochim: I’m a big cash spender. But yeah, it’s a way to cover the bill precisely, make sure you have someone and stuff. But yeah with a lot of people paying with plastic. You can remember to put in your fair share, including tax and tip in there if the bill is getting split evenly across plastic. Of course, one of the answers if you can’t afford to go to these lavished places that people are recommending, suggest some place different or different activity or maybe learned how to cook, I have not taken that advice myself, most, “Come over for cocktails.”
Yochim: Well in Audrey’s case, come over for salad and tap water. The point is to address the issue before it becomes that uncomfortable moment when the check comes.
Brokamp: I’ll say my wife and I were talking about this today and she did have an experience where someone didn’t handle it so gracefully it came off more as like anger that this person obviously didn’t order as much and everyone wants to split the bill equally. Because you’re essentially saying that person, we want you to pay more than your fair share. She did not handle it so well. There’s got to be a graceful way to do it.
Southwick: What did she do?
Brokamp: She started throwing the knives. Then another one we thought of is you say you’re going to leave to take care of this now and put your money on the table and say this will cover my bill as opposed you’ve pretty empty it before it gets there. But even before the waitress comes, you put it out there. If you haven’t done it before, the food was even ordered and served.
Douglass: I have another idea.
Douglass: Why don’t we pretend that you’re at dinner with friends? You say to your friend, “Hey guys, I only ordered a salad or water, is it OK if I only put an X amount?” My guess is most people will say, “Sure, instead of everyone putting $10, everyone else just put $11” and you just move on. I think you can take the approach that if you are with people that the reason they’re splitting the checks is because there’s an assumption because people aren’t thinking that there is someone who paid a lot less. If you just bring that to their attention, I think, a lot of times, the whole idea of splitting it equally is mainly because people don’t want to take the time to figure out the difference. They’ll just add on another buck, nobody cares, it’s just somebody just to tell them to care and then they just do it.
Southwick: Right. It’s also a good way to test your friendship. You just had salad and water and if your friends are like tough we’re splitting the bill down the middle, maybe you need new friends.
Douglass: I would agree with that.
Yochim: Because we’ve made what is a pretty straightforward situation to pick an opportunity to evaluate your life and the people who surround you, and add the therapy cost to that. Hey, guys, do you want to split the therapy cost here we discussed here 15% of the time?
Brokamp: Can we send her the bill?
Southwick: If you have had an awkward money situation, you better call Dayana. You can email us at [email protected][…]
Now, it’s time for the main events. We have Ollen Douglass, he is the CFO of The Motley Fool. Ollen, how long have you been CFO at The Motley Fool?
Douglass: I have been the CFO at The Motley Fool for about 11 years and I’ve been here for about 14 years.
Southwick: Where were you before here?
Douglass: Before here, I was at a mortgage company. I can barely remember now, wow. First nationwide mortgage.
Southwick: Once you come to The Motley Fool, why bother remembering any previous jobs? It’s such a magical place. So then Ollen, what makes you such a great negotiator? Where did you learn this skill?
Douglass: I think it was largely on the job training to some degree. I think particularly what we’ve done at The Motley Fool is really trying to find a way to negotiate that’s very much aligned with our core values of collaboration and honesty and really trying to have a commitment to finding win-win outcomes. I think all of that led us to a negotiating style that we think works very well and fits in with our core values.
Southwick: That applies to when I’m dealing with the hardware, A.K.A. Comcast.
Douglass: It absolutely does.
Southwick: Before we get into actual tactics of negotiating, we can maybe set the table a little bit. We are talking about your cable bill, your insurance. Like what else is negotiable out there?
Douglass: I think there are lots of things out there. I said, again, your capability, your insurance, other things that come to mind. To some degree, you can do this with an automobile, it’s a little bit different, but there are things you can do there. Anything where you’re talking to someone that is selling. Something that you can get from multiple providers is an opportunity to negotiate. Even stuff I have read there are people who do it with just regular old retail stores. I’ve tried it a few times and I only had success once. But it worked. It was a smaller store and we were going to buy a bunch of tablecloths for our wedding. We just said, if we buy all of these, can we get a deal? We got it, got to touch the manager, obviously, I think the key there with just some of the places you don’t expect is to talk to the manager. If you do that, I mean, there’s certainly opportunities.
Yochim: I’m particularly interested in this topic right now since my cable bill just went up. I think the special promotional period ended. This is a question that relates specifically to that, but also any other negotiation you might encounter. What should I do before I even pick up the phone and talk with, as Alison said, the devil?
Douglass: Well, before you go down to see the devil.
Southwick: I’m sure people actually work at Comcast. They’re working and they’re doing their job.
Yochim: Remember, that’s Alison’s voice.
Brokamp: We need to go home and your cables are just not going to work.
Douglass: I will say this is going to be quite controversial, but my last experience with Comcast was actually very good. I was very happy with the person that came timely. He did good work. He was as polite. He gave me some suggestions on how to save some money on some things after considering going. It was a surprisingly good experience.
Southwick: You got to get a deal. What did you do before you even picked up the phone?
Douglass: I think for any negotiation applicant, most of the hard work comes, as you said, before you pick up the phone or before you talk to the person, and it’s really an understanding of your situation. First of all, it’s a mindset kind of thing. Remember, most negotiations are about solving problems. It’s rare that you are trying to solve our problem where both sides want the exact thing. In a sense, for example, Comcast for example, you want to lower your bill, they want to keep a customer. Those are not mutually exclusive. When you start to think about it that way, it highlights where you can come together to make things a little bit better for both. It’s possible for both of you to win in that situation.
Yochim: In other words, don’t go in saying I’m going to win. I’m going to pummel them into giving me totally cheap service. That’s a bad attitude.
Douglass: It’s a really bad attitude. It’s not going to work. One of the things to keep in mind with all of these things, particularly when you are calling Comcast, you call them maybe once every few years, once a year if you’re really aggressive about it. The person on the other end of the phone is dealing with hundreds of calls a day. If I were to come to you and say, “Hey, I want you to go into a battle,” I know that you do this once a year. I want you to fight against someone that does it 100 times a day. Would you say I’m going to go in there and knock this person out?
Yochim: I’m going to go find the salesperson.
Douglass: It’s not going to work. I mean, we did the average person trying to win on their terms, it’s just not going to win. But there is something that you can do in that scenario which is to understand that you both want the same thing. This person is being paid to retain customers. Do you want to be retained as a customer? That’s an opportunity for both of you to work toward that common goal.
Brokamp: I bet with all those 100 calls during the day, they deal with a lot of angry people. For them to have someone polite, I’m sure there’s just a relief to them.
Douglass: It is. That’s one of the subtle negotiation tactics I do sometimes is I’ll call and I’ll say hello and I’ll listen to their response. If they seem a little tense, I will just say, can we just take a second and just relax?
Southwick: You have a little moment of zen.
Douglass: I know your job as customer service people, we are working, it’s crazy. We had to get work done. You’re probably going to clock up but we can just take a second.
Brokamp: Feel me massaging you.
Douglass: I usually get a laugh, or I can see someone smiling and I just change with just wanting them to know upfront. This is not going to be a battle and if you’ve done something wrong, that’s a very good thing to do is start to call. I’m having problems with my cable. I’m pretty sure it’s my fault. I just need help because I’m having problems with my cable and that’s your fault, that’s a tough way to start a conversation.
Yochim: Obviously, I should go around and find out what other deals are being offered. But it’s hard when it’s not apples to apples, it’s like, this one’s for new customers over here, or for us around this neighborhood, we only have one Internet provider that we can use unless we want to do the dial up thing again.
Douglass: Yes, it’s very helpful to do your homework, or if you can’t, you can still go in and approach it. Use of what you have. If you can say to them, “Hi, I’m a long-term customer of Comcast. I want to keep the service,” if you’re comfortable saying that. “I just need to reduce my bills, can you help me?” They are the ones that have all the information. Sometimes, you just need to ask them for what they have, and again, you are putting them in a position where they want to be, which is how to retain you as a customer. Don’t do your research, say, “What can you do to lower my bill? and ask them in and often they will be very happy to help you. That’s a great call to have as opposed to you devil.
Yochim: I’m canceling unless you can lop off $50.
Douglass: But I will tell you most of the time, you should never threaten to do something that you are not willing to do. Because again, you’re going up against pros. If you call and say, “I’m going to cancel unless you do something,” chances are, they’re just going to say, “Okay, cancel.” Then it’s done and they’re not going to try to say to you that it is just not going to work. Too many people try that bluff, but it does not work anymore.
Southwick: What do you do if they won’t budge?
Douglass: There are a couple of things. First of all, don’t be afraid of “no.” “No” is just another piece of information that you can use and it may be that no is the right answer for both of you. If you really are at your wit’s end, and they can’t make it better for you, maybe it is time to change providers. No, maybe the best thing for both people. If you think that you could have done better, if you had another chance to do this?
Yochim: I want another take. A do-over.
Douglass: You want to Comcast Mulligan? Hang up and call again.
Southwick: Don’t even say goodbye.
Douglass: I wouldn’t say goodbye, but the chances of you getting the same customer service rep right away are almost zero.
Yochim: It can be super embarrassing though, if that happens. Hey, remember me?
Douglass: If that weird thing happens and because it’s already weird, just say, “Hey, can I speak to someone else?”
Southwick: This got weird. I know you were cool with the […] but things just got weird when you told me no.
Brokamp: It is not me, it’s you.
Yochim: What about that, “Can I speak to your manager?” thing that sounds so aggressive. I hate confrontation, by the way.
Southwick: I’m always going to bring this up. I don’t know if this is particularly a women trait, but I am totally comfortable going to a Mexican free market, and bargaining with someone in the stocks. I feel it’s accepted and I’m in another country and whatever. But the idea of negotiating scares me, they might not like me. For some reason I’m motivated by the idea that this person might not like me and that they’ll say, no, it’s scary.
Douglass: It is scary and that’s why I think a lot of the negotiated stuff to do are about removing the fear and removing the conflict and that’s something to keep in mind. You want to remove conflict, move toward common goals. Ask questions, listen to what you’re saying, try to visually almost put yourself on the same side of the table. Here’s my problem, how can you help me? What are my choices, what are my options? Then all of a sudden, it’s not a question of yes or no, it’s a choice of option A, B or C. I think that if you’ve reached the right department, if your Comcast, you talked to cancellation department, their goal is to retain, they will always have options for you, but they’re going to ask your questions. I can give you a better rate if you extend your contract with the company. Are you willing to do a bundle? We have a really nice, special bundle which may get to a little bit of a lower rate, that’s something that I did when I called them, and ended up getting a bundle. Do you really love HBO? Because there’s something we may do that is cheaper but may not have everything that you need.
Southwick: The answer is yes, by the way. I told you Game of Thrones is over this season.
Yochim: It was funny, I like binge-watching The Wire, The Newsroom, and a couple of other things. I’m like, “Okay, maybe I can let go now.” Maybe I need to read more, is what comes out.
Douglass: But by knowing what you want and what you like, is a way to just give the customer service rep more information, so that they can then offer you a deal that works best for you and for them.
Yochim: You said something interesting. You said to call the cancellation department. Don’t quote me, Comcast. Even if I don’t intend to cancel, is that still the right move?
Douglass: Yes, that’s still the right move. What you want to do is get to the people who are being incentivized to retain the customers.
Yochim: I said Comcast but it’s any company.
Douglass: Do you have a cancellation department or who can I talk to about my service? That will take you to the right group of people who have not only the incentives they’re going to have, but also have the tools and information to get you in the right deal for you.
Douglass: That is not asking for the cancellation department, is not threatening to cancel. It’s just directly to the people who were best positioned to help us achieve our mutual goals. To move a little bit away from the cable companies situation, there are a lot of things that your services you get that regular, like the lawn service or a one-time deal, fixing your car or something like that at a guy who actually just stopped by my house, saw that dent my car, and said I can fix that, and he gave me a price, and then he said it would take a few hours and will cost you this, and I figured out, that it basically he is charging $200 an hour. Now, I said to him, I’m interested in what you’re offering, but that’s a pretty high rate. To me, $50 an hour is a reasonable rate for what you say you’re going to do. He said, OK, you are right.
Southwick: He moved from $200 an hour to $50 an hour? Will you call him?
Brokamp: But it is deciding what’s fair to pay the person? Then explain why, I appreciate your service, but this is what I think is a reasonable price.
Douglass: I think that’s a great point. I think a lot of negotiation tactics that I use are ultimately designed to get something that’s fair. If you want to call Comcast and get cable for free forever, I don’t really have a lot of points. You’re doing something different than I can add value to, but I wish you luck.
Southwick: Yeah. Thank you. On the point of Robert negotiating other things, we’ve mostly focused on cable, but do you have any other advice on negotiating for other services? Things to remember?
Douglass: Yes, there are. If you are going for your insurance, these tend to be much less potentially confrontational. Carriers, insurance companies ask for a policy review. I asked them if there are ways that I can lower my monthly insurance and they will work with a very collaborative process. Hey, can you afford a higher deductible? Can you do this? Did you need this amount of coverage? Do you have other insurance that may take care of some of these? They can do lots of things to help you lower your bill and they are happy to do that. It’s a very good thing to do. Similar to the credit cards sometimes, you call your credit cards and say, “Hey, my interest rate is a little higher. Is there any way I can get a lower rate?” Sometimes they will just lower your rate, sometimes they may ask you about other credit card balances and say, “Hey, yes, I can lower your rate if you transfer balances from another card that you have over to this one, we will help you consolidate, low your overall bills.”
There are lots of things that people can do to help you. I think the common theme is calling these people out, getting the right person and actually just asking for help. One of the things I wouldn’t do is call up with the sob story. It doesn’t go over as well, the fact that it’s Christmas Eve and you haven’t paid your bills and you call up they say, “Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I can’t pay my bills.” The pro is going to say to you, “Well, on my calendar, I knew it was Christmas a year ago.” Christmas is the same time every year, how come you didn’t notice this was coming? A lot of these things break down in the sob stories ultimately just take up a lot of time. If you want to help this person out, be nice and be quick. Because there’s a lot of calls. And to be polite and get to the point.
Brokamp: This process is actually going to start with something you should do regularly with a lot of your bills, that is comparison shop. Your insurance and other things like that. You just “Okay, I’m going to look at five providers, what are they offering?” That gives you information to use if you feel like you want to negotiate and listen, I can go to this insurance company and pay this or get this service, what can you do to meet me in the middle?
Yochim: With some of these products, insurance, credit cards in particular, how good of a customer you’ve been comes into play. They are not going to lower your interest rate if you have been late paying bills, or if you’re continually going over your credit limit. Same thing with insurance, they might look for ways to lower your rate, but they’re going to be looking at how many claims have you filed over the years?
Douglass: Another thing I do very quick that’s that we’re helping another category. If you’re thinking about trading in your car, or going for a new car, there is a whole different set of steps for buying a car. But just to trade in, go online, go to edmunds.com, get an estimate of the trade in value of your car. Take that into the dealer. When you go to buy a new car say, “Hey, look,” when it comes down to trade it in I’m saying, “This is what this car seems like it’s worth.” Instead of leaving it to the dealer to decide how much they are willing to pay for your car, let them know that you’ve done a little bit of research, to let you know. You could take that one step further and go to CarMax, they will give you an estimate on what to buy your car with and they will buy that car from you from that price. You can take that to your dealer and say, “Look, even match this, or I am just going to take it to CarMax and sell it to them.” A couple of little tips there.
Southwick: To recap, do your research, remember that you are all, both you and the company, whether it’s the double or not, are working toward a common goal. Don’t be afraid of no, make sure you’re talking to the right person and just ask for help and maybe get the new CD queued up just in case. Before we go, Ollen, what’s your best piece of advice for someone who is ready to go negotiate some of their bills?
Douglass: I think the best piece of negotiation I would give is to know your walkaway. When negotiating, know what it is. What’s the point when you would rather not have what’s asking for than what you’re doing? Keep that in mind, set that before you start to talk. Also, once it’s settled, forget about it. You are trying to get a better deal, whether you get the best deal in the world or not, it’s probably not going to be that meaningful. In the long run, you are trying to improve your life not to make it perfect with everything you do. So do the best you can, forget about it until the next time.
Southwick: All right. Wonderful. Ollen, thank you for joining us today. Dayana is going to go and negotiate with Comcast and then come back and tell us how it went.
Yochim: I will, this is all great advice. Thank you all.
Douglass: You’re welcome.
Southwick: This has been Motley Fool Answers. I want to thank Ollen again for joining us today, it’s been wonderful to have you.
Douglass: It’s been great being here, you guys do this all the time?
Southwick: We do this, well, once a week.
Southwick: Let’s have you back next week.
Southwick: Our email is [email protected] Tell your friends about the show. It’s edited by Rick Engdahl. The theme music is composed and performed by Dayana Yochim. For Robert Brokamp, Dayana Yochim, and Ollen Douglass, I’m Alison Southwick, Fool on.
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.