How to Negotiate with Your Internet Service Provider

Sarah Tew/CNET

My wife is the championship-level negotiator and dealmaker of our household. Before we met, she'd already crushed major life moments including buying a house, hammering out a great deal on a new car and getting the best possible salary offer for a new job. So when it came time to gather guidance for negotiating with your internet service provider, you'd better believe I started with her.

"Kindness is key," she said. "Always be friendly and courteous." Why?

Because the person on the other end of the phone (or online chat, as the case may be) is much more likely to work with you if met with decency and patience. Also, it's not an easy job, and they want to help, so why not start on the right foot? I could fill up a whole column with my wife's negotiating tips and tricks, but I've also sought advice from the professionals.

As you might imagine, some gave me standard company lines about how every customer gets the same high-value offers or how agents work tirelessly to make sure everyone gets the best available price every day. You know the drill. We all know that's not 100% true, or providers wouldn't constantly change their promotions and offers.

So, after sifting through the pros' best ideas, here are the five steps you should take when negotiating with your ISP.

1. Do your research

"I think the first thing is to try to be knowledgeable before you make the call," said Earthlink CEO Glenn Goad. From his perspective, most people aren't familiar enough with their options when they contact an ISP, which puts them at a disadvantage and can lead to buying more than they need -- whether that's a higher speed than necessary or bundled services they don't actually want.

Here's how you can avoid pitfalls like that.

Take a deep dive into yourself

Spend part of your preparation by building a case for yourself as a desirable customer. How long have you been with your ISP? If you're two months into a 24-month contract, you're less likely to get any traction on carving out a better deal.

That's because providers often collect an early termination fee if you bail on your existing contract. On the other hand, if you've been with the same ISP for several years, there's a much better chance of finding a flexible attitude on their end. In that case, the provider should be much more motivated to keep you as a subscriber because there's no financial benefit claimed from your loss.

Either way, having this basic info on hand will help you better make your claim. You can also do yourself a favor and set the stage for a more profitable exchange by paying your bills on time. Once you've built up months or years of steady, on-time payments, the sales agent will be more likely to see you as a valuable customer and one worth keeping happy.

A plan with faster speeds might be the boost your network needs -- and if you consider each plan's cost per Mbps, a faster plan might be a better value, too.

But be careful not to pay for a plan that's faster than what you really need.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Figure out what you actually need

Don't be an impulsive internet shopper. Before negotiating with your ISP, determine your goals for the call -- it's not always just about cutting a deal for a lower monthly bill.  Yes, knocking a few bucks off each month's bill is always welcome, but it might not ultimately be your best deal.

For example, many of us discovered that our previous internet plan was not sufficient for increased work-from-home or remote schooling duties during the pandemic. With more people (and devices) online simultaneously, our old plans couldn't keep up. An AT&T spokesperson shared with us that she advises customers to turn to a fiber network, if possible, to deal with bandwidth-heavy applications. "However, when fiber isn't available, we recommend choosing the fastest option available based on the customer's need," she said. "With the average number of connected devices continuing to grow, most households would benefit from fast and more reliable speeds."

Guides like this one on CNET can help you determine how much speed you actually need, so start there. Perhaps when you signed on with your provider, you chose a starter plan with 50 megabits per second download speed, but now your family needs more than that. Focus on securing a faster speed -- maybe more like 200Mbps -- and aim to get more for your money and decrease your cost per Mbps.

On the flip side, perhaps you initially signed up for a gigabit speed plan because your ISP touted it as the fastest plan available. But do you and your roommate really need that much? You might find significant savings by downgrading to a plan with half the speed that allows you to do all the same activities without any discernible difference in performance.

Many homes won't notice much of a difference between a gigabit plan and a 500Mbps plan, for instance.

2. Still feel the need for speed? Not so fast, look at all offers!

While download speed is certainly an important element in figuring out what type of plan fits you best, it's not the only factor.

A spokesperson with Xfinity told us to encourage consumers to spend some time looking into the full value of their internet service rather than simply stopping at speed. For example, can you get mobile service included? How about access to Wi-Fi hotspots?

Value can come in multiple ways, not just in the download speed you get. Our AT&T contact concurred. "What discounts or special offers are available to you? There may be discount offers for qualifying customers that you should inquire about.

Some providers may also offer subscriptions for streaming and other services that could make a package more enticing." So, you can help yourself out by putting in just a little work before the call. For example, beyond looking at the download speed, consider your data usage.

Are you paying extra for unlimited data and not using it? Or, perhaps more commonly, do you tend to go over your data limit and incur extra charges? Consider if there's an unlimited add-on option that'll save you money in the long run.

Also, gather your facts about what you're currently paying. Do you already have a promo rate? Are there any deals you're currently taking advantage of?

Don't get caught flat-footed, or you'll risk losing a good price in the hunt for a better bargain.  Last, if you're not currently taking advantage of any deals or offers, look up the promotional deals offered to new customers and ask your ISP to match that. It's also worthwhile to check for online-only deals so you can ask for the equivalent for your existing account.

3.

Look for other options before the call 

Sorry to mix metaphors, but if you plan on playing hardball, don't bluff if you have no hand at all. If you're going to threaten to cancel your subscription, make sure your address is serviceable for other providers. Otherwise, your current ISP will know that you don't have other options.

On the other hand, you can politely but squarely use this to your advantage if you do have options. You might have a cheaper plan than what you just found on a competitor's site at face value. But as you take a closer look at that alternative option, you discover it's a fiber connection with much faster upload and download speeds.

For slightly more per month, you could get a faster, better online experience at a lower cost per Mbps. But such a pivot might not be available to all. In addition to serviceability, you also have to answer another question.

Is switching to another ISP even an option? For example, if you live in an apartment complex, does your leasing company have an exclusivity agreement with your current provider? My wife and I learned this the hard way.

We were excited by the idea of ditching our old ISP when we moved to a new area, but our hopes were dashed when we learned the housing development had a contract with the same provider, so we didn't have the same choices as other city residents. Also, is satellite internet an option? It's often cast as the only viable alternative for rural or suburban customers, and recent developments with Elon Musk's Starlink and Jeff Bezos' Project Kuiper promise faster speeds and more flexibility in the near future.

But be aware of satellite dish installation regulations that may be in your area, set by your HOA, or in your lease rules.

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4. You don't know until you ask

You've done your research, collected your facts and jotted down your goals for the call.

That's the key to any eventual success. Now it's time to try to seal a new deal. "Any customer has the right to seek changes to their plan if they choose to do so," said the AT&T spokesperson. "There's not really a specific time of year for deals, but customers should check ISPs' websites regularly for any new updates or offers they can take advantage of."

Goad offered that the moving season of May to October is a prime season to find promotions, offers and incentives. That said, it's also a time where your customer experience may not be as good as if you called during a different time.  "If you think about it, if you're going to shop on Black Friday, it's a different experience than if you shop on March 12," Goad said. "So maybe you do your research in the first and second quarter of the year and do your buying in the third quarter when you're fully prepared."

If you decide to make your move during the busy season, strongly consider not calling during the busiest time of the day -- the lunch hour. Whenever you decide to take the leap, it's worth repeating -- always, always be courteous. This is foundational to having a good call.

Try to be friendly and be sure to speak of your length of time with the provider and highlight your great payment history. 

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5. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again

Here's another tip from my wife: If she gets an agent who doesn't seem willing to work with her or share the same courteous approach she's taking, she'll politely end the conversation and try again. Or if you forget the first four steps, don't get what you need or the conversation goes south, try, try again.

One colleague I spoke with echoed this advice and shared a story from her own experience as a customer. She was so frustrated with her bill increases that she decided to get on the phone and threaten to cancel, with the idea they would beg her to stay and offer a new promotion. Instead, they canceled her service.

She sheepishly called back later and spoke with a different representative. Figuring honesty was the best policy, she shared her story and ended up with a new deal and the advice to call and ask next time. So be prepared that it may not go right your first time -- but don't give up.

You may need to call a few times, either to find an agent willing to work with you or to find the right promotions to suit your goals.

If it means a lower bill or a better plan, then it's worth the effort.