Friday, June 26, 2009

Press 11 For No Customer Service

In the course of a decade, my telephone customer service has gone from absolute best to absolute worst.  Bell Atlantic maintained the best-trained customer service department that I have ever dealt with.  Always polite and always eager to get phone service restored, the Bell Atlantic “operators” set a standard of excellence that other companies have only hoped for.

Whenever I had to call Bell Atlantic, I always went out of my way to let the operator know just how much I appreciated his or her assistance.  They were that good, and they deserved respect.

Then came the Bell Atlantic—GTE merger which resulted in a new company called Verizon—a hopelessly vague and corrupted, techno-future noun probably invented by a committee of people with associate degrees in marketing.  To their credit, these marketing mavens did incorporate GTE’s famous “Gee!” ad slogan in the new Verizon-speak vocabulary.  As in, “Gee!  Why would a telephone company employee actually want to talk to a telephone company customer?”

So it was, then, that in this new Verizon world, the computerized version of an operator took over the virtual switchboard.

My Verizon DSL service recently went kaput in the afternoon of April 26th, a Sunday.  I reported the outage using my cell phone.  The Verizon computer, which speaks in a female voice, cheerfully told me that the problem was in Verizon’s line and that my service would be restored by—get this—May 7th. 

Gee!  That’s two weeks!

Fortunately for me, Verizon service to a nearby doctors’ complex was also out.  Verizon restored their phone service by 4:00 pm the next afternoon and mine by 8:30 pm that night.

Verizon does what every other American company does—builds a firewall between customers and customer service.  So it is unfair to single out Verizon when touch-tone menus and recorded messages are the norm. 

Even small businesses have succumbed to adopting a keypad hierarchy.  When I call my local plumber, I am instructed to press “2” for service.  A real plumber will then answer only to tell me his crews are jammed up. 

Gee!  Where have I heard that before?

Everyday, every American runs into a firewall when calling customer service.  Whether it’s personal business or corporate business, we are wasting a significant portion of the day trying to resolve routine problems.  The cost in non-productive time spent on the telephone has to be in the billions of dollars.

Companies also direct customers to their websites for customer service.  This feature is called: “Just the FAQ’s, ma’am.”  Again, this effort is most often counterproductive in resolving problems and wastes time and electricity. 

If you do use a company’s website to contact customer service, you will wait a long time for an E-mail reply, and that reply will likely be one from the FAQ page.  Contrast the delay in a customer service response from a website with the blinding speed that the same website can issue your purchase acknowledgement or redirect you to the UPS or FedEx website for shipping information.

Ten to fifteen seconds of calls placed to most customer service departments are wasted with this recorded message: “This call may be recorded for quality control purposes.”  Ten seconds doesn’t sound like much until you multiply it by the thousands of calls answered by these machines each day. 

Nobody calls a company to chit-chat.  We only call a company to resolve a problem.  And 99 times out of 100, it takes a person to resolve the problem. 

Corporate America has embraced false economy when it comes to dealing with customers.  Outsourcing the customer service department to places like India may save money, but it also upsets customers.  I cannot understand half of what Jindahar or Apu tells me when my call gets routed to New Delhi. 

As for talking to the computer, a scene from the movie “Burn After Reading” describes our frustration the best.  Frances McDormand is on the phone yelling “Agent! Agent!” to no avail.

Corporate America needs to adopt a new plan to evaluate their customer service departments.  Touch-tone menus should offer a new selection: Press 11 for “Gee!  Your service sucks!” (“¡Gee!  ¡Su servicio chupa!” en EspaƱol) 

Then maybe the message will get through.