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Customer Service Woes

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What is it about interacting with customer service that seems to drive us off the edge? Is it the incessant lack of logic and rationality that we have to face? No matter which industry – telecom, credit cards, insurance, you name it – the same problems keep creeping up all the time.

The standard answer of "the system says so, hence, it must be true" must be specifically intended to create the maximum frustration for the customer. I have often been tempted to reply, "You know, I am fairly competent around computers, and I know that the system is only what you put into it. It does not have a life of its own," but held off from doing so, if only to avoid the metaphysical discussion that would inevitably follow about "the system" having a life of its own!

Then it always seems like the first person you speak to about your problem cannot help you, because the rules don't allow them to do anything about your situation. "But for a low fee of $14.95 we can ensure that you do not receive additional penalties"!

Most people will probably hang up, pay the additional fees, seethe about how they got screwed over, and then forget about it — until their next tryst with a customer service rep, when the horror starts all over again. Some resourceful people will actually record their experiences and force the company to pay them back. Interestingly, the companies still do not learn!

I had a recent experience with AT&T customer service. Here's the history:

  • I was supposed to get a certain discount, every month, since July of this year.
  • As of last month (November) they hadn't credited me with this discount.
  • My bill was over $100.

I complained. They said they would look into it, but sounded very skeptical, as if I were lying about it. They called the actual store where I got the plan, and then came back and stated – apologetically – that the credits would be applied and my bill would be reduced to what it should be. I then get a call this month stating that my cell phone service will be disconnected for not paying the $100+ bill. I called them back and asked what about my credits and guess what I hear?

"What credits?"

Imagine that. Long explanations and discussions begin all over again, which include the following statement from their rep:

"Sir, do you use your phone for voice service?"

My incredulous response: "Can you please repeat?"

Them: "Do you make or receive calls from your phone?"

I begin to feel that I might be in a parallel universe where the purpose of a cellular phone was somehow different! Anyway, after much plodding, I am assured there was a mistake and they will credit my account, etc. etc.

I ask: "Should I just go ahead and pay the balance to ensure that my account will be valid?"

Response: "Not required. We will fix this matter. Call us back in a couple of days and we'll see." End of call.

Ten minutes later, my cellphone service has been…you guessed it — Disconnected! I call back from another phone and try to explain the situation.

Response: "Sir, your phone has been disconnected due to non-payment. Unless you pay the amount in full we cannot restore the service. Of course, there is an additional charge of $36 to restore your service!"

I tried to reason with her, and got this response: "As a one time courtesy to you we will remove the $36 connection charge, but you must pay the balance in full!"

I ask to speak to a manager or supervisor, who tells me more of the same but then I'm forced to pay half of the balance to get my service back. Apparently they will apply the credits in due course and everything will be adjusted.

Then comes the best part of the whole incident. As I'm waiting for the half payment to go through, the supervisor tells me,

"Sir, we are not charging you the $36 fee as a one-time courtesy only! In the future, if you are disconnected, you must pay that fee."

Me: "You do realise that this happened because your people made a mistake?"

Her: "Sir, I do realise, but I am warning you that in the future this should not reoccur from your side."

Me: "But you still do realise that it wasn't my fault and that your people messed up?"

Her: "Sir, I understand, but I'm just laying the ground rules and expectations for future dealings!" (Who speaks like this in real life???)

Me (in exasperation mixed with an attempt to not laugh into the phone, while trying hard and somewhat succeeding to keep my voice even): "OK, now I am laying the groundwork hoping that your people will not screw up my bill and then charge me for it, cancel my service and attempt to charge me for reconnecting it — while it was the fault of your personnel all the time!"

30 seconds of silence on the phone and then,

Her: "Thank you, sir. Your payment has been approved. Would you like to take down the confirmation number?"

Still no admission of guilt.

While it was exasperating that they had made a mistake and were persisting in it even after I thought I had cleared it with their reps a month ago, the really annoying part is that they were condescending to me. The supervisor and the rep acted as though they were doing me a favour! They did not really admit to anything being wrong on their end, yet insisted that they were fixing the errors only as a "one-time courtesy." This is the whole attitude that annoys me. That and the fact that the first person you speak to is typically of no help. I think their job is to just stall and see if you go away. If you don't, then they put you on hold for a long time and then come back asking, "Sir, are you still there?"

I have realized that the best way to get something accomplished after a couple of minutes of explaining it to the first rep is to ask to speak to the supervisor. Failing that, ask to speak to their supervisor. Finally you do get to someone who can help and finally will. There was one time, though, when one person said that I couldn't talk to anyone else simply because there was no one above him. I expressed surprise that I was speaking to the CEO of the company and how nice it was that he was personally responding to customer calls! Well, sarcasm worked in that case, and he transferred me to his boss who finally solved the problem.

So, after many years of frustration in dealing with customer service, I finally believe that it is a cleverly designed system – a system to keep people out, where only the persistent ones get their problems resolved. So next time, perhaps ask to speak to the supervisor directly and spare yourself the task of reducing your lifespan trying to explain the problem multiple times.

Oh, and definitely record the conversations. Absolutely. You never know when it might come in handy.

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About Sib.

  • Ah Sibin, I feel your pain.

  • I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “Unless you’re an asshole, you don’t get good customer service.” I actually had someone refuse to give me her name and REFUSE to give me her supervisor’s name. Once Better Business Bureau got involved, everyone in customer service was so very pleased to assist me with whatever I might need. It’s terrible that just being nice and explaining the problem/miscommunication gets you nothing…you really have to be a bigger jerk (and knowledge of law doesn’t hurt) to get true customer service. And the sad part is, I’m incredibly loyal to people/stores that are kind to me or who really try to help. And I write good feedback just as often as I write scathing reviews. Trouble is, the latter happens much more often.

  • Great article! I imagined hearing one large collective sigh reading this as hundreds of us sympathized in harmony. It’s truly abhorrent the “customer” service we receive or don’t these days! My latest adventure was with Cox Communications after moving into a new residence and transferring my cable service, it is abruptly stopped (months later and after payments paid promptly), only to learn that the former tenant cancelled my service. Try explaining to customer service that you exist when they say you don’t live there.

  • This reminds me of the horrors of when I was a customer of verizon….