Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Customer Service and Tech Support: Mutually Exclusive?

Is customer service dead--or at least, gasping for breath? Certainly this seems the case regarding electronic equipment. Manufacturers want you to give up, throw your nearly-new iPod, flat-screen, laptop, digital camera or whatever away, and buy another. They certainly don't want to help you.

Got a question? Got an hour to wait on "hold" before a script-reading woman in Bombay or the Phillipines tells you she has to transfer you to another representative?

Tell her you've already been transferred twice, or ask a question not on her list and she'll tell you "just a moment, I'll get my supervisor," putting you back in the "hold" loop for another 20 minutes, before a completely new employee asks how she can "help" you.

Do you love that muzak they play, punctuated every 60 seconds by the robot-lady who insists "your call is very important to us; please stay on the line for the next available representative"? If your call was truly important to them, they'd answer it, instead of complaining about the "unusually high volume of calls" they're "experiencing" at the moment, necessitating an estimated wait-time of (pause), fifteen minutes.

Time to go to the bathroom, get a snack, return to the receiver in its cradle still on "speaker," recycling the same muzak and assurance as to the "importance" of your call. In fact, the "estimate" is way off--20, 25, 30 minutes pass until you hear the ring-through.

Raise your hand if, after this kind of frustrating and time-soaking encounter, your question was satisfactorily answered. I didn't think so.

I enjoyed this life-shortening situation twice yesterday; more than an hour on hold--uselessly--for my digital Panasonic camera, and a separate 35 minutes trying to get Delta to assign a seat--any!--to my daughter for a red-eye cross-country flight she'd booked weeks ago. A dozen online attempts all failed, (even at time of booking the ticket), with the message that a seat would be assigned once she was at the airport. The representative in Bangalore was "so sorry" she was unable to help; she'd go check something, though, and be right back--and of course my call entered the nauseating muzak loop. I waited hopefully (and stupidly) thinking she'd actually return, only to be greeted by a different woman who started over. Delta, meanwhile, has claimed it stopped routing customer service calls to India this year, in response to customer revolt. Don't believe it.

(The upshot of my efforts, btw, was that my daughter and a handful of other unfortunate ticket-holders who never could obtain seats were shunted aside while everyone else boarded [how did they get seats??], and were only given assignments as they entered the gangway to board. My daughter got a non-reclining, jostle-attracting position that precluded sleep.)

Am I just whining, or is service passe? Should we bargain-seeking customers expect that best-priced airlines or on-sale computers bring with them cheapo support? I said in my previous post about low frat-house rent that you get what you pay for. Must we expect to pay extra if we want courteous, personal responses to our problems with products?

Such questions would not have been asked even a dozen years ago. It was expected that companies stood behind their products. Recall 30 years ago, when business was valued and gentility in interactions were the norm. Anyone remember trading stamps? When gas stations dialed out long curls of sticky blue or green sheets you'd exchange for household goods as rewards for fill-ups?

Perhaps you even remember when store clerks and businesspeople used titles when addressing customers--Mrs. or Mr. was the expected first-acquaintance style. Now, the script-readers in Bombay call poor shlubs who they've made wait endlessly "Bob" or "Ashley" when they're apologizing: "I'm truly sorry for the inconvenience, Brandon." It could be that the false familiarity and fraudulent sympathy are even more maddening than the out-sourcing of help and their inability to actually provide any. Apparently call-center employees are so used to resentful Americans that they lie about their locations. Some Indian centers put up video screens with local sports scores and weather so their workers can better fool suspicious customers, according to the Washington Post.

Perhaps as a result of the downturn, some companies will figure out that they can attract business if they actually serve their customers. Unfortunately, however, rudeness has become de rigeur, kindness and competence exceptional. Still, the customer can and does "vote with his feet;" next time, my daughter will fly Jet Blue, and I'll stick with Costco for my camera.


  1. Ultimately the poor customer service companies pay for it. Dell was the strongest computer brand, and through poor service alone they knocked themselves all the way back.

    Some companies offer "US" service - try to find the numbers online. Also, sites like NoPhoneTrees will save you time and agony. :)

  2. Wait until we get socialized medicine, then we won't even have an option for better service....

  3. The worst part for me is when you get vastly different stories from each and every single rep you talk to... and no one will ever, ever agree to put anything on paper for you, and there are no real people with names you can refer back to when you need to argue your case... and then, good luck trying to fight your pathetic little battle when your lovely bill arrives.