Years ago I worked in a call center for Apple Computer. My primary customers were technicians in the field who had problems fixing computer equipment. I was what you might call a “Master Technician” or expert the field used as a resource to help troubleshoot. I liked the job for the most part except for being tethered and having to pay attention to the stats, oh yea and watching your liquid intake was a must. Once in a blue moon the Customer Service call center was overrun with calls and needed us technicians as back up phone agents. That division talked to end users, customers, you know… angry people. Yikes. Anyone who works for a large company usually gets some kind of training working with people, communication skills, diffusing anger, etc. I got tons at Apple right down to learning about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which is a personality assessment tool; it measures people’s psychological preferences. This was a great tool because it showed me how I perceive and process information and make decisions. As interesting as this test was in terms of me it was fascinating to apply it to understand my coworkers, family, friends and oh yes those I let in my bed. Needless to say it has been a valuable skill in my tool bag over the years.
Anyone who works in Customer Service, works with the general populace– or as my grandmother who was not known to be the nicest woman called them “the great unwashed”–has the patience of Job. People can be rude, ignorant, impatient, stubborn, and downright nasty. Face to face they can reign it in, sometimes, but when you add the layer of anonymity a phone gives them people feel more comfortable in “acting out”. So my experiences with customers as a bartender at weddings while in college, or waitressing in a bad Mexican restaurant did not even come close to what was flung at me when the overflow customer calls came. There was not enough money in the world to make me want to do that on a regular basis. Hey I am not a pansy; I started as a technician in the field in computer business. I was used to having angry folks in my face from the beginning when it was deemed my fault that their Mac Plus power supply burned out every six months. When I smiled and listened to them in person they calmed almost immediately. Listening was important and so was the fact that that smile was generally a foot taller than them holding a long screwdriver. Over the phone I was just a disembodied voice, I was the reason they could not log on, get to their life online, the reason that their electronic happiness had gone away. They were pissed.
That being said I have also been on the other side of the coin. That is where most of us have been. We have spent hours tangled in the branches of sadistic phone trees where there is no real answer, help or exit strategy. Companies have made it so difficult to actually make contact to a human being that when you do get there you explode all over them in frustration and rage. The only customer service folks who are easy to find are the ones who want you to buy things; plane tickets, clothes, gourmet food, anything a glossy catalog marketing team can imagine. If however the item is defective well good luck with that, that is a full time job in getting it rectified. You need to take a leave of absence from work, stop showering and interacting with anyone other then the phone tree or the muzak on your phone while you wait in purgatory for attention, not resolution. Resolution comes from the divine and is not easily doled out. God help you if you do not have your data with you when you get the body on the phone. If after you have typed your account number, address, phone, birth date, social security number, bank account number, highest level of education, number of green vegetables eaten the previous day, all done with a shaky hand driven by the troughs of coffee consumed while navigating the phone system and are missing something pertinent WaWaWa you go to the end of the line, thanks for playing. There is no good side of the phone to be on in Customer Service these days.
The newest wrinkle is that now many companies have outsourced this type of job overseas, to places like India. Here we are boosting those economies all the while inflicting verbal abuse on their inhabitants. I guess that is a fair trade, it’s hard to say. Most of the times I have had this customer experience it was fine: some small issues with cultural nuances and accents and large issues with company policy. The utterance “I’m sorry it’s company policy” is the new ‘Holy Grail’ for the phone agents. Sure you can get their manager on the phone who may give you a coffee mug or a 30% discount off another product that will be broken, the wrong size, or rancid before it’s time, but they can not fix your problem because fixing it would be against “company policy”. I don’t blame them, the call center folks; I don’t blame any one person. I am not happy however with any company that puts me the customer, at the bottom of the list when it comes to satisfaction and value. They create this mess with cost cutting measures along with improper training and policy to stay afloat. Bad call on their part. You put in me in a phone tree from hell or with someone who can not or will not help me when I get to them 15 hours after I initiate the call and I would rather drag my front teeth down a black board than buy your product again.
The best example of the inane company policy model I have heard played out was on a recent trip to Florida. My sister lives in New York and I live in San Diego. We meet in Florida at my mom’s for a visit once or twice a year. We time our flights so we share the expense of the taxi and do virtually no solo time with my crazy mother. It’s a win, win. Two weeks ago when we were there the north east was doing what it does in the winter, snow like crazy and twist up air travel. I was heading west, which was lovely for me. Chris my sister was not so lucky. Her trip home was canceled and she had to fly out the day after me. She toyed with the idea of riding with me to the airport and staying at a hotel close by. Financially it would have been almost a wash and it certainly would also have been a huge sanity boost. So she called the 800 number for the hotel she found online. Things were getting complicated during the call and finally after 5 minutes with the phone agent she said “forget it, cancel the reservations.” The woman said she would have to transfer her to another location and to please hold it might take 4-5 minutes. So Chris waits and gets her transfer. She explains she wants to cancel the reservation and why. The phone agent explains the cancellation policy is that Chris would have had to cancel on the 7th to not be charged. Chris explains that today is the 8th and she made the reservation 5 minutes ago for the 9th and that she would need a Time Machine in order to cancel the reservation before she made it. There was no laugher on the other end of the phone just dead silence. This is where the culture nuance could have helped. All the woman said was it was “company policy” and she had to charge her. After 30 minutes and another transfer to the actual Florida Hotel and its reservation manager all was solved. In total it was a 45 minute exercise in frustration.
“Sometimes” Chris said after it was all over and she had poured a large tumbler of wine, “I try to make small talk while they are trying to help me and I ask them where they are”.
“What do they say? Where are they?” I asked with my own large tumbler of wine.
“Detroit”. She dead pans.
“Yep, guess they are not supposed to say where they really are due to ‘company policy’. So then I ask them ‘How the weather in Detroit?’”
I started to laugh, “Are you are trying to trip them up or make them laugh?”
“Both” She said. Didn’t sound like either worked.
Well I suggested “After asking them about where they are, then what the weather in Detroit, or where ever … then try slipping in ‘How many cows are in the street?’”
She choked on her Cabernet when she laughed, but I could tell she was filing it away for another day.