Thursday, April 24, 2008

Customer Service Representative : A Triple Oxymoron

So here are three oxymorons:

Customer + Service
Service + Representative
Customer + Representative

I spent the day in automated CSR hell yesterday. I'm really surprised I let it get to me as much as it did... I was ready to seriously hurt somebody; I was also ready to cry my eyes out.

The first dispute? $4.59. Yes, that's four dollars and fifty-nine cents. It's a late-payment charge from Sprint, from February, when their site was down and wouldn't accept my payment. In other words, it was late because of their screwed up website. I called and they said they'd remove the charge. I don't remember the name of the person I talked to because (shame on me) I believed him! Of course he didn't do anything about it.

So it showed up on my March bill. I called again and talked to Alvaro, CSR #422467 (I thought I was smart by asking for his ID No., but in the long run it did me no good.) First of all I thought Alvaro was a nice Hispanic name. This guy was NOT Hispanic. He had a thick eastern accent and to make matters worse our connection was not good (Hint: he's not on our continent!) So I softly shouted my story, word for word, slowly, to try and help him understand my dilemma. This took a long time. He repeated it to me, and it took me a long time to understand him. He assured me it would be taken care of.

I'll give you one nanosecond to guess what happened. Yep: nothing.

So I got a notice on my April bill that told me my account was overdue and I needed to pay the $4.59. By this time I was really mad. By this time $4.59 seemed like liquid gold to me. By this time I would dip those dollars and cents into hot tar and EAT them, rather than hand them over to Sprint.

So yesterday I called and talked to Kelly. She, too, had a very thick accent and sounded like she was at the bottom of a well in Timbuktu. (Side note: I really get a kick out of outsourced CSR's halfway around the globe saying, "This is Barbara Smith, how may I help you today?) Anyway, I went over my story again with "Kelly". Slowly. Pronouncing each word with perfect diction so she would understand me. She put me on hold for a long time. She came back and said, "My supervisor, Maricel, will take care of this for you." I said, "I'd like to talk to her." She said, "She's in a meeting."

Yeah right.

How stupid do you think I am? They were passing me off again! Her only offering was a guarantee that the ever elusive Maricel, who lives God knows where, was going to tap into the system with her magic management powers and finally remove the $4.59. She even told me that I'd get a text message within two hours confirming it. I thought, "I don't want a text message, lady, I want fireworks, I want writing in the sky, I want a PARADE for all the hours I've put in to this freaking $4.59!"

At this point I didn't believe any promises. But what else could I do? I went about my business. After 7 hours passed and I didn't hear anything, I wasn't mad. I was LIVID. I sifted through Sprint's website to find somewhere to email a nasty, nasty letter. And the fact that clicking on "contact us" does not link me to an address, but rather puts me through a series of questions to see if their FAQ can answer it, REALLY pissed me off. As if automated phone systems weren't bad enough.

Breathe, Laura, breathe.

So I fired off a you-are-the-scum-of-the-earth message, telling them that I couldn't wait for my contract to expire, and that they were going to lose a lot of money as a result of this ordeal (because I'm going to take my children with me when I go!)
I was shaking my fist in the air when I hit send. (Okay, not literally, but definitely figuratively.)

Not long after I got a message from "Ricky," whose communication skills were undoubtedly acquired in the school of cut and paste. And after the canned, "We're so sorry" message, he said, "I am happy to assist you with this matter. But I do not see where you were charged a late fee for March or April."

At that moment I wanted to personally hunt him down - even if I had to buy a plane ticket to Nepal - so I could throttle him. You know those dolls whose eyes bug out when you squeeze them? Yeah...

I wrote "Ricky" another response, outlining AGAIN that it was a carryover from February. I numbered the items. I capitalized the words I would've strongly emphasized if I were talking to him. I waved my arms around, crossed my eyes, said ten "Hail Mary's," and turned around three times while I clicked my heels together.

And then I sent it.

And while sitting in front of my computer in a daze I had a thought. On a whim, I consulted the cyber-god that I suspected may be able to finally help solve my problem.


Within minutes I had stumbled upon a blog of another guy who had had the same sucky experiences with Sprint, and right there in front of me - like an epiphany rising from the computer screen - were the email addresses of the top Sprint executives. I felt like I had just stumbled upon some sacred code, a treasure that Indiana Jones himself could not have found.

So I copied my email from Ricky, pasted it in a new email, and wrote at the top: "This is what is happening on the shop floor. Does anyone care??" I fired it off to about 6 or 7 executives. Within two hours (I sent this at night, mind you) I had a personal email from Jerry Adriano, Vice President of Customer Experience. He said he'd have someone get in touch with me today, apologized for the mess, and signed it "Jerry." No automated form letter. No prepackaged let-me-get-rid-of-this-person response. A real person. A real person in the United States, who probably spoke good English and had a decent phone connection. Wow! Jerry - where have you BEEN all my life?

For the sake of brevity (ha! What's that?) I'll condense the rest of the story. I got an email today from a guy named Steven Shoecraft. He said to call him and gave me his phone number along with a case number. When I got him on the line he apologized. Again. And then he made a shocking admission:

"We are well aware that our Customer Service is a mess."

I wanted to feign surprise, but I restrained myself.

So... Sprint KNOWS their customer service problems are legion.

The $4.59 has been removed," he continued. "That's IT??" I said. He told me he could see how frustrating it must have been and assured me they were working on the problem. "That does nothing for me," I said nicely, but dryly. I told him that taking up hours of my time, leaving me at the mercy of CSR hell, and then brushing me off with a "sorry" was not only unjust, it was just plain bad business. I told him they should compensate me somehow.

He said, "I don't know how to quantify your time and frustration."

I said, "Steven, how much do you make an hour? I have spent at least FIVE HOURS trying to get someone to listen to me over $4.59. The least you can do is give me a month or two of free service."

And just like that, he took off all of my charges for this month. I should've said two or three months.

And then he gave me his direct line and said that if I ever have any other problems like this I can call him and he will personally take care of things for me.

So, there you have it. That is ONE of my customer service nightmares from yesterday. I'll spare you the details of my Bank of America and Quicken sagas (which were also snarly.)

So will I stay with Sprint when my contract expires in October of this year? I'm not making any decisions today. Even though I'd love to stick it to "the man" (remember that commercial?) by giving my money to one of their competitors, somewhere deep down I know that Cingular, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are no different. The term "Customer Service Representative" will, on some level, always be a triple oxymoron no matter who my cell carrier is.

Besides, now I have Steven's phone number.


Chiron' said...

Hi Laura,
I certainly feel for you and identify with your experience. The bad news is, it's pandemic. It doesn't matter what company you are with, customer service is fast becoming something similar to pursuit of the holy grail.

I actually was one of those faceless people who was the voice on the other end of the line for otherwise helpless customers for 8 years. It was a MISERABLE job, yet, because it was SO completely obvious to all that do callcenter work, that we were perhaps the very last wall of defense for the zillions of people out there who seem to be being victimized by corporate negligence, it made it very difficult on one level to walk away from. More and more often it seems the corporate strategy for dealing with the very customers whose credit cards these companies are busy charging for their survival is to simply do what they want to do and then vanish into a world of non-accountability for their actions. We have had this happen to us as a nation of consumers in a slow graduated program. First, we went from taking our business to the representatives in the store. Then, they removed the face and the name from our grasp and told us that for service we must all contact the dreaded "phone number". The latest is, obviously, that now even the phone number is alien to us. We are contacting people to help us with our problems who don't know us, don't care about us, cannot identify with our problems, and perhaps worst of all...don't care to. I have had multiple encounters with Indians who become outraged at me when I tell them that they aren't speaking acceptable English. If I am contradicted then I go over their head. As a previous CSR I can and will punch ALL of their buttons until I get someone I can both understand, whose tone and personality I will agree to work with. It's my right, as a customer.

These days I fight back. I evaluate purchases of everything I buy with accountability and point of service as part of my product selection. I work very hard to ensure that I do not support call centers out of the country, (in my own way of showing outrage at the disloyal corporate treatment of my fellow callcenter CSR's back in Tucson) If I wind up having to speak to a Rep out of the country, I don't give them my problem until they give me someone from my own country.

I am also with Sprint. I will say that they have had their hands full ever since the merger with Nextel. My strategy for dealing with them has been simple. I set my phone up exactly like I wanted it at the point of purchase, and do not make any modifications to the plan thereafter. I set payment as dd and let them know that I am not to be contacted by any Sprint employed people who reside outside of the U.S. or it will encourage me to go elsewhere.

SO far, it's worked. The sad thing of course is, Sprint's products and services are still the best in the industry. Their CSR experience is however indicative of a larger non-accountability issue that seems to be quickly taking over our customer experience universally.

Anyway, glad to see you got it worked out.


journeyingrick said...

a. you are a brave and powerful soul. not only to stand up for yourself but also to say, hey, this hurts, i want to cry, this is crazy.
b. you rock! you got someone to listen! you pushed! you are my hero!
c. you were already my hero but now even more so.

Laura said...

Thanks for your nail-on-the-head assessment chiron'. That's totally it - a massive migration toward zero personal contact or accountability. I'd be interested to know what companies you've come across that don't use outsourced CSR's or are otherwise still somewhat engagable. As I mentioned in the post, Quicken was also a CSR nightmare (yes, they outsource). But Bank of America, I'm happy to say, had someone call me within 1/2 a day, someone who actually had the power to help me. He was willing to stay on the phone with me until we had somehow solved the problem. Perhaps we should start a list of companies that actually have good customer service!

Laura said...

Awwww. Hero? I am just another angry consumer who finally opened up her window and shouted at the top of her lungs, " I'm MAD AS HELL and I'm not going to take it anymore!!" I actually gave up on getting a bogus $18 charge from AOL removed last year. After going around and around with them, I finally said, "FINE! Send it to collections... I don't care!!!" And then a collection agency called and sent me letters for months. It's pretty sad when you'd rather have a strike against your credit rather than pay an unjust fee - even if it is just $18.

Chiron' said...

Sorry for the delay in response, things have been hectic. I have been working on a list of companies which have exhibited good integrity for a while now. My aim is to post this list on my blog at some point where we all can have a quick reference to find those who live by an ethical code vs. those who don't.

(The goal of course is to re-establish corporate integrity and reputation as something that a brand name actually represents. I do not desire to punish companies who have made mistakes, as that would be hypocritical. Rather my desire is to let the corporate world understand that they can not hide their behavior from us and we will reward those companies who operate with an eye towards good behavior.)

This focus is slightly different than what you have asked for, but I wanted to let you know that this is a back-burner project I am currently working on.