Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives

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9781416546900: Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives

Whether it’s the interminable hold times, the multitude of buttons to press, or the automated voices before reaching someone with a measurable pulse—who hasn’t felt exasperated at the abuse, neglect, and wasted time when all we want is help, and maybe a little human kindness? Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us is journalist Emily Yellin’s highly entertaining and far-reaching exploration of the multibillion-dollar customer service industry and its surprising inner-workings. Since customer service has a role in just about every industry on earth, Yellin travels the country and the world, meeting a wide range of customer service reps, corporate decision makers, industry watchers, and Internet-based consumer activists. She shows the myriad forces that converge to create these aggravating experiences and the people inside and outside the globalized corporate world crusading to make customer service better for us all. Because of the fast-moving nature of the industry, the paperback will be revised and updated throughout, including a fresh Introduction.

For the first time, Yellin gets at the heart of the human stories behind the often inhuman face of call-center customer ?service—and why customer service doesn’t have to be this bad.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Emily Yellin is the author of Our Mothers’ War, and was a longtime contributor to the New York Times. She has also written for Time, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Smithsonian Magazine, and other publications. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Madison with a degree in English literature and received a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. Random Acts of Rudeness

As the twenty-first century dawned, most people were feeling fed up. A public opinion poll in 2001 reported that 80 percent of Americans believed the constant coarseness, disrespect, and lack of consideration they encountered in society was such a "serious, pervasive problem" that it affected them "on a personal, gut level" and had grown into "a daily assault on their sensibilities and the quality of their lives." At the same time, it seemed people didn't believe they had much power to change things, so they simply resigned themselves to all the insidious incivility they encountered.

The Pew Charitable Trusts sponsored the poll, called "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America." Public Agenda, a national policy research group, conducted it. And in their introduction, the authors made sure to justify their examination of how we get along with each other in public every day: "At first, it might seem that conducting a survey on courtesy and rudeness is less serious or important than exploring citizens' views on, say, health care or education or retirement policy. Yet how people treat each other in their daily interactions -- whether they take steps to be respectful of one another, whether they are willing to moderate their own desires and comfort to accommodate the needs of others -- seems to us to be profoundly important and indeed central to the definition of a 'civilized' society."

The report immediately zeroed in on one area of society that most respondents agreed offers perhaps the ripest examples of rude and infuriating public behavior. "Americans say that the way they are treated by business and customer service employees is frequently exasperating, and sometimes even insulting." One particular customer service channel came under the heaviest fire. "When it goes wrong, perhaps nothing embodies greater exasperation than customer service by phone."

According to the survey, 67 percent of Americans sometimes have to "make a fuss to get a problem resolved." And nearly everyone -- 94 percent -- finds it "very frustrating to call a company and get a recording instead of a human being." And even if callers do finally speak to a live customer service agent, the irritation doesn't always end. In a Florida focus group, one man said, "Half the time they have no idea what they're talking about. And they don't care. They'll tell you anything just to get you off the phone."

To be fair, the report also notes that "it seems the rudeness cuts both ways. Disgruntled customers bring frayed nerves, previous frustrations and their own personal shortcomings when they deal with those responsible for helping them." A Connecticut customer service representative told her focus group, "They think you're at their beck and call. They may want something, and they're not getting it as rapidly as they think they should. I answer the phone, and they just immediately go off on me."

It probably doesn't take a scientifically conducted public opinion poll to find evidence of the contempt most Americans harbor toward bad customer service or to elicit testimony about the effects of that kind of antipathy in their lives. Merely bringing up the subject at any gathering will generate at least one horror story from just about everyone. But in the years since that survey officially highlighted and validated the displeasure bubbling just under the surface of our everyday dealings with customer service, a few of those tensions have boiled over in very public ways. The news media, in tandem with various Web sites, have played increasingly larger roles in amplifying them. Just ask Comcast, for example.

Trouble for the nation's largest cable television and broadband provider started in earnest with the story of LaChania Govan, a mother of two in her mid-twenties who inadvertently became a public symbol of mistreated customers everywhere. Govan lives in suburban Chicago. She goes to work all week and attends church every Sunday. She has a pleasant and welcoming voice. She also has a strong sense of fairness.

In July 2005, Govan's digital video recorder wouldn't work. She called Comcast's customer service line in Chicago but couldn't get through. During the course of four weeks, she called more than forty times. She was repeatedly disconnected, put on hold, or transferred to inept or inert representatives and technicians. One customer service representative transferred her to the Spanish-speaking line. Govan knows only English. She just wanted someone to resolve her seemingly simple case.

She says she never raised her voice, but she was resolute. "Calling Comcast became my second job," Govan said. "I had to ensure the cordless phone was fully charged and the kids were content. And I sat and called. I cooked and called. I cleaned and called, and just called." Almost every day, Govan prodded the big company's customer service department as best she could. Finally, she found a rep who heard her out and took her case in hand. A technician was sent to replace her cable box at no charge, and she was credited with a free month of service. Govan's perseverance paid off. Her headaches seemed to be over.

Then Govan's August cable bill arrived. Her name did not appear on the bill. Instead it was addressed to "Bitch Dog." Someone at Comcast had changed her account name. Govan said, "I was so mad I couldn't even cuss."

Instead of becoming just another unnoticed casualty in the adversarial relationship between many companies and their customers, Govan went public. The Chicago Tribune ran her story. Within days, the mainstream news media, bloggers, and consumer advocates from everywhere were spreading her tale of woe. She appeared as the number-one story on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann. A Comcast executive left an apology on Govan's home voice mail. The company claimed it identified and fired two employees responsible for changing the name on Govan's bill. She was offered all sorts of free service, which she refused. She wanted nothing more to do with Comcast.

Govan, who also happens to be a customer service representative for a major credit card company, is studying criminal justice with plans to go to law school one day. Eventually, she says, she hopes to become a judge. Her inherent sense of justice is what drove her to persevere. So she was speaking with conviction when she told the Washington Post that she believes customer service means "being friendly, helpful and respectful. I know how it feels to be a customer service rep and a consumer on the other end. You do not have to settle for less, and you do not have to be mistreated."

In 2006, Comcast was dealing with another public display of customer service missteps. A subscriber in the Washington, D.C., area found the technician that Comcast sent to fix his cable system had fallen asleep on his couch. The worker was kept on hold for so long by his own company when he called for help that he dozed off. The customer shot video of the napping technician and posted it on the Internet, where it went viral. Comcast issued another apology, and again said the worker in question had been fired.

Then in August 2007, Comcast suffered what was perhaps its worst embarrassment to date when seventy-six-year-old Mona Shaw took her outrage with its customer service a few steps further than any disgruntled customer had done before. As she has told the story, it started when a technician scheduled to come out to her suburban Washington, D.C., home on a Monday didn't show up. Comcast was supposed to install what it calls its triple-play service, which included the company's new telephone service, along with its traditional Internet and cable television connection, all for under $100 per month. Shaw, a retired military nurse and secretary of her local AARP, as well as a square dancer who fosters stray dogs until they can be adopted, waited all day Monday. When Comcast finally arrived two days later, the technician left the job half done and never came back. On Friday, the company cut off what service Mona and her husband, Don, still had.

Without phone service, the Shaws couldn't call to get help, so they drove over to their local Comcast office in Manassas, Virginia. They asked for a manager and were told to wait, outside, in the August heat. They say they sat on a bench for two hours, until the same woman who had asked them to wait leaned out the door, told them the manager had gone home for the day, and thanked them for coming. Shaw told the Washington Post, "They thought just because we're old enough to get Social Security that we lack both brains and backbone."

By Monday, after a weekend with no phone, TV, or Internet, Shaw was so angry that she took matters into her own hands, literally. She got her husband's hammer, and they went back to the local Comcast office. This is how Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker described Shaw's account of what happened next:

Hammer time: Shaw storms into the company's office. BAM! She whacks the keyboard of the customer service rep. BAM! Down goes the monitor. BAM! She totals the telephone. People scatter, scream, cops show up and what does she do? POW! A parting shot to the phone!

"They cuffed me right then," she says.

Her take on Comcast: "What a bunch of sub-moronic imbeciles."

Being a responsible newspaper, we must note that this is a misdemeanor, a crime, a completely inappropriate way of handling a business dispute.

Noted.

Who among us has not longed for a hammer in this age of incompetent "customer service representatives," of nimrods reading from a script at some 800-number location, of crumbs-in-their-beards plumbing installation people who tell you they'll grace you with their presence between 12 and 3, only never to show? And you'll call and call and finally some outsourced representative slings a dart at a calendar and tells you another guy will come back between 10 and 2 next Thursday? And when this guy comes, pants halfway down his behind, he'll tell you he brought the wrong part?

And ...

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