Operators Used To Be Standing By

Much as I enjoy marketing guru Seth Godin’s insight into the twisted world of self-deception, he went a step too far.

When did companies start talking about, “unexpectedly high call volume?”

Are they really so inept at planning that the call volume is unexpected? For months at a time?

Even non-legacy companies like OpenTable are using it to describe their email load.

Once an institution starts glibly lying, it’s a slippery slope. A reality distortion field moves from on-hold time to diesel emissions.

Let’s be clear. Nobody, with the possible exception of someone’s grandma, believes that customer services is “experiencing a higher than expected call volume.”  Nobody believes that they are there to provide you “with excellent customer service.” Nobody believes they “understand your frustration.”  Nobody believes they are “sorry for the inconvenience.” Nobody believes they give a flying shit.  And that’s especially when true when there’s the faint accent of Tagalog when saying it.

This is you, Seth. This is you and your kind. This is someone who sells their marketing mojo telling companies that if you say these empty, lying words, customers who need something addressed will somehow be magically transported to a land of unicorns prancing on rainbows.

We’ve gotten used to the lies, but if you think the problem is that we think that they didn’t really “anticipate” that higher call volume, then you’re smoking crack.  We understand it’s a script, a bunch of words some marketeering expert came up with that has now been repeated (without having to pay for the cool words) by every business that has a customer service telephone number and a trunk line to exotic places.

It’s bad enough that we have to endure this nonsense, especially when it’s that whiny, recorded voice that American Express uses to create the appearance of empathy, as if all callers really want is to have someone cry sad tears over their “inconvenience,” but to suggest that there is anything remotely legit about it is insulting.  Do you think we’re morons, like the asshole who came up with these nonsensical tummy rubs? Do you think we don’t realize that this is a full length coat woven of lies?

And yet, you add insult to injury:

On the other hand, consider what happens if you start by telling the truth about little things. “To save money for our customers and investors, we keep our support team lightly staffed. Please wait patiently a few days and we’ll get back to you…”

Well, it has the virtue of being slightly less dishonest.  But if you think that’s a solution, then you really need to cut out the crack.  Here’s the problem, Seth. Lying about why you’re screwing your customers (remember, they’re calling because they have a problem, not because they’re lonely and really want someone to chat with them) isn’t an order of magnitude different than telling a slightly less flagrant lie about why you’re screwing your customers.

Businesses don’t keep their call centers “lightly staffed” because of concern for keeping costs low for their customers.  They off-shore them, they give them no authority to fix problems, they hand them a script rather than teach them anything about the product, because it saves the company money and they figure they can get away with it.

And businesses don’t even do it for their investors.  No corporations stock price skyrockets because of the huge savings in the call center.  Indeed, if they actually produced products that worked, all the time, and didn’t screw up all the ancillary functions such that pissed off consumers had to call, all the time, they could not only save a fortune, but enjoy mass adoration of their product by consumers.  That would increase quarterly profits, which would raise the stock price and benefit investors.

But that doesn’t happen, does it.  Aside from Zappos, and maybe a couple others, the idea of actually doing the right thing is just as foreign to American business as the gal who claims her name is “Sue” on the phone.

So cutting the shit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though no one believes it and, at least for me, it irks me every time I have to waste that half second of my life while the voice mail tells me how much it loves me and values my throwing my money down their toilet.  But if you think that’s the problem, that switching out the old bunch of lies for the new bunch of lesser lies, then you understand nothing about consumers.

We get it. We’re treated like fools and idiots, and still we pay money for whatever shiny widget they build.  We can’t stop ourselves from buying, no matter how crappy the product may be, and so anyone stupid enough to purchase the business’ mutt has already proven themselves willing to endure being treated like crap.

But for god’s sake, Seth, don’t rub our noses in it, as if we don’t know.  We know.  We’re the ones whose time is lost forever while our very simple words are repeated back to us, at half speed, by Sue. Or Jane. Or Bill, because so many young men in Bangalore are named Bill.  It’s bad enough we tolerate being treated like morons without you doubling down on us.  Got any more of that crack?

19 comments on “Operators Used To Be Standing By

  1. Turk

    Oddly enough, if you ask for sales instead of customer support, there is always an operator ready for you.

  2. Amy Alkon

    Air Canada has now, without my request or consent, changed my flight to a science conference in Vancouver three times — each time more inconvenient for me to arrive/depart than the last. Had I changed my flight three times, I’d be out $600.

    I am now missing the opening talk. Their suggestion — and I promise you, I am not making this up — that I cancel my flight (bought months in advance to save money) and buy a new, very expensive ticket on United. Their other suggestion was that they switch me to the United flight (one of their airline partners) and then call them and beg them for a seat, because they couldn’t/wouldn’t do this for me. (I get motion-sick, so I pay extra for a seat at the front of the plane — as I did on Air Canada.)

    On the bright side, I once held on the phone for two hours to talk to Air Canada (when I had to fly to Toronto for my last book); they now call you back instead of adequately staffing their phone lines.

    So, in short, I bought a ticket on Air Canada, and it has eaten up my time and caused me stress.

    I try to avoid flying them, knowing how they seem annoyed by their customers and uninterested in serving them, but sometimes, a girl just has to drag her ass to Canada, and they’re often the best way there.

    1. SHG Post author

      Do you realize the Pandora’s Box it would open to have everyone offer their top three war stories with customer service? But fortunately, yours will be the only one.

  3. Fyodor

    Once again Scott’s relentless optimism and unjustified faith in human nature is causing him to miss the main point. The terribleness of the customer service experience for many companies is designed intentionally to keep you from using customer service. You won’t ask for corrections on your cable bill if doing so takes three hours. It’s a feature not a bug.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      “is designed intentionally”

      Yeah, sometimes that backfires on them. If a perceived injustice is terrible enough to contemplate calling a dozen times and being on hold for a cumulative total of multiple hours over multiple days, then it’s terrible enough to spend 10 minutes searching the Form 10-K for the name of the general counsel, or searching the state database for the registered agent, and then figuring out the corporate email standard (or, more often, actually finding the name online associated with a corporate email address) and dashing off an email.

      I’ve done this over a dozen times now, and have always been pleased with the results.

      1. SHG Post author

        I think that’s Fyodor’s point, that they will gladly buy you off to rid themselves of 50 others who lack your tenacity and gumption.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          I agree with that point. My point is that they’ve arguably gone too far. If enough people figure out that it actually takes less gumption to start with the legal people first than it does to place that phone call to customer service, the companies will be overwhelmed. And they’ll probably have a harder time ignoring those emails, because notice.

      2. losingtrader

        That’s 2 of us.
        I use to call one of the airlines just to show people there was always really bad weather 24/7/365 causing phone delays. Strange how the bad weather disappeared on the Elite line.

  4. Maz

    In a past life, I was the guy poking numbers into an Excel (well, Quattro, actually) spreadsheet, trying to fake my way into an Erlang C staffing estimate. My experience at the time was that call centers that were part of a corporate profit center (eg, sales, marketing) based staffing on anticipated MTTA (mean time-to-answer) — for instance: how many seats need butts in them for us to answer all incoming calls by the fourth ring? Call centers funded by a *cost* center (eg, operations, support), on the other hand, were driven more by the desire to minimize idle time: Sure, if we hire 3 more for the day shift, we’ll drop our time-to-answer by nearly a minute — *but* for much of the shift, nearly 20% of the operators would be sitting, idle, awaiting their next call. As you mention, it wasn’t that having to pay another couple of folks minimum wage would bankrupt the place; instead, it was worry that executives or customers touring the center might witness employees in a state of [temporary, peripatetic] leisure.

    On an equally unrelated and equally off-topic note, I grew up in a particularly pathetic stretch of Southside Virginia. One of the few growth industries in the area is the call center biz — largely due to a Mexico City-based firm having selected the town as *their* off-shore source for cheap, relatively non-mobile labor. Yes, unemployment is still at such levels there Third World countries can afford to outsource *back* services we’d previously outsourced *to* them. (Even better, the residents quite nearly speak English.)

  5. Greg

    I read 25 years ago in the Wall Street Journal that has stuck with me ever since:

    The author, who had recently returned to New York from living for several years in Tokyo, complained about the lousy customer service she had recently received in Bloomingdales. She contrasted it with the always-excellent customer service in Japan and described something that had happened to her. She had gone to a store, bought a stereo and brought it home. The next day, there was a knock on her door. It was the store manager. Bowing low and apologizing profusely, he explained that they had accidentally sold her the floor sample. As soon as they had discovered their error, they had called her credit card company, explained the problem and asked for her address. The card company wouldn’t give it to them for confidentiality reasons, so the CEO of the company had called the head of the card company, who had released the information. The manager had brought a new stereo, along with a technician to install it. He had also brought his assistant, who was carrying several gifts to show their remorse. And they had refunded the cost of the stereo.

    I’d be curious to know how much that ethic survives in Japan today.

  6. LTMG

    The airline excuse that really sets me of is the one they trot out when there will be a late departure “…due to the late arrival of the aircraft.” The late arrival of the aircraft is a symptom of a deeper cause of some sort. This excuse is especially galling when I arrive at the gate, previous passengers are long gone, and the plane is clearly sitting there waiting for a new load of passengers.

    I have to imagine that customer service reps in call centers located in some low wage corner of the world have little time for customers with good critical thinking skills who can see through the obfuscation.

    1. SHG Post author

      Distinguish the systemic corp problems (why the plane was late) from the customer service script telling them to lie to customers. The CSR is the low man on the totem pole, and they certainly have no control over why the plane is late or the products suck. They also have no control over mouthing the lies on the script, as they’re paid to tell lies.

      On the other hand, they have a choice, once the absurdity of the lie is pointed out, to either try to help or persist in the lie. At that point, they’re responsible for their handling of the lies. The CSRs I most appreciate are the ones who admit it’s all a sham and that they have no authority to fix anything.

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