Adventures in customer service

I hate customer service. I hate needing it – companies make it difficult to reach a human being, and when you do get to a person it’s a crap shoot as to whether you’ll get someone who can even pretend to care, or who speaks English, or who is sitting in an office in this country, or who can answer your question or solve your problem.

Even more, I hate working in customer service. It’s basically what I’ve done nearly as long as I’ve worked in an office, and before, really – all those retail jobs were face-to-face customer service, where you don’t have the option of putting someone on hold and muttering about them. Someday I should post selections from by Barnes & Noble vent book; my fellow booksellers and I all had so many great Stupid Customer Stories that I finally picked up a five-subject notebook and wrote “B&N Vent Book” on the cover and left it on the break room table. It filled up in a matter of a couple of months. So did the second one (which vanished, alas). There’s some truly great stuff in that notebook.

My first “real” job was working the phones at Blue Cross, God help me. If I could survive that, I can survive anything – but I swore a solemn oath that I would never wear a headset again, and that I’d do something drastic before ever working as a customer service rep again. Yeah, well, easier said and all that.

While I have a couple or three good memories of BC/BS – talking to one elderly man about books in general and Christopher Morley in particular until the call lasted about 15 minutes and well into my lunch break; and then there was … um … er… anyway, while there was a good memory, and while I made some good friends among the other poor unfortunates in the office, I hated that job. An astonishing percentage of the people who called were insane – not being funny: there were two segments in particular who stood out from the rest as hatter-like, which I won’t name so as not to offend… except that one of the groups was those calling from dental offices. People have always seemed fairly normal when I’ve gone to my dentist, but I have to say the staff of two oral surgeons I’ve been to … *phew.* And nearly every single person who ever ended up on my line who was calling from a dental office was flaming barmy.

I learned a lot from that job; I learned a great deal about how not to handle a call from some of those around me, from being appalled at their responses to calls. I learned to use the phrase “you people” sparingly; it was nearly always spat out as if it meant “you evil spawn of Satan who have ruined my life and taken all of my money”. I try only to say “you people” when I mean that. I learned that humor in some situations can be a lifesaver, and in others is exactly the wrong approach, and that it’s not always all that easy to tell the difference.  I learned that putting someone on hold for a minute or so can calm them down – which is strange, because my fuse shortens in proportionto the amount of time I’ve had to listen to hold “music”.  I always try to get the name of the person I’m talking to, spelling included, because if necessary I can ruin *his* life, or, far more rarely, praise him to his boss. I learned to cut the customer service rep a little slack, because it’s a crappy, crappy job, and he probably doesn’t want to be there. That being said, I also learned to be a really and truly awful customer, because if the rep I’m talking to takes up that little bit of slack and goes for more, that doesn’t cut it. I never start out mean, never – but the second someone cops an attitude, or can’t be bothered to answer a reasonable question, or in any other way demonstrates his unwillingness to be on the other end of the phone call, all bets are off. Don’t want to be there? No worries. I’ll do my best to make it happen. And if I ask for a supervisor, you WILL get me a supervisor. I know – not pleasant. But I have had to summon up or feign compassion and know what I’m talking about and be willing to talk about it for longer than I care to think about. My employers have required it. My customers have required it. My own self-esteem and integrity required it. And I require it just as much from people I’m talking to.

I meant it quite seriously when I swore I’d have to be desperate to ever take on customer service again. It’s draining work; everyone who calls in is in a crisis of some kind or other, and every one of them expects a csr to drop everything and serve them. In any given day there are a thousand things that need doing, to which is added answering the &^@! phone, and to the time involved in simply answering the bloody damn phone is, about fifty percent of the time, added anywhere from five to fifty-five minutes in taking whatever action the call demanded. At BC, we were required to log every call, or at least most of them, but we weren’t allowed to take time in between calls to do so, so … I don’t know how people did it. I had a hell of a time. Nowadays, the routine is: me working on something, frequently involving a ruler to keep my place on a spreadsheet while I try to keep track without a ruler on the monitor, several highlighters, and a pen … and the phone rings in mid-formula. Five minutes later I am working on the return authorization or research or whatever fire I have to put out. In the middle of that, the phone rings again, with a new joyful surprise. Half an hour after that, with a few more price-and-availability calls in the midst for extra spice, and I finally pick up my ruler… and find that I have no idea where I left off. And given that accuracy is kind of vital to my job, it tends to make me just a tad short-tempered. I haven’t actually answered the phone with “Good afternoon, what the HELL do you want” – yet…

Anyway. What brought on this diatribe is, unsurprisingly, a call that happened today. I rate it at among the top ten worst calls ever, on any job. It doesn’t surpass the Worst Call Ever: in which a doctor’s office called to find out why a boy’s coverage lapsed; I had to tell them that although the boy had cancer, his father somehow neglected to sign him up for extended coverage when he turned 18, and, well, it was too late to re-up him … upon which the office person passed me on to the doctor himself (never a good sign. No offense to physicians who don’t deserve to be offended, but in my experience doctors are usually arrogant pricks, and when brought in on customer service calls, ALWAYS), to whom I explained again, and who informed me that I’d better be happy, because this made me a murderer. I called him a son of a bitch as he hung up, which I don’t think he heard, or I’m sure he would have gotten me fired (do me a favor). I should have taken his name so that I could call him periodically and ask him how his choice to charge obscene amounts of money for cancer treatment so that this boy required the coverage his idiot father failed to provide him could continue to survive didn’t make HIM a murderer. The finale of the story was when I told the whole thing to the department manager – not the horrible evil one that I named one of the villains of my book after, the good one who took over from her – and she managed to get the poor kid reinstated.

So today’s didn’t involve my being accused of a crime… but. The upshot was that the caller had one of our lights, which was purchased through a company whose name he pronounced incorrectly, and a part broke. And the distributor told him to call us. For which I would love to send them a lovely thank-you gift; a stinkbomb, perhaps, or dead roses. Anyway, the man wasn’t entirely coherent – not drunk, not English-as-a-second-language, not elderly – he had none of those excuses. He was just a moron. He did have the model number of the light, which is one up on many callers – but after that’s where it went pear-shaped. What part was it that he needed? The plastic piece that swivels. Believe it or not, that doesn’t narrow it down enough to be helpful. A few minutes in his circumlocutory manner was making the eyes roll back in my head; no one, including me, ever has much luck describing parts that they’re looking at and the other person isn’t. One man’s starter is another man’s little kind of round white plastic thing. I’ve pretty much learned when I can or can’t figure out what someone’s talking about, and the surest method I’ve found is: “Can you take a digital picture of the light, and the part you need replaced, and email it to me?” That would in this case be a no – No one had a camera. And why did I need a picture, anyway, when he had so clearly described exactly what he needed. I tried to explain the little fact of life we call the BOM: the bill of material. In this case it was three pages of parts to choose from:


I’ve been doing this for a year and a half. I still always can’t match part names with … parts. I don’t know what this man was thinking I had in front of me, perhaps a detailed diagram with all parts tagged. I don’t have that. I have a photograph, and I have a BOM, and never the twain shall meet. But he described what he needed, said he. I told him again that I had no idea what part he was describing. He suggested that maybe if he spoke more slowly I would understand. I didn’t call him an SOB – I was too stunned. In all the years I’ve been doing this crap I’ve never had someone vocally slam my intelligence. Tone of voice, yes; actually as much as saying I must be stupid, no. After telling him that there was no need to be rude, I was trying to help him, stupid *&^@!, I did what I usually do – I sweetened my voice and stood my ground. That’s how you can tell I’m pissed on the phone – my voice is dripping with saccharine. I suggested that I could send him the BOM and he could just pick out what he needed… yeah, no. So I asked him for his name and number so that I could check with someone else and call him back… Why? He had so clearly and accurately described what he needed. It looked just like in the picture. I just kept pushing for his bloody name and his damn phone number, and finally got “Robert” out of him. Phone number? He didn’t know, he had to ask the guy at the desk. Really. I heard him confirm with that person that his name was Robert too. I repeated his detailed description back to him – he needed the plastic piece between the head and the arm that swiveled, and was the only plastic piece in that part of the light. And though it took me a couple more explanations that I wasn’t any more able to give him an answer now than I was two minutes ago the last time he said how he didn’t understand how I could not know exactly what he was talking about, I finally detached him to take the BOM and go ask the production manager. Lo and behold, he actually did give me enough information: there is only one plastic piece in that part of the light. It’s the control knob, which you turn one way to loosen so that you can position the head of the light, and tighten so that it stays where you put it. Knob. It’s a knob. That’s a fairly common English word. Knobs turn. They do not “swivel”. At no time did Robert the Brilliant and Offensive ever mention the useful little details that the part he broke had anything to do with positioning the head… So I called back. I have no idea what the person who answered the phone said when he answered it; it didn’t sound like what Robert had called the place. I said who I was and asked for Robert. Thus was begun one of the least coherent excuses for a conversation I’ve ever had. I think he said “Que?” Or maybe not … I asked if I was calling where I thought I was calling. I don’t know what he said in reply. We went back and forth a couple of times – I don’t think he was speaking Spanish, but I … dunno. Just as I was about to acknowledge that I had the wrong number and hang up, someone else came on the line – it was Robert. Yay. I identified myself, and he said I had been speaking to … his assistant. His …? An assistant who had to a) check what his name was and b) didn’t know the telephone number? Really.

What I should have done was find out how long they’d had the lamp, try to weasel out how the thing broke (if it just broke and it’s still covered, warranty replacement; you broke it by being a moron, you bought a new one)… I couldn’t do it. It would have involved talking to these people longer.

The only thing I liked about Terry Goodkind’s book Wizard’s First Rule was the explanation of the title; it’s something I live by. Wizard’s First Rule? People are idiots.

Amen. Oh, and Robert, wherever you are: you’re an idiot AND a jerk.

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2 Responses to Adventures in customer service

  1. accountantgrrl says:

    I have a very interesting link for you:

    It sounds like they need your Barnes and Noble stories.

  2. stewartry says:

    Oh, that’s a glorious site! You’re right, the B&N stuff would fit right in … Thank you!

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