Further adventures in customer service, unavoidable

I won’t even get into more than a gloss on the YankeeGas fiasco.  That consisted of trying to pay the statement for work, and going through the automated system with the credit card.  After an eight-minute round of “press 1” “enter number” etc., I came up against “Your payment has been declined.”  Er?  Long – very long – – very, very long, and traumatic – story short: there was plenty of money in the account and we were all paid up and stuff, and the credit card company said the vendor accepted then returned the payment; YankeeGas’s credit card processing center – which is, ironically, J.P. Morgan Chase, the same as the credit card, and which is, infuriatingly, in India – said we had to contact the bank and have the payment released.

Bank/credit card JPMC: No you don’t, that’s ridiculous, no such thing.
YankeeGas JPMC: Yeah you do, and the joke’s on you because you stayed on hold for forty-five minutes to get a null answer.
CC JPMC: Nuh uh.
YG JPMC: Yeah huh.
Me: *whimper*

Oh – the best part of it was that the first guy said the payment was on hold.  The second guy said the payment was on void status.  The supervisor said both, I think – so when I got to the manager I asked (demanded, if you want to be all accurate) what it was – is the payment on hold status or void status?  “It’s on void status.”  What does that mean? My hand to God, the response: “It means it’s on hold.”

After almost three hours over three days and five phone calls – two of which had to be made by the warehouse manager to CC JPMC because he’s the cardholder and I’m not authorized, which required extensive explanation and re-explanation (which is my experience here is something like “introduce forehead to desktop with great force.  Repeat.  Repeat”) – and an escalation on the last YG call from rep to floor supervisor to manager (who was as useless as the rep) – I planted a big white flag and, clinging to it, turned the whole mess over to the home office.

What sparked this new customer service post – believe me, after that whole mess left my hands I didn’t want to think about it again – is a call I had to make to a freight carrier today.  We had an order that HAD TO go out today, and HAD TO arrive tomorrow, or the world would end.  Warehouse manager asked me to call the freight carrier – which shall remain nameless (FCWSRN) because they’re actually really pretty good in general – and make sure it was delivered early-ish today, because last time they delivered it was late in the afternoon.  This had to come earlier because it was going back out again today, by the same carrier that was to deliver it, and one of the biggest pains about this carrier is a hard and fast no exceptions rule that all calls for pickups have to be in by 2:30.  (It doesn’t matter that a driver might be in the area – might be at Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner – nope: 2:40, no dice.)  So I called this morning and was told the shipment … wasn’t there.  Er-??  No – it was either still in Philadelphia, or it was in Newark.  The person I spoke to would find out and call me back.  ‘Kay … When she did, though it was to tell me that the shipment was not in Philadelphia, but she didn’t know where exactly it *was*.

She was very helpful; she made several calls to get the situation straightened out; she came back to me with a solution and the offer that some, though not all, of the charges that would have been involved with getting the shipment to us today would be taken on by her company.  She didn’t have the greatest manner in the universe, but she got the job done, and I don’t want to go out for coffee with her, just to find out what was going on.  She was competent, she was not obsequious (which is what happens when the rep doesn’t care in the manner of “CYA” – “if I sound perky and say all the things they’ve told us we hafta say, then I won’t score too low on this call no matter what!”): she had a personality, is what I’m trying to say, and for that I bless her.  (The fact that she of necessity was located in the US is something I’m also happy about.  A day without Indian customer service is like a day without locust plagues.)

There was only one thing I could fault her on, but that thing’s kind of big: she told me she didn’t know where the freight was.  That was worrying.  Does that mean it’s in Newark?  Or – is it lost?  Because that’s usually what “I don’t know where it is” means.

I was in hardcore customer service for two years, and then admin/customer service … ever since, and one thing I learned – I think they might have even taught it at the first place – was that you NEVER give someone a wedge like that.  Ever.  I worked – for my sins – at a health insurance company, and, my children – don’t, unless you’re a masochist.  But it was a valuable teaching tool, kind of like being attacked a couple of times by teeming piranha would teach you how to paddle a boat better in the future.  I learned that you always have to *appear* to be in some form of control.

The person on the other end of the call is there because they have a Problem.  It could be just a question – what’s the coverage for prenatal testing, to stick with the insurance co – ?  Or it could be a small problem – they lost their card and need a new one.  Or it could be medium-sized – their claim was denied, this is the first time ever, it’s not that big, but why?  Or it could be huge and all they can think about and they’ve been losing sleep over it since they got the mail when they got home from work on Friday and customer service was closed and they had to wait till Monday morning to call and oh my God! In all of these cases there’s one thing that should be kept in mind for a rep: Never allow any indication that you’re not sure.  Even if you’re not sure.  Find out first, but in such a way that they don’t lose confidence in you – because if they lose confidence in you, it’s only all downhill from there.  It’s like sticking yourself with an x-acto knife when you’re swimming with sharks – you’re asking for it.  If you don’t know, don’t let *them* know that: never say “I don’t know”.  Ever.  I’m not saying to lie, by any means – my firm belief is that there is rarely an excuse to lie, and that lying for trivial reasons – in other words, not to avoid hurting someone, which is the only valid reason I can think of – is usually inexcusable – but phrase your responses in such a way that you give the other person no reason to freak out.  Be a writer, in other words: think about what you need to say and choose how you present it.

If – going back to the point of this mess – you don’t know where my shipment is, you should let me know that – but not by saying flat out “I don’t know where your shipment is”.  Choose your words.  Had I been in her chair, I think what I would have said was “There isn’t anything in the system to show my why, but your shipment isn’t here in Hartford.  It looks like it might be in Newark, but I haven’t heard back from them yet; I was just about to check in with them again when you called. You need it there today, you said?  Okay, let me give Newark a call and see if they’re able to get it right out, and I’ll give you a call back in just a few minutes?”   And when I called back I would have the details of where it was, how soon it could ship, and how much it would cost – and how much of that cost would land on the customer.  And a solid reason why on earth they should pay it.

There’s nothing wrong with not knowing.  Of course.  You’re not expected to know everything.  The thing is, you need to assure the caller that what you do know, you’re certain of, and what you don’t know you will find out.  And if it takes a few minutes to find out is when you say “let me call you back”.

If it’s a low-angst kind of situation – are vitamin D injections covered? – then it’s not a problem for a rep to say “I’ve never had that question before – let me check for you! Can you hold on?”  But if it’s one of the big ones, I don’t think those three little words are a good idea.  I learned not to give people sticks that they could beat you with – because while some won’t take advantage of the opportunity, there are certainly – boy howdy – some who will.  “What do you mean you ‘don’t know’?  You should know!”  Today, had I been a more hysterical personality, or PMSing to a very bad degree, or had I been the one at the receiving end of the calls and emails from the customer saying the world would end if this material wasn’t in their building by tomorrow lunch (I wasn’t, the sales rep was), I might have done a little mild stick-waving.  You don’t KNOW?  How can you not know where this shipment is?  Unless there was a massive computer failure – which is the only size computer failure a customer should ever be aware of – you damn well should know.  And now you’re saying that not only do you not know, but if it is where you think it is then we won’t get it here early enough to have your own same company ship it today, which is stupid, AND you want to charge us an obscene amount of money to get it here today – which, did I mention, was when it was expected to arrive, and when it wasn’t our fault in any way that it didn’t?

I don’t think she apologized, either, come to think.  Never underestimate the power of a decent apology.  It has to, though, sound like you’re genuinely sorry this happened and you wish you could do something – a generic “I’m sorry for the inconvenience” doesn’t cut it.  I know full good and well that’s what you’ve been trained to say – it doesn’t cut it.  Customer service managers take note.

Oh.  And.  If someone is calling because of a huge problem, one of those haven’t-slept ones, it’s best not to bring yourself as the rep into the conversation.  It isn’t about you.  “I understand your frustration”?  No, you don’t, and it’s a condescending waste of breath for you to say that.  And even if you do understand, I don’t care – this call is not about you.  This is a blight on MY life – I don’t want to know anything about you except that you can fix it.  If you can’t, get out of the way and get me someone who can.

Shockingly, I forgot the reason I was channeling that haven’t-slept OMG-on-Friday feeling.  A couple of weeks ago I called the credit union to see what the checking account balance was.  It wouldn’t acknowledge me.  Oh, dopey – I typed an “0” instead of a “2” in the account number.  Re-entered.  It still wouldn’t acknowledge the account number.  I tried again, thinking I must have typed the wrong number – I never will understand why some number keypads have 1-2-3 on the bottom row and some on the top.  Nope.  I hit the button for customer service, and of course they had already closed – it was about 4:45.  And of course it was Friday.

I had just gotten myself re-established on the website, so I went there.

It wouldn’t let me in either.

About then I started to panic.  Well, no – about then I really started to panic; it had been growing since the second “I’m sorry” on the automated line.

I had a small deposit to make, so I stopped by the credit union ATM.  It took the deposit with no problem – oh thank God! – but … the balance the receipt gave was the amount that I had just deposited.  I knew that there either had to be a lot more in there – or that, although I didn’t know of any checks out in the wild, something had gone horribly wrong and we were not only overdrawn but over our overdraft – that was the only thing I could think of.

It was a crappy weekend.

First thing Monday morning I called, of course.  I explained what had happened, and the rep committed a crime in the eyes of my original customer service employer: he said “No problem”.  Don’t say that.  It is a problem, and has been for about 65 hours.  I held my peace, though.  He would reset the password, he said.  The website and the automated phone service were linked, he said, so if I accidentally locked myself out of one I’d be locked out of both.  That’s when I started to simmer a little – because I didn’t lock myself out – I’ve screwed up entering my account number or password before and not gotten locked out … In the event, there was plenty of money in the account.  “What happened, then?”  He tentatively ventured the “locked out” thesis again, and I pointed out that getting locked out wouldn’t affect the ATM.  Oh.  Right.  He put me on hold.

That’s right, I said I’d come back to being on hold.  It’s a funny thing; on that first job especially something I noticed was that if someone called in ripping mad, and I politely put them on hold for a minute or so, when I came back to them a lot of the temper had boiled off.  It happened quite often.  Co-workers noticed it too.  It didn’t make much sense, unless they were sitting there feeling assured that while they were waiting we were off busily trying to fix their problems.  I can’t say that the hold-cool-off method has ever worked on me – partly because now phones have little timers on them that tell you how long you’ve been on a call.  That’s how I know that when I called YG JPMC and was transferred to the supervisor I had to wait eleven minutes on hold with hideous noise.  I wasn’t happy when I got put on hold – I was far less happy when I was picked up.  So, though it can be efficacious, I can’t recommend this…

So.  My little rep came back before the hold had stretched too long, and said, basically – you guessed it, I’ll bet: “I don’t know”.  Not encouraging.  Not confidence-building.  But everything was okay, so I let it go.  If it happens again I’ll call in late go sit on the credit union’s stoop and wait for them to show up the next morning.

(Um.  That’s right.  Why didn’t I just go down there that Saturday morning?  I didn’t have to wait for customer service… Wow.  That’s … strange.)

It’s a minefield, customer service.  It’s hard to do well.  I think I’m pretty good at it – I haven’t been yelled at in many years, which could be telling – but I do know I’ve benefited as much by listening to those who were bad as to those who were better than me.  I.  Whatever.

One reason the customer service relating to the YankeeGas thing was so very (VERY) bad – apart from the fact that of the three hours I spent on the phone more than half was on hold (with some seriously hideous music) (I’ll come back to that) – was that they didn’t give a rat’s hind end.  I was transferred from the rep to the supervisor with no preparation on their end – which meant that I had to tell my story for the second time, and by then it was getting long (not that I’m capable of telling a short story when I’m wound up).  This should not happen.  Just like someone should never be transferred into someone’s voicemail without being asked if that’s what they want, they should never be transferred to someone who has no clue what kind of call they’re picking up.  It’s a terrible way to treat the customer – who now has to waste another ten minutes trying to bring the new person up to speed (no, I TRIED that already) – but also the coworker/higher up.  I’ve said before that I’m a terrible customer when I meet with terrible customer service – and I was pretty bitchy by the time I got to the last link in that chain.

And part of that bitchiness was the fact that it was a call center in India.  That could open up a can of worms – as someone whose blog I’ve been engrossed in lately would say, it could be sticking my hand into a blender – but can back it up.  Said customer service job for the insurance company ended because they wanted to regionalize service.  Instead of each state’s office handling its own calls, all of New England’s was balled up and given to Maine, and my department was closed down.  (We won an award that year – which was given, you might say, posthumously.  We had a dinner and everything.  Irony’s not even the word.)  So I’m not a big fan of taking jobs out of one area and moving them elsewhere.  I know, I hated the job – but I loved some of the people, and I didn’t fancy being unemployed.  A hateful job is better than none when you have bills to pay.  I did manage to find an admin job in the same company, and while I was there the director I was working for started researching something called “Outsource Offshore”.  I had no idea what it was – and when, a while later, I learned, I was … horrified isn’t strong enough.

There are two reasons I hate Indian – and other very very offsite – customer service.  It has nothing to do with country in which the office is located, nothing.  I would feel exactly the same way if the offices in question were located in the heart of Ulster (though I’d be a lot more geeked out to start with).  It has to do with two very simple and basic facts:

1) If someone in India is doing the job, that means that someone in America is not.  The secondary consideration here is that the someone in India is being paid like a serf, but that isn’t my main concern, sorry.  I’ve been too often without a job to be happy about that.  I hate doing customer service – but see above about hateful jobs.  I don’t want to find out that I can’t get a job doing something I’m pretty good at (even though I hate it) because they’ve all gone overseas.

2) 999 times out of a thousand, if not more, the someone in India does not have English as their first language.  This is incredibly awkward at best, impossible at worst.  My mortgage company has an Indian customer service office.  So here I am, calling a foreign office about something which can be … delicate.  It is not helpful when the person you’re speaking to – about something very important – has such a thick accent that even a fairly quick ear can’t make out what they’re saying.  (Case in point – when the sundry reps at JPMC kept giving me the sundry versions of the payment status, I finally had to ask – are you saying “Void, v-o-i-d?”  Because, technically, they weren’t saying void.  They were saying “woid”.  Yes, Pavel Chekov came to mind, and it was strange.)  Basically, my position a little ways in on a call like this is that I’m already disgruntled because of the stolen jobs, and now the rep has just rattled off a speech that sounds like he learned it by rote.  Now, sure, kudos to someone who can hold down a job using a language other than the one he speaks at home.  I couldn’ t man a customer service line in France, and I took French for years.  For emigrating, well done.  For discussing complicated situations – and believe me, I ain’t calling customer service till it be complicated – and trying to understand and be understood … Please send the jobs back here.  We need them.

This is already much longer than I intended – can’t believe I blocked out the credit union thing – but there is one more thing, which I touched on with the “void/hold” stupidity.  If you’re speaking to a customer, speak like the customer.  It took me over a year to figure out what a “share account” was at the credit union.  I wasn’t paying attention or something, but to me it is, was, and ever shall be “savings” and “checking”.  If you want to call it a “share account” in meetings and memoranda, fine.  If you’re talking to me, it’s checking.  And don’t ever-so-gently correct me if I say “checking” – see above.  If the payment is on hold, say it’s on hold.  I don’t care what your computer says the status is.  I didn’t have the forty-five minutes of training that you did.  Read your screen.  If it says “Void”, then translate that in your mind (oh wait – they already were) – out of the jargon of your company to what a layperson will understand.  Don’t use acronyms that you use in the office unless it’s something like NATO or BTVS.  I don’t know that a OOCH is an Order On Credit Hold (ooch!  Hee.  Yes, I just made that up.  Can I keep it?), so if you’re talking to me about one, call it … an order on credit hold.  Companies have stupid and weird names for things.  Try to remember back before you were indoctrinated into the corps of jargon-users.

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