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It's Your Customer Service Homer
Commentary by netwebly |Archives: Spring 2000

Editor's note: The company in question (which we're still not naming) has taken steps to remedy many of the problems described in this article. Tech support size has been slashed by fifty percent. The company has also installed a large full-color picture of a cheerful looking person on it's support page.

It's Your Customer Service Homer
It's a given that the Information Age has permanently altered the way we live.
But in the process, we've become more dependent than ever on technology, leading to the first great irony of the 21st Century...Murphy's Law of Customer Service.

Namely, the more you need to use something, the less likely it is to work, meaning, by direct implication, the more likely it will be that you will be forced to call customer service for assistance and find yourself speaking with a person who will generally know less than you do about your problem but who will pretend to know more.

Consider the following evidence. Customer Service Representatives with the big five Computer manufacturers rely on scripts to answer commonly asked questions from customers. No big deal about that, until you think about how easy the practice makes it for poorly trained employees to slip through the system and end up..

....on the other end of the phone.

The end result?
Callers who make the mistake of not asking one of the questions exactly as it is worded in the script can find themselves in the twilight zone. Calls are put on hold for what can seem like hours as the rep runs to find a supervisor with the training to provide an acceptable answer. Or even worse, the rep may assume that your description of your problem matches an item on his list, when in reality, it's an entirely separate issue.

It will probably take him a really long time before he realizes he's been fixing the wrong problem. Bad things may happen first.

The situation at a major web hosting company on the East Coast is another case in point. Bear in mind, this isn't a mom & pop company operating out of somebody's garage or basement - this is a huge mulitimillion dollar (probably multibillion) company with clients all over the world.

Technical support at the company have come up with a unique method of insulating themselves from customer comments and questions. They've built an elaborate defense system around themselves, using a mix of technology and old customer service desk tricks to insulate themselves from the presumably annoying business of helping others.

How does it work?

As is becoming all to common these days with companies like this, the first line of defense is the company web site.

You could spend a week surfing through the company's extensive site, a state-of-the-art-affair built by one of the leading web site design firms on the east coast, and never find a telephone number for technical support.

You'd find plenty of ways to contact corporate sales, including phone numbers, email listings, even a live chat connection that will let you chat with a friendly sales rep. But you'll never find a number for technical support.

Because there isn't one.

Instead customers with technical problems are directed to the company's automated Trouble Ticket System, where customers can fill out a form to request assistance, which may or may not materialize in the form of an email response from a tech.

Which would be fine if the company was selling mail order sneakers. But imagine if your livelihood depended on keeping your company's web site up, open and ready for business.

Your web site crashes.

Suddenly no more customers. No more email. As a matter of fact, your company, as far as Internet presence is concerned, has ceased to exist. Your customers don't look at your web hosting company when they point a finger. They point it at you. And they may very well take their business to the competition after they finish pointing it..

So it's safe to say you're a little concerned when you arrive at work in the morning to find your web site is down. Knowing how the system works, you dutifully log on to the Trouble Ticket system and submit a cry for help.

Imagine how you feel an hour later when a computer generated email arrives in your inbox.

"Your Trouble Ticket has been received. You have been assigned case no. 89458kju874-B. Your problem has been assigned to Tech No. 87h334490987. Tech No. 87h334490987 is working to resolve the problem. You will be notified via email when the matter is resolved."

There's probably nothing the web site hosting company could do, short of sending you an animated greeting card of a pig giving you the finger, that could irritate you more.

Well...come to think of it..actually there is.

Because, under the circumstances, you probably won't sit at your desk, head in your hands, and wait for another automated email.

You'll get on the phone.

Applying your Sherlockian powers of deduction to the problem it will probably eventually occur to you, as it eventually occurs to most people, that the only way to speak with a live human being is to call the sales department.

Surprise.

In under a minute you're talking with a Sales Rep with a thick New Jersey accent, who seems a little irritated at having to field a problem, that in his opinion, has absolutely nothing to do with him.

You manage to get a number out of him, but only after managing to convince the exasperated man that you actually already are a paying customer and that you don't need an upgrade.

You feel a little guilty as you finally dial the number he gives you, then catch yourself, why should you feel badly? It's their fault.

The time you spend on hold waiting for technical support seems to pass quickly, even though in reality nearly half an hour passes between the first ring and the moment the tech picks up the phone. You're feeling better. You've managed to negotiate the system - overcome all the little obstacles thrown in your way. You feel as though you have entered the inner circle.

By the time the tech picks up the phone all of the frustration is forgotten, replaced by a sense that you've undergone a very real rite of passage.

Nothing can go wrong now. After all, you are now the owner of the secret tech support number. But that doesn't stop the tech from hanging up - before you've finished your first sentence.

It turns that the final line of defense at the web hosting company is the most difficult for customers to penetrate. Tech support has come up with a groundbreaking strategy that minimizes the amount of time any support agent has to waste handling customer complaints. They hang up.

You can be forgiven if this is all starting to sound absurd enough to be a fabrication. Unfortunately it's not.

It's an extreme example of tech support gone bad. The company in question clearly doesn't care what their customers think of their service, or problems like this would never be allowed to happen. The result is an undeclared state of war between the company and it's customers - the last thing any business can afford.

And the explanation for this sorry state of affairs?

All to often, according to industry insiders, the answer comes down to dollars and cents. If a company is doing enough business on the web, they may decide the advantages of providing customers with good technical support are outweighed by the economic costs associated with training technical support staff and maintaining a support center. Ironically, the more successful a company becomes, the more difficult (and expensive) it becomes to run a customer support system.

The web is crawling with such horror stories. Quite understandably, consumers are sick and tired of such treatment and are using technology to fight back.

If you're skeptical try this experiment. Think of a product you've purchased recently or one you're considering buying. Then do a search of the newsgroups for negative postings about that products manufacturer. (If it makes it easier, use a news service like Deja.com to filter posting on thousands of newsgroups).

What you turn up will probably surprise you. You may find two or three messages relating to your subject, but it's far more likely the number will be in the hundreds or possibly even the thousands.

Almost almost every major company doing business on the web has a significant problem in this area. Industry analysts rank poor customer service and technical support as one of the leading problems facing e-commerce.

Now you know why.

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