Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pinning my needle

I have dealt with my share of angry customers over the years. I actually find it easier to deal with them when they are screaming, for some reason; I think it might be because I know I can just hang up on them if they get too far out of hand and be totally justified in doing so. I've never had to hang up on a customer that I can recall, however.

"I'm listening," I say.

"I have been with your company for 27 years. TWENTY-SEVEN years!" he shouts. I turn the volume on my phone way down, and can still hear him loud and clear. "I pay my bills every single month..."

It's a failure on the part of our customer service department that the call has made it to my desk. For someone to be so out of sorts that he calls and asks for the person who runs the entire office, he must either be a chronic malcontent, or feeling completely ignored.

I don't mind taking a difficult call. I already get two or three a day, from agents, mostly. What makes me grind my teeth and snap pencils is that I am wasting time doing someone else's job. Definitely gotta get the customer service people up here right away to find out what is happening.

I mute the call. "Bonnie, get Denise from customer service up here. If she's in a meeting, get her out." If I'm going to have to take time out of my schedule to resolve this, so is she.

"....and then I get this goddamn notice of cancellation! Why am I getting this? What is this? What is it, Steve?"

"Albert, I understand you wanted to speak to someone in charge, and I'm happy to help you, but you have to understand that I'm not close to customer service issues, so it's gonna take me some time to get up to speed."

"I don't care about that! I want an answer!"

"Albert, just out of curiosity, have you spoken to customer service on this one?"

"Those people never return my damn calls!"

"So the last time you called was when?"

Pause. "IIIIII.... don't know. My wife called, I think. She's not home now."

This guy's full of shit. He went straight to me without even calling customer service first.

Denise bursts into my office, two manilla folders in hand.

"Albert, Denise has just joined me. She's our head of customer service."

"Hi, Albert, how are you today?"

I cringe. The worst thing you can do with an angry phone caller is ask them how they are. You already KNOW how they are: They're awful. And asking them about it just gives them the opportunity to tell you. Again.

"I'll be better once you tell me what you're doing with my money. I just read where your CEO got a huge bonus. Maybe THAT'S where all my money's goin'!"

Well, yeah, he does make an obscene salary, but he comes up with great lines, like 'What have you learned today?'!

"Albert, I did research this matter, and I found that you left a message in our service center voice mailbox at 6:15 last night, asking for resolution on a policy cancellation. One of my employees has been working on that for you. Our policy on cancellation notices is that the customer service rep is supposed to call you with a status immediately upon taking responsibility for the issue. That didn't happen, obviously, and for that I'd like to apologize, Albert."

Denise did four good things there: One, she went off on a long speech, which tends to calm things down; two, she used his name (twice); three, she apologized; and four, she explained what happened without making excuses or trying to pass the buck.

"Yeah? And what does that mean for me? Do I have insurance on my car or NOT?!"

Her voice remains even and calm. "We did find that you made all your payments timely, so I am faxing a reinstatment request to home office to make sure that coverage is reinstated immediately."

"I want confirmation that it was done!"

"Yes, of course, Albert. I'll fax that to you as soon as I get it back, if you have a fax machine. Otherwise, I will overnight that to you."


"I hope so. As soon as I get it, you'll get it."

"I want this resolved today," Albert says, noticeably less angry.

"I'll tell you what: If I don't hear from them by 4:30, I'll call for a status and get back to you."

Damn, she is good.

"Yeah, fine," Albert grumbles.

We end the call. Immediately, now that the crisis has passed, anger courses hotly through my body, rising from my feet up, like an advancing tide of molten lava.

You might be surprised that I wasn't more angry with Albert, but really, how could I be? He's a customer; he's paying for service, and he didn't get it. He got a very ominous-sounding letter in the mail, and when he called and left a message, he didn't get a call back. I'd be pissed too.

I can understand Albert's point of view. I am not sure I understand my own company's.

"Steve, I can explain," Denise says. "He left that message, and-"

"Denise. I understand. First of all, you did a great job with that call. I want you to know that."

"Thank you, Steve!"

Don't thank me too much, honey, cause the shit's about to hit the fan.