By Barry Maher
Customer service sometimes seems like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but no one is doing anything about it. At least nothing good. I have a vague recollection that once, in the distant past, people did business with large companies and major brand names because we thought they were likely to be trustworthy.
Nowadays however . . .
My long distance calls are handled by a telecommunications giant that shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say that their initials are AT&T. A while back, I was trying to call one of my vendors. But every time I dialed the number, I got a recorded message. “Sorry, your call can not be completed at this time. Please try again later.”
This went on for hours. Since I was calling New Hampshire I assumed it was a rural area and maybe the string had broken between a couple of the tin cans or perhaps Indians had cut the lines. Still this is the 21st century even in much of New Hampshire, and I figured that five or six hours should be more than sufficient to complete a phone call. Eventually, I dialed the operator. For her, the call went through immediately. Unfortunately by that time the office I was calling was closed.
A few weeks later, I got my phone bill. The charge for the one-minute operator assisted call—which actually must have been considerably less than one minute—was $10.88! Plus tax.
Now I have no doubt that the operator’s time is worth $652.80 per hour ($10.88 per minute x 60 minutes). At least it is to her. And I’m sure AT&T is paying her close to that. But it wasn’t as if I’d used her assistance because I was too lazy or too incompetent to dial the call myself. I’d had to go to her because the service I was paying AT&T for wasn’t working.
Since phone bills are more difficult to decipher than the average CIA code, normally I never even would have caught this type of charge. But I got lucky on this one. And I complained about it. At least I did after I finally stumbled through their voice-recognition labyrinth (suggested motto: We raise our productivity by lowering yours) and unearthed a human being, a customer service rep.
The rep sounded like Mr. Rogers—if you can imagine an exasperated, long suffering Mr. Rogers. “You did,“ he sighed, “have the option of continuing to try the call yourself. That would have cost you nothing.”
Somehow this failed to appease me. It wasn’t the money, you understand it was the prin . . . No, come to think of it, it was the money.
But almost immediately he said, “Well, I can lower this charge for you. I’ll give you a credit.”
I accepted the credit of course. But from a customer service standpoint, offering the credit was almost worse than the original charge. It was like admitting it wasn’t justified. Because he wasn’t saying, “The charge was a mistake. I’m sorry. We try not to make mistakes but when we do, we fix them.” It seemed more like, “We’re going to do our best to screw you but if you’re vigilant enough to catch us, we’ll make it right.”
How much has AT&T spent over the years trying to build consumer trust? And of course they’re hardly the only major company that seems to have adopted this type of let-the-buyer-beware practice recently.
Nowadays, the strategy for many corporations appears to be, “When the customers notices what we’re up to, maybe they’ll just assume that competition is as sleazy as we are and they won’t bother to take their business elsewhere.” Or maybe it’s, “Let’s just do whatever we can do to make our goals for this quarter. Maybe we can cash in our stock options and get out before the backlash hits.”
I guess it’s both a lesson and an opportunity for those of us who run much smaller businesses.