One of my least favorite things when you have a billing error with a major company is being told I don’t know how businesses work. It’s not that I don’t understand a company’s policies — I may or may not — it’s that company policies usually suck for the little guy. When a company error costs an individual a few hundred dollars, that may be small beans for the corporation at fault, but it’s no small issue for the person at home sitting on their hands and waiting for resolution.
After well over ten years with my hosting company, I decided to pull the plug last week over a billing error. This latest fiasco — where my hosting company took $300 out of my bank account after I expressly asked them not to renew my services — is like being robbed, but because I’m “only” without that money for 5-10 business days I’m supposed to be okay with it. I asked customer service what they could do for me as a long time customer who had told them not to charge me for the very thing I was charged for, and the answer was nothing. They can reimburse me, or sell me another three years of service at a discount. After several days of runaround, several calls into customer service employees who were rude and impatient with me, (and three business days and five calendar days later, still waiting for my coin) I decided to go elsewhere.
A million years ago, I worked for Comcast, and it was exactly like this. I spent about three years at Comcast in the slums of customer service, and I was the person on the phone or at the counter who helped you — or didn’t.
I know, I know. Forgive me, it was a recession.
At this kind of company, as with web hosting, the social contract is that the company bills regularly for a utility (cable, web hosting, cellular service, whatever) and the customer expects continuous service at a set price for little to no maintenance. The customer doesn’t want to have to call in and finagle with the details, they just want the service to work and for billing to be predictable. And usually it is! Everyone is more or less happy with this arrangement until something goes wrong.
The system is great when it works, but when it isn’t, it’s a consumer hell. Then, the customer wants fast and cheap resolution to the problem, and rightly so, because the investment for the person whose been billed at a regular term now has significant money and time invested in this company and expects the company to have a similar investment in the customer’s happiness with the product. But companies aren’t made to work like that. They mostly don’t care, are slow, and push customer service representatives to the front line to take the customer’s anger.
I know it sometimes doesn’t seem like your CSR cares about your plight, but they probably do, or did until they were subjected to hours of complaints, sighs, abusive language, and otherwise clipped and unpleasant interactions all day to earn a paycheck. They care, but they’re usually underpaid, disrespected, and unappreciated, and rarely have good resolution tools to help a customer with, because their real function is to be the buffer between unhappy customers and the operations of the company. So much customer service training is spent on telling CSRs how to manage their stress when they’re under incredible pressure and tension all day, and not enough attention is paid to whether the policies they’re expected to uphold are fair to the customer, and whether the policies create the conflict between customer and company, more or less to keep the customer out of the executive and operational equation.
But the tragedy of it is that while companies could empower customer service reps to help customers in a real way, management trends like lean operating initiatives, as well as a lack of prestige, education, training, trust, and more (for example, I would love to see studies on how the customer service industry in America, frequently staffed and managed by American minorities, when it isn’t outsourced to international minorities, is shaped by racism and sexism), stand in the way of executives giving CSRs the ability to engage in actual conflict resolution.
It seems like bad business to me. Every time I’m put in a situation where I have to call some company I’ve sunk hundreds or thousands of dollars into and beg them to hep me figure out what went wrong, and be told instead that I’m too dumb to understand their anti-consumer policies, I think how silly this scenario is, especially since it’s one of the few touch points where a company can really impress a customer.