Thursday, July 28, 2011

Customer Service

Every person in the workforce has to provide some level of customer service. Whether you are a CEO or data entry clerk, a police officer or an auto mechanic, you have to provide a service to another entity.

How you provide that service depends on a number of factors — including just how cantankerous you are feeling at that moment, that hour, that day.

I recently had two encounters (on the same day) and experienced two entirely different attitudes with two different customer service representatives at a local utility company. After a recent move, my online records showed only my old account — and the company's solution to my e-mail was to delete my old account. I had service, but the company website didn't recognize it.

What else is a girl to do but call?

It didn't go well. My service representative was having a bad day.

First, she asked my name. Apparently I used the wrong one because she kept asking for my "full" name. I kept telling her, increasing the volume and decreasing the speed at which I spoke, in case I was not clear. This went on for about three minutes (though it felt a lot longer). Finally she said, "That is not the name on your account, so I can only give you general information."

To be fair, she was correct. I was using a shortened version of my legal first name and my current legal last name, which appeared on the e-mail the company sent me minutes before. To my surprise, those were not the names on my account. To be even more fair, she couldn't give me the correct information in case I was a nefarious thief trying to steal the poor woman's utility.

We were at an impasse.

I finally broke through by uttering my legal first name. She followed by asking for my maiden name, which was the last name on the account. I told her the last four digits of my Social Security Number, and we were in.

I asked her to confirm my account number — which she did at lightning speed. I asked her to repeat it, which she did, again at lightning speed. So I tried to slow her down by repeating only the first four numbers, then asking for the rest.

She slowly repeated first number. She paused for five seconds, then slowly revealed the second number, pausing after that for another five seconds. This went on for the entire, very long account number.

After 10 minutes, I couldn't get off the phone fast enough.

I went online to manage my account, and I was glad that the new account number worked. I couldn't change my name online, and I gasped when I saw my account balance was in the triple digits for a single months' use. I needed a customer representative to fix these errors.

I dialed the phone, steeling myself for the inevitable tension I would face.

Instead, my call was handled by a most pleasant, efficient woman who changed my name on the account at my request and explained why my balance was as large as it was. I actually understood her explanation, and she agreed to my solution. She assured me I could easily make changes to my account in the future either online or by phone. The call lasted about two minutes and accomplished everything I needed.

So, what was the difference?

I could attribute part of the difficulty of the first call to possible culture and language issues: the representative had a heavy accent and may not have spoke English as a first language, or might have grown up in a country where my name was not common.

Maybe she was new and didn't know what other information she could ask regarding my identity.

Perhaps she was on probation, or there was a memo handed down that morning stating there could be no leeway in the information customers gave.

Or maybe she was just having a day.

I can recall with stark clarity the last time I had that kind of day. What this one couple asked for — and the anger with which they asked for it — was something I could, under normal circumstances, handle. Alas, I had just moved into a new office and I stood in the flotsam and jetsam of my work life, boxes around an un-assembled desk at my feet. As my co-worker swooped in to save me (and them), I stepped away from the office to gird my loins.

My first representative didn't have that choice. All she got was me, riddled with misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Customer service is a challenge for customer and service provider both.  I try to remember when I pick up the phone that it could be me at the other end of the line: the impatient me dissatisfied from the get-to; the clueless me who doesn't know her own name; the friendly me who listens to questions and responds with the proper information; the "up to here" me who has had enough from the rest of the world already that day.  I can't say I always remember, but heaven knows I try.  Let's hope the rest of the Customer Service World does the same.

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