The Decline of Customer Service

Customer service. The very term implies a soft-spoken, clean-cut Babbitt man from the Eisenhower era, a teetotaler who votes Republican but never discusses politics, a necktie who calls you “sir” or “ma’am” and exudes an ineluctable folksy charisma, a guy who spends his Thursday evenings at the bingo parlor and who will pomade his hair well into his autumn years. A man prepared to listen to the customer’s needs, who might have attended a Dale Carnegie course, maybe donning a daring fashion accouterment like a purple polka-dot bowtie. Chances are his name is Harold or Orville.

“Dork” is probably the word here, but in a good way. I remember guys like this growing up. You could find them hunkered over a merchandise list in an appliance store or sometimes knocking on your door. They knew their products. They had a quiet and unobtrusive way of making a sale and finding out what you wanted. They were adamant, but never pushy. They offered to undersell the competition. They worked hard, but they always sauntered along with a relaxed gait.

But after spending a half hour dealing with outsourced customer service from a faraway nation the other day, I’m convinced that today’s definition of customer service involves nothing less than bad dialogue and circlejerks.

It was bad enough with the voice-activated customer service systems that denied you the use of the touchtone phone. Of course, with those, you could generally recite the first lines of “Jabberwocky.” Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem still stands the test of time, fooling the human ear as well as its crude computerized counterpart. The computer translates the polite sentence, “I want to speak to a fucking human being” into “I want to seek a fucking by your company, along with the loss of my time and the handover of half my savings.” And that’s when you get a live human being on the other end, because the company’s ultimate goal is to fleece the customer through an overlooked clause in an agreement.

But now that companies have outsourced their support to faraway nations, you get conversations like this:

OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: I completely understand your concerns. But if you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.

ED: This is the third time I’ve called you. The first time, we did what you asked. We faxed you the form and you promised the info in two hours. That was two weeks ago.

OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: Yes. [pause, as if to imply somehow that, despite boiler-plate repetition, the result will be different] I completely understand your concerns. But if you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.

ED: See, that’s the problem. We’ve already done that. The second time I called in, which was last week, you promised us the info in two hours. We have done everything you have asked and we still don’t have the info.

OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: Yes, yes. [pause] I completely understand. But if you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.

ED: No, you don’t understand. We’ve had these promises before and you’ve failed to live up to them. I need the info now. Can I speak to your supervisor?

OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: Yes, but he will say the same thing.

[Time passes. ED repeats explanation of previous info dilemma to SUPERVISOR OF OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION.]

ED: [arch and serious] Do you realize the severity of this? If you don’t get us the info, then we may have to consider doing business elsewhere.

SUPERVISOR OF OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: Yes. [pause] I completely understand. But if you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.

ED: Stop reading from the script!

SUPERVISOR OF OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: I’m not reading from the script.

ED: And I have a third nostril! Is there anyone there who can actually get me the info?

SUPERVISOR OF OUTSOURCED CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE IN SOME FARAWAY NATION: No. [pause] But if you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.

ED: [contemplating another hour of “If you fax us the form, we will get you the information in two hours.”] Okay, what’s the fax number?

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve noticed that outsource CS reps are usually very polite, and very good at sticking to their script. I did my time in the callcenter trenches here in the states, and I have to say that the greatest skill one could have would be the ability to improvise.

    Of course, I was once written up for throwing my headset at a supervisor and shouting, “All this guy wants is a goddamn refund! Why is this so fucking hard for you to understand?” so maybe I’m not the best person to be giving advice. (Nevertheless I was the best phone rep ever.)

  2. Rasp: Oh yeah. Make no mistake. These folks were nice and quite devoted to their jobs. It’s the policies laid down that are the true evil at work here. One of these days, I’ll have to tell you about my own brief experience as a customer service rep. Actually used an honest approach under the radar. 🙂

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