Customer Service – It’s Not Semantics

I had to contact a company’s customer service and technical support departments the other day – I won’t say the company’s name, but it rhymes with Pemantic. They don’t have a unified communications strategy. This was an extremely grueling experience, especially since I know that there’s better technology available, and that the technology used was implemented very poorly.

My saga began when I went to the company’s web site and found the link to customer service. On the bright side, they do provide a toll free customer service phone number (a lot of companies no longer provide phone numbers and expect customers to just use the web or email) so I have to give credit where credit’s due. Another positive feature, the website listed various ways to get in touch with customer service – a phone call (which they don’t suggest, noting that the wait time is usually about 30 minutes), an email (48 hour response time), web call back (you can choose what time you would like to have a representative contact you), or web chat, which they suggest is “The fastest and easiest way to resolve your issue” with “little or no wait time” – HA! The first time I tried the web chat, I was 129th in queue. So I decided to try the call back option. After going through a long menu of IVR options and inputting lots of information about my issue, I was able to select a time to have an agent call me back. I chose 7-8 PM, as it was around 6 PM when I called. Lo and behold, 8 PM came and went, with no call back. In fact, I did not receive a call back at all.

The next day, I tried again. Since the company was pushing the web chat option, I thought I would try it again. After all, the web site insisted that it’s the fastest and easiest way to solve my problem. This time I was only number 90 in queue (thank goodness for multitasking). Eventually I got through to the agent who was evidently involved in at least 10 other web chat sessions simultaneously, since it took a long time for her to respond to me each time I typed back. Every so often I had to type “r u still there?” until I heard back from her. Fortunately, she was eventually able to solve my problem and pointed me to the product I needed to purchase and install, which I did.

Unfortunately, after I installed the product there was a major problem, so I needed to contact the company again. I decided to try to contact an agent directly and was willing to wait on hold for a while – I had a priority code so I figured it wouldn’t take too long. The IVR system that front ends the call center system uses speech recognition commands, although there is also an option for using the touchtone keypad instead (you can use one or the other, not both). My biggest complaint is that there is no barge-in capability for the speech rec system, meaning you can’t say the command when you hear it; instead, you have to listen to the entire menu of options before selecting the one you want, even if it’s the first one listed. At one point, it asked for a response to a question, but the system did not understand my response, so I had to go back to the beginning of the menu and start all over again. Grrrr!

I was finally put in queue for an agent, but there was no indication of the estimated wait time. Many systems today let the caller know what number they are in queue or how long they can expect to wait on hold, so the customer can determine whether or not to stay on the  line or try again later. There was no indication at all on this system. A recording played quite frequently telling me not to hang up because I’ll lose my place in queue and then it will take even longer to get help, but still no indication of how long the wait will be.

Eventually (after about 20 minutes – not too bad) I got through to an agent who was very friendly, although he found it necessary to read to me the information from my previous chat session. This wasted time, since it was essentially a new problem I was calling about. But on the bright side, at least he was able to see what happened in my previous session so I didn’t have to explain everything from the beginning. When I explained my problem, the agent cheerfully told me that I was calling about a technical problem, and he would need to transfer me to the technical support group. “Oh no,” I exclaimed, “Please don’t make me wait an hour for another agent.” He assured me that it was an internal transfer and I would be connected to someone right away (and I bet he has a bridge to sell me also). An hour later (no exaggeration), and after hearing “Please don’t hang up or you’ll be put at the end of the line” or something to that effect, I was still in queue. In the meantime, I initiated a web chat session while I was on hold, figuring I’d get through to an agent one way or the other. This time I was only number 34 in queue for the web chat. I eventually explained the problem to the agent, who very politely asked to take over my PC so she could fix the problem.

My husband, who was watching the agent as she made changes in the software configuration, and who has many, many years of experience in the industry and is not an idiot, knew damn good and well that the agent’s solution was not going to work, and chose to be polite anyway, but only out of frustration (knowing that the agent was going to close down the connection no matter what) and not out of any sense of politeness.  The agent wanted to do nothing other than close the call and really didn’t care if she really solved the problem.

After a few more “r u still there?” requests on my part, she made a few adjustments and said that everything was fixed and that I needed to restart my computer. I wasn’t born yesterday, and I knew that if I restarted my computer, I’d lose the chat session and have to start all over again if the problem wasn’t resolved. I asked if she was SURE the problem was resolved, and she insisted it was. Being the trusting person I am, I restarted my computer. And guess what – the problem was NOT resolved. Sigh.

So here are my suggestions as to how to make this and other customer service offerings better:

  • All IVR or voice portal systems with speech recognition should allow for barge in so that you don’t have to listen to the entire menu before making your selection.
  • Test the speech rec system on real people so they can try it out and see how it works. You shouldn’t have to go back to the beginning of the menu if the system doesn’t understand your response to question number five, for example.
  • Provide feedback to callers to let them know where they are in queue and how long the estimated wait time will be, and update this periodically.
  • If you’re going to offer a callback option, try to actually call the person back during the time indicated.
  • Limit the number of simultaneous web chat sessions an agent can be on so that the time spent between the customer asking a question or typing in text and getting a response is reasonable.
  • Hire people who give a damn about actually solving the customer’s problem, and don’t measure their performance with a problems-solved-per-minute metric. Otherwise you’ll get the customer service that you deserve (but your customers don’t).
  • Use workforce management tools to schedule your contact center staff appropriately so that people who have lives don’t have to waste hours on end waiting in queue. If your call volume gets too high, use remote or ad hoc workers to balance the load.

The problem is not with the technology, but with the way in which technology is used and implemented. Do it right, or you’ll end up losing customers like me.

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