"Cap'n, he's gonna blow!" and other customer service ponderings

An open letter to Ivan Seidenberg, Chairman & CEO of Verizon Communications Inc.:

Dear Mr. Seidenberg,

I am proud to say that I am a "Double Freedom" residential customer with Verizon, whatever that means. I hope it is a good thing.

I learned I had this designation at the end of a 90-minute marathon call to four Verizon service representatives this morning to find out why I was not getting my Verizon DSL service to provide Internet and email access to my home. The voice part of the service was fine.

The problem started nearly a month ago when Internet service was intermittent. In the last three days, I had not been able, at all, to access the DSL modem wirelessly as I had many times before. I normally use my work laptop over a home Wi-Fi connection to a Westell modem/router that Verizon provided me about three years ago when I started DSL service.

When I started calling at 8:30 this morning, I knew it might be a long process, after my wife warned me to be ready. She had made four calls over the past three weeks, and even had a trouble ticket number to offer me from her last experience. I am sure we've all been through customer service hell with a phone company or ISP now and then, but I have been covering Verizon and other service providers for Computerworld nearly 10 years and thought I had heard everything there is to hear about customer service problems, even from IT and telecom managers at large companies.

I've learned that nobody in the modern era ever wants to call for service and be put on an awkward, never-ending call with a rep who is hard to understand. If you ask the ordinary IT manager at a major company, he or she will tell you that none of their service providers is really good at customer service. None.

In today's experience, I found all my reps very polite, and while two had Asian accents that were somewhat hard to follow, it seemed to me that Verizon was making their jobs unnecessarilyharder than needed to be because the voice connections were so poor. With two agents, words were clipped short and the volume increased and decreased constantly, probably from using a satellite connection or other equipment that doesn't allow both people to talk at once. The result was that we spent a lot of time repeating instructions. At one point, I made the mistake of telling the first agent that I couldn't hear her well enough, and then the connection was broken. She may have given up, but I dialed back.

Each time I called,the automated, voice-activated greetings at the start of each call required me to say my number repeatedly, and when I was being routed to a specific service group, I made the mistake twiceof thinking I wanted "service" when I really wanted "sales.". As with my health care insurance call center and so many others, the customer has to adjust to the logic and terminology of the company involved even to get through to the correct department. If you make a mistake, an agent transferring the callcan take forever, but the agent will often require you to call back. So, it's not that the call center software is poorly designed; rather, it is that the call center operations and software developers failed to realize that customers don't understand their business, and its terminology, as well as they do.

So, aside from bad connections and weird call center routing problems, some of what I experienced today was pretty good. A wire-speed test on my older Westell modem/router failed repeatedly, as did two resets of the device, so I finally said to the service rep, "Do you think maybe the modem is bad?" I think that comment helped, and the agent came back with a statement that the modem/router was "definitely" defective and needed to be replaced. She transferred me to customer service, but it turned out that I really needed a different department and finallyI got a woman who said a replacement device would cost $69, and that I could get insurance of $2.50 a month, or so, to guard against future problems. I remembered that I had purchased a router along with a PC purchase months earlier that was still in the box and said I'd call back if it didn't work. But I found it was only a wireless router and not a modem, so I did call back.

This last call was like striking gold. An enthusiastic agent named Brian, based in Springfield, Mass., told me that since I was a long-time customer, he could replace the router/modem, which was out of its warranty, with a newer model at no cost if I signed up for the monthly insurance. I wondered why this hadn't been mentioned before, but maybe the call center's data warehouse had finally found my customer history and routed it to his PC display to tell him, "This customer is clearly a nut. Do whatever it takes to help him." I have written stories about call center software that measures a customer's speaking tone and word choiceand will send a warning to the agent, probably something like, "Cap'n, he's gonna blow!Transfer to a supervisor now!" But my wife will be really proud that I never raised my voice, and never belittled the agents or their companies.

Atop ofproviding the new device with only the cost of insurance, Brian even offered to send the gear overnight for no added cost, so I could have Internet and email back and functioning by tomorrow afternoon.

As a final act, he checked my account and said he was applying all the appropriatediscounts coming to me. I asked what he meant and he said,"You get all these discounts because you are a Double Freedom customer." Maybe it was something about the way he said it, but I broke out in laughter. After the various taxes and fees on my bill, the discounts would surely seem irrelevant, I thought.

So, I will see if the new equipment arrives and if it fixes my Internet connection problems. I hope my problemis not something silly like a bad hardwire cable connection from the modem/router to the wall. But after several weeks of trying (well, mainly my wife's trying), I wondered if I shouldn't consider other technologies, such as a broadband card or even the coming Xohm Wimax from Sprint. Verizon hasn't offered fiber optical connections to our neighbhorhood yet, and a broadband card would probably stay with me as I travel, leaving my wife and daughter without connectivity. Today's experience has left me wondering if somebody in Computerworld's Help Desk would have handled the problem better, since I sometimes use a residential ISP account forwork. I am not sure, however, that there is any magic that matters.

With so much new and different technology arriving every day and so many choices of service available, you would think customer service would be the top priority for Verizon and the other guys. However, it seems that even call centers are not any more competent than they ever were, based on my experiences and based on talking to industry analysts who study call center problems. An executive for major provider of call center software just today told me that pressure on call centers (and the companies that run them) is just going to increase because now there so many bloggerswilling to go public with criticism, and even to post videos about their problems on the Web.

I am grateful to the good agents that I spoke to today, and especially to Brian, but I wonder if even the cost of a modem/router is enough to pay us back for our time on the phone with customer service in recent days. Somehow I am not feeling very free, much less double free.

As for you, Mr. Seidenberg, I would add that I realize you have many duties, including prepping for the January FCC wireless spectrum auction and figuring out what Google is going to do next to steal your business. And I know that your priorities have been constantly divided between pleasing your customers, your employees and your investors as well. Maybe bad customerservice with call centers hasn't ever been bad enough to really drag down a major company, but I wonder: Is customer service ever going to be a higher priority for Verizon or any of the other carriers as more technology complexity hits?

Yours truly,

Matt Hamblen

Proud "Double Freedom" customer


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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