On-hold at telco customer service

05 Jan 2009

Telco business models and technologies may come and go, but customer service remains frustratingly unchanged.

A New York Times columnist, Stanley Fish - better known for blogging about academic issues - was so infuriated by recent encounters with AT&T that he posted about them.

He relates a familiar tale of multiple circuits of the corporate phone queue, politely disobliging call center staff and the inability to make any progress with his problem.

I only mention this because I too spent much of my Christmas break on-hold with the phone company (it would be churlish to name the carrier involved, but let's just say it's nothing to do with the Atlantic Millennium).

Trying to unburden myself of a dysfunctional broadband phone service, I waded several times through a thicket of voice prompts to find on each occasion a staff member utterly incapable of addressing my problem.

A certain rhythm developed. Every second person I spoke to told me to call "sales". "Sales" was never able to help, but was always able to suggest the name of other mysterious departments ("contracts", "replacements") who invariably referred me back to "sales".

"Sales" was keen to point out that termination of this contract would require a penalty. It takes a certain kind of big-company gall to charge customers for closing down a service that has been out of order for a month. Staff remained unmoved by my suggestion that after such a length of time, and five visits by repair staff, the idea of a "phone service" becomes meaningless.

Even when working "properly" this particular desktop phone is user-unfriendly to the point of hostility, with an unfathomable GUI, a one-second dialtone delay and a form factor that has me swapping ears every two minutes.

Clearly, a Balkanized customer care structure such as this one guarantees that customer problems won't be solved.

The question is why. Some evidence from Australia suggests that, in the current economic climate, phone companies are increasingly reluctant to solve customers' problems. The level of complaints rose almost by half last year. Fixed-line complaints spiked nearly 60%, even though the number of lines in service actually shrank.

Said Deirdre O'Donnell, the Australian Telecom Industry Ombudsman: "Many complaints are caused by basic customer care failures, such as providers giving callers the runaround through multiple transfers and hold queues, not responding to enquiries or simply failing to apologize for errors."

Sounds like a strategy for a recession.

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