Tuesday, December 28, 2004

No Car, No TV, No Sex -- What Do You Do, Exactly?

This blog is called Thoughts from the Hold Music because that's when I get to do most of my thinking.

I'm the voice, man. The one greeting you, telling you my name (which you'll ask for again later because you weren't listening), asking what I can do for you.

Robert Heinlein said in Friday that the prevalence of bad manners is a hallmark of cultural collapse, the sign that your culture has entered its decline. I didn't believe this until I went to work on the phone. The past three years have convinced me that we are too far gone to be saved.

The cell phone has just made things worse, but there are better rants about proper cell phone usage. I'm just talking about what is and is not considered acceptable behavior, and how the rules seem to change when the business and the person are connected by the phone.

Most people would never dream of shouting obscenities at a hapless checkout clerk while she tried to find a manager.
Most people would never, upon seeing a "free" offer, accost a store employee to repeatedly demand a substitution on the free item because they don't want it, they want something else of similar value.
Most people wouldn't lean over to a white sales clerk and say how happy they are that they ended up in her line instead of the Indian clerk because she's "an American."
Most people don't come up to the checkout with a bunch of really neat, expensive toys and expect the person to "find" coupons and rebates to get them back inside their budget.
Most people don't demand a manager when their ad circular turns out to be six weeks old and the item is no longer on sale at the fabulous low price.
Most people won't go and try to check out in, say, the pharmacy because the line is shorter, because they know they're just going to get sent to the end of the line up front.
Why? Because other people would hear, mostly. Shame is the most effective tool.

On the phone, most people lose all shame.
Keep in mind that they call me. I sell custom computers at one job, catalogued retail items at the other. I don't cold-call, ever. They call me. To yell and cajole and demand and threaten to call The New York Times (note: threatening to sue or publish potentially libelous material doesn't get you helped; it forces us by policy to transfer you to Legal, who go home before five. Sorry.)

These aren't fly-by-nights. These are Fortune 500s. Most of these people are full of shit, quite simply.
You know those user guides to the Internet? Here it is...


Welcome to the telephone. Most companies will let you call them for free. They set up 1-800 numbers for the purpose. Most companies also have more than one 800 number, to get you to the right place the first time. Sales is a different department than customer service at most large companies. So is technical support. Calling one of the three trying to reach the other guarantees that you will get transferred. It's not that the people hate you, or that they are incompetent. If they say that they "have" to transfer you, they are usually telling the truth; a significant of the training you get at a major call center deals with how to get people where they need to be. I can't give you tech support if I try; you'll have to hold while I transfer you. More on this in a minute.

The smart consumer makes some attempt to find the correct number before calling. This can usually be done at the company's Web site. If for some reason you cannot or will not check for the correct number, you will have to call the number you have. Congratulations! You've probably added 15 minutes onto your resolution time. No, wait. Don't dial yet. Grab the relevant papers (invoice, order number, letter) before you get on the phone. Dial the number.

Cartoons aside, there's a really, really good reason that every major company has an incredibly intricate IVR (that's the voice that asks you to press buttons dependent on your needs.) Why, you ask? Because you're stupid.
Maybe not you. Maybe you had the correct number the first time. Congratulations again; don't throw that MENSA application away just yet. However, the rest of your fellow man has barely worked out thumbs, much less checking for a correct phone number. So, no matter what number you call, you must face the Automated Menu.

Voice-operated menus will usually let you say "Customer Service" and skip parts of the IVR. Do this only if you need customer service. Customer service means order tracking, looking for orders, talking about problems with orders, changes to orders. Customer service reps cannot fix it if it's broken. Usually they can't sell you anything either.

You're not in a voice-activated menu? Too bad. Time to use your listening skills. Listen to the menu twice if you have to. Go to the description that most closely matches your needs. If you owned a business once but don't, and are purchasing for home, don't press 2 for business just in case.

Here's a hint. We hate the IVR as much as you do, if not more. It almost always needs a major overhaul, we hate it, and we spend more time in it than you do trying to get smart you (or your knuckle-dragging compatriots) where you need to go. We have our own internal IVR that you never hear, and we spend a lot of time on hold too. Don't talk to us about how the computer menu is confusing and that's why you hit 1 for sales immediately to talk about the thing you got that was broken. We don't care and we can't fix it, and you have just fucked up because of...

You know at your job, where your boss can actually see whether or not you're doing any work? In my line of work, that's not so easy, so there's something called "numbers" instead. A whole department, watching our numbers.

People in sales usually have quotas. The level of their importance differs from place to place; in some it's the whole paycheck, in some it's a performance indicator, in some it's a good hint of who's going to get promoted. They also usually have a close rate: number of sales versus number of calls. That's total calls. That includes you just pressing one so you can get transferred without having to listen to the automated menu. (If it's been a slow night, you may have just pulled 20% off my close rate just because you were lazy. That does not endear you to me.)

Their job is to sell. When you call them with your problem and demand that they assist you with it rather than sending you to customer service (whose numbers are based on how fast they can help you with your problem's resolution), you're hurting their job performance, and they grow to slowly hate you, not care about your problems, and sometimes passively-agressively sabotage you. By transferring you, they are doing what they've been told to do. Don't stop them. If you call into sales after holding for tech support for a period you consider too long because "sales will answer the phone" -- you have just gotten an express ticket to the end of the line, honey, because all we can do is put you there. Did you go to kindergarten? Remember how the teacher would put you at the very, very end of the line if she caught you cutting? Same deal here. Hope you've at least stopped bedwetting since then.

By the way: Bigot McHadToHoldTooLongForTechSupport, there was just a huge natural disaster? In India? And, um, some of our work force can't come in to work ever again. Because they're probably dead. Your hour hold time to get your problem resolved concerns us very, very little right now. You need to wait your turn, and remember....

The secret to getting helped is not, contrary to popular belief, to bellow and bluster at the first hapless human voice you find. You are not Michael Moore, we are not the Lockheed-Martin PR flack. You are also not Trump. They do not pay us specifically to listen to you scream and curse and act like a kindergartener. (When you've cut line to tattle, you overgrown child, you make me very angry and I stop caring if you become a return customer, because I -- just don't care. I don't think people like you deserve good service.)

I, like most of the people I work with, at least try to do a good job for most of the people who call us, even the ones who are ruining our close rates by calling sales for service. The ones who are nice, the ones who recognize that an unusual issue probably can't be resolved by the first person who picks up the phone -- we get them to senior sales reps, to service, to managers for callbacks. Quickly. They give us a sentence or two about the problem, we find the right person, they thank us, we go on to do our real jobs. The rest of you are what makes us love Tyler Durden.

I can almost guarantee you that if you call in, swearing or threatening to sue, a note will go in your account at that company for all time letting everyone know. Usually we use this feature for good -- if you have a speech disability and are a regular customer, or if you are partially deaf and tell us that, we'll note it to help out the next guy. Same with a TTY relay call for the totally deaf. But if you act like a vagrant coming off meth because your shipment was late, there's a possibility that your Permanent Record will reflect the time you told the salesgirl that she'd better fucking get you a manager before you called the paper (God, that woman). Do you want the word "belligerent" next to your name? Forever? Take a deeeeep breath.

We will laugh at you once you're gone, too, when you completely lose your shit on the phone. We can hear each other as our voices rise, still calm and reasonable but just a bit higher, telling you for the fifth time that we understand, we really do, but we can't do credits in this department, we have never been able to do them, and that in the time you've taken to scream, customer service has closed. To defuse the situation, we may just decide to tell everyone about it. This actually happens. Has your shame kicked back in?

Politeness makes us want to help you. The screaming? We've heard it before. Please hold.


At 9:14 AM, Blogger Special Sauce said...


I worked for three of the longest months of my life for the state Driver and Vehicle Services call center. I know, short timer. I learned quickly that I was not suited for the job, and couldn't provide a level of service I felt was acceptable.

My favorites were the irates. We got them a lot. "What do you mean my suspsension hasn't even started yet. I haven't driven in 6 months." "I'm sorry, Sir, but we never received your driver's license, so we have no proof that you were not driving during this time." and round and round that little argument would go.

Often we got the joy of telling them that we didn't really work for the DMV at all, and in fact, weren't even in the same county, so no- we will not get up from our desks, walk to the head of suspensions and demand your license back.

Wow. Really long comment to get to- nifty blog, and a really swell entry. Thanks.


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