Are You Being Served?

I recently called the customer service desk of a major airline (considered the world's largest until a few years ago) to complain bitterly about the fact

I recently called the customer service desk of a major airline (considered the world's largest until a few years ago) to complain bitterly about the fact that, although I could purchase a ticket six weeks in advance, I couldn't get a seat assignment until everyone else had boarded the plane. The customer service representative told me my ticket “was not a guarantee of a seat; it was a guarantee of transportation.” In response to this monumentally moronic statement, I asked the obvious question: How was I to be transported, if not in a seat? Hanging off of the wing? I later emailed a complaint and received a reply explaining that seats were held back because the airline overbooked flights, as if that was supposed to be a good reason. I wish such mindless repetition of a senseless party line was limited exclusively to the airline industry.

Alas, it does not take an Einstein to observe that only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity — and I'm not sure about the former. Although it was indeed Einstein who said that, and he was probably thinking of poor customer support when he did.

Let's be fair. Good customer service is hard to provide. Offering phone support is very expensive. Beyond the cost of maintaining numerous phone lines and paying people to staff them, far too many calls come in that should never have been made. For example, many people find it abhorrent to read user manuals in an effort to solve computer problems themselves. Instead, they find it easier to dial the phone and have someone else solve the problem. And some people are just plain clueless, providing fodder for the legion of apocryphal customer support jokes. Why should manufacturers put expensive, trained staff on their phones for that? As a result, we get customer-service reps who can do little more than read cue card responses.

It takes financial investment, good management, a lot of work, and infinite patience to provide good customer service, but it can be done. For example, sometimes those same people who won't crack open a manual will avail themselves of online resources.

Having said all that, let us tackle my favorite “dumb support” trick. You finally manage to reach a customer service rep on the phone. You describe your problem and are told, “We've never had anyone complain of that problem before,” implying that it must be something you're doing wrong. At that point, the conversation is effectively over, when it should have been just beginning.

Worst of all is when there seems to be nowhere one can get an answer. Recently, violinist Cat Taylor's band Avalon Rising received an invitation to play a massive festival in China on short notice. Being the consummate professional, she immediately tackled the issue of what equipment she needed to take and how to deal with China's electricity, which is 220V, 50 Hz. She determined that she needed to buy a new piece of equipment and proceeded to try to find out how to power it properly in China.

The large mail-order house she was going to buy from couldn't tell her anything; in fact, she ended up educating them about a number of things. A huge music-store chain was entirely useless, although at least they didn't give her bad information. She finally turned to customer service at the manufacturer — a sizable, established company. The regulations they cited that apparently forbade them from shipping an adapter for China within the United States were certainly not their fault; they did, however, put Taylor in a difficult position, given that using a third-party external power converter would void the warranty on her new gear. But it was scary when the service rep consulted technicians who told him that 2,000 milliamps, the current draw of the device, was 0.002 amperes, when it is, in fact, 2 amperes. Fortunately, she was able to reach the customer service manager, who helped her out.

It comes down to two facts: first, it is very tough to provide good customer service, and second, poor customer service frustrates customers and damages brand loyalty. Both sides have responsibilities in this situation. Manufacturers have to apply the same intelligence and level of resources that go into their product designs to providing good customer service. Users, if they want to use sophisticated tools, must use the available resources and good troubleshooting techniques before throwing their problems onto a manufacturer's plate.