Customers like these

April 18, 2007

Would always make my day. To all my ex-colleagues at PacNet and other call centers:

Rant from Slashdot.

Want better support?

Pay an extra $5 a month for your service.

Pay CSRs better to retain them for longer so that they become more and more skilled.

Call centers have massive turnover rates because frankly, the job kind of sucks. Bizarre shifts, sometimes extremely long shifts, and crap pay, depending on where you work. Customer service is something everyone complains about. A little more respect for reps would help a lot. Make it into a worthy career, and maybe people will stick around. Provide break time and ample vacation. Provide benefits. Encourage people to stay in the position for several years and become skilled at whatever it is they are supporting, rather than using the job as a stepping stone to other things. One skilled, experienced rep is probably better than 3 or 4 clueless new hires. In time, these reps should become coaches to new hires. People with generic management skills are *not*, simply by nature of having managed people, qualified to be a team leader in a call center. Handling even the most technical of technical support calls can be 50% psychology. It’s not necessarily even that your problem is fixed, but that you leave happy and maintain your service.

But if you want bargain basement prices, that’s where they’re going to cut corners. It is where they have always cut corners. They’re not going to cut the salaries and benefits of the executive officers in the company to save cash; that’s for sure.

Don’t take your frustration out on the reps. They’ve been dealing with upset, and sometimes childishly rude customers all day. As reps are bottom on the corporate totem pole, they have little influence over anything. Perhaps they are lucky and have a progressive management that listens to them. Probably not. They are probably underpaid or outright exploited contractors whose performance is based on metrics that have little to do with how happy you actually are, except to the extent that you affect the bottom line in some significant way.

If you get poor service, complain to the top. If a CSR is downright rude, mention them by name. They need to be disciplined or terminated. If you’re ticked off about the service, spare the CSR, because it will be easier to fire the CSR than make systemic changes to the way the call center is managed (which may include things like training.)

I assume the Slashdot crowd here uses online “self servicing” before calling. Know that many people don’t. Know that many people choose to engage in a 45 minute call (including hold time and navigating VRUs) rather than take 5 minutes to do a search on the website. The hold times you are experiencing may be a result of customers like this (and obviously, yes, if you’re talking about an ISP, some people can’t get online to use self-servicing, but you’d be surprised how many people are simply lazy).

10% of customers are simply unprofitable due to the havoc they wreak on their own computers, and the number of times they call technical support. Many customers will attempt to disguise problems they themselves caused, as a problem with the service whose tech support line they are calling. For example, a customer downloads malware which screws their system up. They will call and say that “your software” did this to their system and you damn well better help. Or it’s Microsoft’s problem, or some other piece of software they insist on running is interfering with your product.

Customers expect reps to be experts on every piece of software, OS, and possible configuration. I’ve seen people call reps “morons” because they don’t know how to support FreeBSD or obscure desktop-altering applications on their $7.50 an hour salaries.

Sometimes CSRs are bastards because they’ve been dealing with childish jerks all day. Some CSRs are incompetent, or ill-tempered and don’t belong on a company’s front lines, but this is probably the exception rather than the rule. There are many reasons for bad customer service, but most of it has to do with shortcuts taken by the company in question – either they’re hiring carelessly, paying very little to CSRs and so getting what they pay for, mismanaging CSRs, or mismanaging call volumes and the like, increasing CSR stress and discontent.

Have some manners. Act like an adult when you call. However angry you are, even impatient politeness will get you from A to B faster than a bad attitude and abusive tone. Know that you’re one small fish in a very big pond, and that you will not and cannot be the corporation’s #1 priority. Be mindful of what you’re paying, and have reasonable expectations. Be sure to ask if there is a more personalized support plan you can purchase, if you need it. If you get angry enough to leave, expect the company to make a nominal effort to retain you, but also know that at best threats do not register much at all with CSRs, and at worst they may make some CSRs openly obstinate. If you use profanity, many (possibly most) companies allow CSRs to simply end the call. If you threaten the CSR, a company may well have their security department contact the police (this is rare, but it has happened). Understand that an increasing number of people in the world (at least in the USA) have the manners of spoiled toddlers. I do not understand why or how it happened that full grown adults think that it is acceptable throw childish, abusive, loud temper tantrums at complete strangers. On the other hand, watching the way their children behave in public sometimes, it makes sense.

Know that the more unreasonable and abusive you become, the more a rep will learn to tune you out like so much white noise. This is not rudeness; this is a basic and necessary coping technique. The agent wants to fix your problem and get you the hell off the phone ASAP because he or she is probably measured, at least in part, by the number of calls he or she closes – tantrums are not conducive to this process. CSRs are not interested in stringing you along or making your life hard. Some CSRs actually get a personal charge out of solving your problem and sending you away happy. All CSRs want you to be happy. All CSRs shoot for the best case scenario – fixing your problem within a minute, whatever their principal motivation is. No CSR is insensitive to your discontent; it is disheartening to be a CSR and hear an offhanded comment from a friend or relative about having had a bad experience with the company you work for. CSRs know they are on the front line and representing a company. All CSRs I’ve known want to do this well. Or at least, most start out that way. Some become jaded.

Know that a third to a half of the people on planet earth are incapable of typing a case sensitive password properly the first or second time.

If they make you go through what you consider childish steps, remember that you are a technically skilled person in a sea of the unskilled. You are, maybe, a kernel hacker whose call to tech support was sandwiched between two people who forgot to plug in their modems, but insisted to the point of rage that they’d done everything correct. Know also that many people who call will represent themselves as experts, because they’re the only one in their office who knows how to create shortcuts in Windows. Experienced CSRs will be able to gauge your skill after a few minutes; give them time. Note that your CSR may not be experienced. Note that you *may know more* than your CSR, because your CSR may be new to the job and still learning. There is no substitute for fielding calls. You cannot train a person for 6 straight months for a job that pays what CSR jobs pay, and with the turnover the job entails. Encountering the “clueless” on the phone is the nature of the beast; new people are always coming onto the job, and in most cases they’re not allowed to say that they’re new and still learning.

Nor is training any substitute for doing actual real-world troubleshooting. You cannot train people in troubleshooting skills any more than you can train a child to ride a bike by sitting them down in a classroom. A substantial part of the art is learning as you go, and developing the skill through practice or experience. It’s not just about the technical aspect, either. It’s about *reading customers* and dealing with the often bizarre psychology of the public. Understand that many customers cannot describe a problem beyond “It don’t work,” do not write down error messages, and cannot find or do not know what the Start menu is.

If you do get superb customer service, do what 99% of other pleased customers don’t do, and ask for a contact where you can write (or call, or e-mail) about your positive experience with an agent. Many companies have processes and contacts in place for this purpose. CSRs are sometimes rewarded for providing exceptional service, and that means a lot to many of them. Take the ten minutes to write the company for the purpose of encouraging quality customer service. Mention specifically what the CSR did right, so this can be shared with (and emulated by) other CSRs.

Also, imagine talking to the general public for 8 to 12 straight hours each day. Imagine troubleshooting without being able to see the screen, and having to trust that strangers are following your instructions and accurately reporting back what is happening on their monitors. Imagine the fatigue of doing this day in and day out, sometimes on long shifts, and sometimes on 10-on, 4-off workweeks. Understand that maybe when you have a bad day, you can brood and grumble in private. CSRs have to keep answering phones, and have to maintain a sunny disposition. Many call centers don’t allow or heavily regulate sick time. Many shifts result in CSRs having little to no personal life because they’re working when everyone they know is home. Maybe their days off are midweek, when everyone else is working. It can be lonely and alienating; it can destroy personal relationships in particularly bad cases. In certain economies, call center work is the only reasonable entry level alternative for people trying to improve their station in life, so it’s not always a matter of “If you don’t like it, leave.”

I do think customer service is generally poor, and while there are defintely CSRs who are simply not cut out for the job, often the problem is with the low priority management puts on support. Why spend money on it when no one else is? What are you going to do, leave for another service with equally crappy tech support? When you do, someone else will be signing up because they’ve just left another company whose support infuriated them.

Sorry for this very long post. I have the utmost respect for customer support representatives, and I think they get a lot more shit than they deserve. I have known several, and all of them have put far more effort into their jobs than you might expect.

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