There’s No Excuse for Poor Customer Service

Yet, listen to this tale of woe. Then ask yourself whether your company paying enough attention to customer service.
John ParkinsonJuly 2, 2015
There’s No Excuse for Poor Customer Service

Good customer service is hard. If the automation fails, the customer service agent (CSA) is pretty much guaranteed to be talking to someone who’s at best annoyed and frustrated.

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On other hand, automation can do a lot to ease the burden (self-service was, after all, arguably the 20th century’s greatest contribution to macroeconomic productivity). The service center process support technology available today can easily pass all of the contact information from agent to agent so the customer doesn’t have to repeat it multiple times. Trouble ticket systems can bridge information between calls. Even better, CSA cross training can eliminate handoffs, allowing single-contact resolution in most cases and quick escalation when the problem needs it.

Is there any excuse for bad telephone customer service? Not really. Does good service win customer loyalty? Absolutely. And yet, listen to this.

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Recently I had to replace one of the adapters that lets a TV display a standard definition cable signal. No big deal. I live about 15 minutes from a service center, so I drove over, took a ticket (big improvement on the old “stand in line” process), waited about 10 minutes and got a new device. I was pleased that the customer service agent (CSA) I spoke with offered me a no-cost upgrade to a high-definition (HD) box.

Back home I plugged the box in, went online to activate it and had everything working in less than 10 minutes. Call it an hour of my time, a gallon of gas, and a reasonably happy customer. The company avoided a truck roll and the hassle of scheduling an appointment. So far so good. At that point I’d give the customer service an “A” rating and be willing to recommend them.

Then, a few days later, one of my set-top-box (STB) DVRs went out. After several days of intermittent crashes and reboots, it finally failed altogether. I wasn’t happy, but I used the company’s online chat to (a) have them check the box remotely (it was dead), (b) confirm that I could get a replacement at the service center (yes, plenty in inventory), and (c) check that I could also upgrade the other standard definition adapters I have to high definition (I have a lot of TVs).

Online chat is a little slow, but it works pretty well and you have a record of what went on if you need it later. All good.

So, off I went to the service center. Took a ticket. Short wait, explained the problem. Got a new DVR (almost certainly a refurbished unit, given how it was packaged) and four new HD adapters (they let you return the old SD ones later), and drove back home. Installed everything (30 minutes, mostly walking around the house to change over boxes on TVs and reprogram remotes). Went online and ran through the activation process. Got confirmation that everything got activated. Switched on a TV…. Oops.

Nothing worked. First each box had to download a software update, which was reasonably fast, but hadn’t been needed on the first box. Second, the boxes all popped up a message saying activation had failed and provided a number to call. OK, I was a little miffed, but not that concerned. Called the number. Got a pretty good voice-recognition system (instead of a brain-dead IVR menu) that quickly figured out who I was (from the phone number I was using), asked for my account number, ran through the problem list, figured out what I needed (saw that five devices needed to be activated), told me it had sent the activation codes and signed off. Great. Except nothing worked. I still had five dead boxes with failed activation messages.

Because I had bothered to listen to all the possible responses for the voice recognition system, I knew that I could get quickly to an agent (lesson here: first time through, listen to all the options), so I called back and got to a CSA with a remarkably short wait (less than a minute) despite a warning that call times were longer than usual. The agent went through the usual account identification check (despite the fact that the number I called from was provided by the company I’m calling), confirmed that I was me, and looked at the account. However, they couldn’t help me solve the problem and transferred me to the technical support group (another short wait).

They didn’t transfer any of the information I had provided (sigh), so we went through all that again. Tech support managed to get four of the devices activated (it takes a while, but progress is good, right?). My “new” DVR, however, was DOA. At this point, I had three options: another service center visit; ship me a new STB (three to five days); or schedule a service call. Interestingly, the support tech could schedule the visit (which I did, as a fallback), but could not order me a new STB. That would have required transferring me to “sales.”

So, visit scheduled, back to the service center. Took a ticket. Short wait. Got another STB (also a refurb). Returned the SD adapters I’d just replaced with HD. Drove home. Installed STB. Went online. Activated. Success!! No, not success.

Called activation line, jumped to agent. Short wait (long wait warning). Got CSA, identified myself (sigh), switched to tech support. Short wait. Got support tech. Identified myself (sigh). Tech sends activation signal. Nada. Another DOA? Power cycled the STB. Tried activation again. Waited…. Success!

But I am not happy. I’ve spent roughly five hours on this process, including two trips to the service center. It should have taken an hour at most. I’ve been online three times, talked to a voice recognition system twice, talked to four different humans, and I’m still not sure that everything is working right.

Then the cable company called me to do a satisfaction survey.

Now, I am a reasonable human and not generally malicious, so I gave them a fair response. Everyone had been helpful though relatively powerless to make me happy, in part because their automation and support systems stunk. But we got it done. I gave them a B- (A for effort, C- for ability) and a neutral recommendation. On with my day.

Later that evening I switched on another TV (this STB had not been involved in any of the above and had been functioning just fine) and lo and behold, it wasn’t working. Not only had I wasted multiple hours getting the new boxes to function, along the way the the cable company had deleted the ID of one of the STBs from the account (instead of the ID of the “new” but DOA box I had returned, which was of the same type). I went straight to the phone. Straight to a CSA. Straight past all the stupidity to tech support — well, not exactly straight. I still had to go through all the ID foolishness twice (long sigh). I was really NOT happy at that point.

Now here’s a tip for those of you still with me. All these boxes have labels with serial numbers on them that are necessary (although from my experience not sufficient) if tech support is going to get the correct box activated. The labels are always placed where you can’t see them when the box is in use and are almost impossible to read unless you have a flashlight and magnifying glass with you, plus all the cables attached to the box (never less than three) will ensure that you’ll practically have to stand on your head to read the number you need.

So when you get a new box, take a photo of the label with your phone before you install it. You can thank me later.

Eventually I got reactivated. I could watch TV and record programs, although the “On Demand” function didn’t work. Just as well I have that service call scheduled.

Customer service should not be like this. My cable company must have higher-than-necessary support costs and lower-than-necessary satisfaction scores. But if you’re a cable company, you need to do better than this or the current generation of cord-cutters will happily leave you behind.

No matter who you are, if you want to keep your customers happy and your support costs down, you should be paying attention to your customer-service quality — or find someone who can do so for you.

John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago. He has been a global business and technology executive and strategist for more than 35 years.