I have been spring cleaning, and may I say that it is hard to thin down old work papers using the Marie Kondo Method because I don’t have a lot of files that spark joy. Take, for example, the fat file on the increase in violence from customers, once gathered in the name of research. I had forgotten how shocking some of these articles were to read. It’s worth a post of its own, so I’ll spare you the details for now.
There is another side to the problem of increasingly angry customers and that is the question of how a normal individual might be provoked to be so angry in the first place.
I have often heard the frustration and anger of others sharing their experiences in trying to get service from their Telco. But until this last month, I didn’t fully appreciate just how ugly this situation could be, because I have rarely needed to contact my own Telco (Telstra) in person.
So, here’s the story: Thanks to Covid, I was obliged to be in an on-line gathering that was important to me. In the middle of this Zoom meeting, our suburb experienced a ‘planned outage’. Had I looked on the website, or had I known where to look, I might have spotted this risk, but it didn’t occur to me that I lived in a country with such a fickle data service. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth when my meeting was ruined, I pulled myself together and rescheduled.
I tried to contact Telstra to find out if any more outages were planned for the new date. And you probably know what happened, right? It seems that I was one of the few people living in a bubble about this fact. I would not be able to speak to a human being and no human being was going to call me back.
Instead, I got caught in loops of dead end ‘leave a message’ links and found myself communicating with tone deaf bots. Friends shrugged as if to say, where have you been? The customer service line was set to cut me off with a message that told me ‘we’d like to serve you in another way’ and then text me a link that went absolutely nowhere. My husband tried to get an answer, I kept trying to get help and I downloaded the comically named ‘My Telstra’ app. Meanwhile, my son’s on-line studies were getting interrupted by outages as well.
I am trained to counsel people out of a panic attack and feelings of helplessness, and yet, here I was, after being persistently cut off and having tangential conversations with a bot called Codi, wanting to throw my phone at the wall. If I were capable of losing it, how would someone cope if they were frail, hard of hearing, learning English or generally feeling under strain?
A colleague suggested that the trick is to threaten to leave. That’s when you’ll get a call-back. What a service model! Only attend to your customers with personal contact as they’re walking out the door. Imagine dealing with other relationships in life using that approach.
Think about the irony of a phone company where no-one will pick up a phone. This is an organisation that is in the communications business, and it has built a wall to ensure that no customer can communicate with it.
A few days later, I was sent a tweet by IBM, boasting that their brilliant work in Artificial Intelligence was helping Telcos in Asia Pacific to transform customer service. Transform them into what? I rarely leave comments on social media, but I could not resist. My comment was instantly removed, but I begged to differ that this was a step forward. It was hardly something to boast about – replacing human beings with bots? Give me a break. But often do we see this today – a drop-in humanised service is announced as if we’re seeing some innovative breakthrough that we’ve all been waiting for? Do your own banking, fill your own tank, print your own tickets, sort your own luggage, check out your own groceries and go f**k yourself.
I am old enough to remember customer service training. In fact, the first training courses I ever delivered were in something called Telephone Techniques. We trained all staff who were the first line of contact, to answer the phone in a professional and upbeat manner, take useful messages, deal with upset clients and understand that they were representing the business in that moment. Customers, as we all knew, had choices and they could take their business elsewhere.
And while phone technology has changed dramatically, human psychology is the same. We still require a response. We really do not like being ignored. We are comforted by reliability (or consistency) and if we can choose where to spend our money, we are likely to spend it with the service that offers to help and sort out a problem.
I am still having fun with Telstra or Codi , as the bot is called. I’m leaving my home phone number and asking someone to call me. It’s just an experiment now to see if anyone will ever call. As the chain of texts and my comments grew longer, the bot would occasionally kick up a survey to ask me to rate the service. From one to five. I gave it a zero. My user experience, in their terms, is zero. Then it would ask me, How can we help you? Apparently Codi’s natural language engine has been fine tuned. I cannot imagine what it was like before it was fine tuned.
At one point I got a text to explain that Telstra couldn’t operate a call centre right now because of Covid. Really? Because even at the height of the strictest Covid conditions in my city, all my local shops stayed open, the buses kept running, my son went to work and answered customer calls, and the post office kept the mail moving. The Lifeline call centre in which I volunteer, kept going. We wiped down our keyboards and spaced ourselves a part a bit more.
But Telstra couldn’t manage this. They could manage to spout crap about their close relationship with IBM and use terms such as seamless interaction and streamlining processes. Have they saved money? I have no doubt.
All is not lost. Yesterday I went into a shop and a young woman quietly ended her call, whispering to her friend, ‘I’ll call you back – I have a customer.’ She was either trained, or simply in possession of good manners. Perhaps she owned the business and knew some basic truths about keeping customers and staying afloat.
Vote with your feet, an old boss of mine used to say. I need to get better at that. Reward the good and walk away from the bad, if we possibly can.