back to article Technology is murdering customer service - legally

When someone tallies up all the good and bad things that the tech mega-explosion of the last 50 years has brought us, there’s one item I expect to see right at the top of the second column: the slow but steady death of customer service. Anyone transported from, say, the 1970s to the 2020s will find that component of the …

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  1. David Black

    Do I have to talk to someone

    I must confess to hating phoning and talking to people about my problem(s)... maybe I'm just autistic spectrum or something but I really like just doing it myself and sorting my own shit out. Phoning a friendly but 99.9% useless person, labouring through my various issues only to get a "oh, I'm not sure" response just makes me feel crappy. I even avoided getting much needed knee surgery for 5 years as I had to phone up the private health insurance company for "authorization" at every step in the process. 6 months ago they replaced it with an onlne system, and bingo, surgery 4 weeks later :)

    I'm sure I'm not alone. Human interaction with people who don't know or care for you is highly overrated and a bit "phony" (pardon the awful pun).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Do I have to talk to someone

      It's not Autism, it's fear of being put through to an Indian call centre.

      I feel sorry for Glaswegians trying to make themselves understood.

      1. David Black

        Re: Do I have to talk to someone

        As a Glaswegian, I resemble that insightful comment :)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Do I have to talk to someone @ David Black

          Glasgow produced one of the finest words ever to enter the English dictionary - Numpty.

          1. BlartVersenwaldIII
            Flame

            Re: Do I have to talk to someone @ David Black

            > Glasgow produced one of the finest words ever to enter the English dictionary - Numpty.

            I'd wager that, due to a keen eye for linguistic efficiency, a new word was needed to describe that peculiar sense of enthusiastically helpful uselessness one frequently runs into when dealing with call centres, automated or otherwise. That "numpty" entered the lexicon far before this is a testament to their forward thinking.

            On that matter, currently causing my dentist to rub his hands with glee is HP's new "voice activated" support line, where instead of typing in numbers you speak yer problems to a cheerful east-coast robot that seems to have Genuine People Personalities. Even once I've gotten over the eyelid-twitching talking to a computer always entails, I don't have a pronounced accent of any kind other than "british" and it still routinely fails to put me through to the right bloody support centre. At least when you rolled your eyes waiting for you touch-tone option to come up it didn't feel like you were playing wheel of fortune for the grand prize of trying to toilet-train Ozzy Osbourne's incontinent poodle.

            Addendum after the third support call today: every voice activated system needs a surgeon-general-mandated backdoor to listen out for "Oh, for fucks SAKE!" and put you through to a reasonable approximation of a human.

      2. Nick Pettefar

        Re: Do I have to talk to someone

        Frakkin' BT Mobile had two call centres, one in NI and one in Newcastle. Gawd!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2. Number6

      Re: Do I have to talk to someone

      I would actually prefer a text chat to a phone too, although I'd prefer some real intelligence on the far side, not the artificial stuff. It has advantages if you need to contact a place while at work too, chat can be a background task whereas a phone call is very much a foreground task. It's also better if the background is a bit noisy, too.

    3. Havin_it
      Joke

      Re: Do I have to talk to someone

      They replaced your knee with an online system?

    4. WOOOOO
      Thumb Up

      Re: Do I have to talk to someone

      You're not alone, in fact I'm so glad to read I'm not alone in feeling like this! I hate calling people too. Partly I think it's cos I feel like I'm about to waste at least half an hour of my life answering retarded questions from a script instead of getting straight to the issue because they have to cater for the majority of idiots... Maybe companies should register your IQ so when you call you get different support options!

  2. Tom 38 Silver badge

    I'm currently in the phone tree of hell that is BT. BT seem to have determined that customer support is a cost, and they must minimise that cost. Only certain teams can deal with certain things, but you can't ring any of those teams, you must make a computer understand what you want (it won't), and then the computer will put you through to one of those teams.

    I'm sorry, put you through to the queue for one of those teams.

    So 3 minutes of automated machine, then 15 minutes of holding, and you've got through to a human - result! This person can take all the details of your case and sort it out, surely?

    Nope. This is the broadband team. You need bt infinity support team. Let me transfer you over. The first drone puts you on hold, and then rings through to the right team. I'm sorry, rings through to the queue for the right team. You are then on hold, whilst a BT drone is also on hold waiting with you.

    15 minutes more holding, then you are finally there, right? Nope, they need to co-ordinate with the order management department - BT infinity support can't change order details, silly!

    I had reached my limit with BT on Friday, told them to cancel my scheduled fibre phone line installation (on the basis that they promised instant BB activation - the fibre is installed and lit, they just needed to flick a switch, and that each time I call to find out why it's still not working takes 1+ hrs). My final words to the guy on Friday: "To confirm, you've cancelled all the outstanding order, the engineer install and anything related to me and BT" - "Yes" - "Thank you, good bye".

    Having done all that, today's dance with BT is because they "confirmed" over the weekend to remind me of the engineer install booked... 20+ minutes so far on hold...

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      BT

      BT Do their utmost to not help the customer: They have a culture of customer disservice and buck passing. I'm sure their staff training is all about how to pass the customer onto a different BT division as quickly as possible.

      If (and that is a very big if) you get to speak to a real engineer, they are usually very helpful and privately acknowledge that BT is a mess and is driven by middle managers who are wanting to hit cost-reduction targets. (Getting to that engineer is like the labours of Hercules.)

      One BT engineer told me he was disciplined by his manager for not closing enough support tickets in a day. Another told me that he sometimes passes fault tickets to other BT divisions - not because they'll fix the fault, but that it shows that he's "dealt" with the fault within his allotted time and so has hit target for the day. Engineers also tell me that they're given sales targets they have to hit too. Again, not interested in solving your problem, just in hitting a middle management target.

      1. JetSetJim Silver badge

        Re: BT

        Well, the problem is swings and roundabouts. Early on in the days, it didn't matter that it could take a long time to resolve a problem. But then managers started to measure the Cost of Poor Quality, and wanted to minimise it. That leads to targets, which leads to manipulation of the metrics. Then the managers would wander off wielding the torch of "Right First Time initiatives" to justify a further cut to support budgets & targets.

        I don't think I've ever seen a metric system that engineers didn't try to game.

        1. Vic

          Re: BT

          managers started to measure the Cost of Poor Quality, and wanted to minimise it. That leads to targets

          ...But it always leads to the *wrong* targets.

          Manglement want issues dealt with quickly - but customers don't; they want issues *resolved* quickly. So measuring the average time to close tickets and making a target out of that just motivates call-centre staff to close tickets prematurely. What you really need to measure is the time to get a customer to click the "yes, that's fixed, thanks" button.

          But they don't :-(

          Vic.

          1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

            Re: BT

            I'll take your BT and raise you a Virgin Media. Interactions over 10 years and 2 countries have convinced me a Leopard doesnt change his spots.

            Least annoying helldesk - Sky - suprisingly comparable with the Tech Savvy types at Eclipse.

        2. Anonymous Coward 101

          Re: BT

          "I don't think I've ever seen a metric system that engineers didn't try to game."

          Any system of measurement will be gamed by anyone with an ounce of sense.

      2. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: BT

        I found it crazy that they have no ticketing system, and everything seems to run on the concept of "managed insanity", where most things are sort of working and people will make enough fuss if they aren't.

        I'm used to when you have a problem with an isp, you raise a ticket "I've got no service", someone takes that ticket and progresses it until you do have service. With BT, you have to ring them up and fight through the system to get through to the right team, having done so there is no guarantee they can fix it (they are just the team you need to speak to to fix things, they don't actually fix things), and you can't ring them back directly.

        Actually, you can "email them" (which means "fill in a contact us form on the website"), they aim to respond within 10 working days..

        Technology can be used to aid or hinder CS, BT use it to hinder it, to discourage you from calling in, but other companies (Be CS were excellent) use it in a positive way. One line of 1st line support, dealing with customers, fixing simple things, dealing with account management. If they can't deal with it, they make a ticket and hand it off to 2nd line support. 2nd line either contact you directly with the fix, or pass it off to an engineer to do proper support. The whole process simplifies everything down, less people on phone calls waiting for the "right team" to become available.

      3. James 100

        Re: BT

        I had a tough few weeks earlier this year with a broadband fault - it turned out there were two faulty router ports on BT's backbone, but getting to that point required SIX engineer visits to my home and a long conference call between managers from two rival BT divisions to argue over who was going to have to ask the third division to fix the problem for them.

        A lot of this was because of automated fault-mishandling flowcharts: BT Wholesale automatically pass all faults over to Openreach to send an engineer out to work on the line - without investigating whether the problem is actually line-related rather than backhaul. Eventually, it got escalated to actual human beings (BT Wholesale's "High Level Escalations"), who knew enough to pass the fault over to BT TSOps (formerly BT Operate), who found and fixed the first router fault, then continue investigating until finding the second fault and passing that to the Ops team at Adastral Park.

        The whole saga was a fine example of this article's subject, though: BT Wholesale tried to close the fault ticket without doing any investigation a total of NINE times (*all* new faults are auto-closed twice within minutes of reporting, on the off-chance the fault isn't a real one), then force-closed it once (so it had to be re-opened as a 'new' fault). Even then, there was a lot of luck involved (maintenance meant my traffic was re-routed to another backbone segment for a few hours, which made the problem disappear during the diversion) - which gave enough information for the ISP to get BT investigating the right bits of network at last.

  3. 's water music

    Customer services here, how may I /seem/ to help you?

    your call is not important to us.

    If algos are so much better at spotting chatbots that meatsacks perhaps we can expect an arms race of third-party service suppliers who will marshal an army of customer-bots to take on the customer-service-bots on our behalf in a never-ending battle to elicit useful service. This will free me up to get back to developing an AI to relieve me of the chore of watching television .

    1. John G Imrie

      Re: Customer services here, how may I /seem/ to help you?

      This will free me up to get back to developing an AI to relieve me of the chore of watching television.

      I don't need an AI for that. I mistakenly turned on the TV while it was tuned into the X factor. Now all I need is to talk to someone at the local support group, I've been on hold for an hour now and I swear if I hear green sieves on more time I'll rip the phone line ou <NO CARRIER>

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    Just leaving this here :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z99HZ8KyYYc

  5. Ole Juul

    This will change

    As someone who remembers the 70s (and earlier), I too think that technology has murdered customer service. The first time it bugged me was when I ran head first into computer inventory. "Yes, we have one in stock and it is at our other warehouse. We can get it here in less than a week". Uh, ... so you don't have one, but you thought the computer would make a suitable excuse? It doesn't.

    That said, I've seen first class customer service in recent years. People are going to start to demand it. My hosting company replies to trouble tickets (with real expertise) within 15 minutes, and if you prefer, they even answer the phone on weekends. I'm sticking with them and they know it. In fact, keeping customers was probably part of their business plan. We're going to see more of this.

    1. fruitoftheloon
      Holmes

      Re: This will change

      Ole,

      which hosting company would that be OOI?

      Ta.

      J.

      1. Ole Juul

        Re: This will change

        "Ole, which hosting company would that be OOI?"

        That would be Superb Internet, based in Honolulu. I suspect there are others in that field who are catching on. It's a competitive field where it's often easy to leave if you don't get what you want.

        The problem with a lot of things is that they are either a monopoly or they are part of an oligopoly.

    2. annodomini2

      Re: This will change

      They'll have a 'sale' target.

      Get X customers online and flog it to one of the big providers.

    3. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      Re: This will change

      If you remember the 70's, then maybe you remember the British Rail Enquiry line where the main question was whether you would starve to death before the phone was answered?

      It wasn't ALL good.

  6. Alienrat
    Terminator

    Needs additional AI

    Maybe that means there is room in the market for an AI that does know your problem that you can use to communicate with the companies AI to sort it out?

  7. Craig McGill 1

    Amazon aren't bad

    I need to say that 9/10 you can't fault Amazon for this. They do have customer service - humans most of the time - that do try their damnedest to get you off the phone or screen as quickly as possible - but get you off the phone happy.

    1. John G Imrie

      Re: Amazon aren't bad

      Amazon seam to have come to the conclusion that

      a) They will fuck up every now and then. Not surprising considering how they work their packers.

      b) If someone has taken the time to call them, they can use this to sell the caller more goods.

      c) The best way to sell the caller more goods is to resolve their problem as quickly and efficiently as possible.

      1. Nick Pettefar

        Re: Amazon aren't bad

        I have been impressed with Apple many times. The first thing they do is take your number and an alternate one so that they can call you back if the call is interrupted. It carries on from there in the same vein.

        Amazon have never let me down, not once. They may not pay honest taxes but they get my vote. I also am impressed with PayPal and eBay who have always sorted out my problems with either them or customers. If I want something nowadays, I rarely buy it if I can't get it via Amazon or eBay because they can be relied upon.

    2. Squander Two

      Two words.

      First Direct.

      They started out as by far the best bank at customer service, and have stayed that way. One of the ways they achieved this is that they have a no-IVR policy: they only ever put you through to a human. And their humans are good. And they are consistently the most recommended bank in the UK and have one of the best corporate reputations on Earth, so it is apparently a profitable thing to do.

      I second the comments about Amazon and Ebay and Paypal. Also Ebuyer.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A good solution for this problem is the dutch SkipTheMenu app. It maintains lists of phone trees for a lot of companies. If you want to call one of these companies, you can first navigate the tree on your screen (without cost of course), after which you call them and your phone automatically presses all the right buttons.

    Now that's innovation!

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've tended to find that the quality (is that the right term here?) of customer service tends to be inversely proportional to the size of the company.

    I can understand that to some degree. Given the humongous user base that microsoft has, for example, it would be impossible for them to provide support for every conceivable issue and use case.

    Maybe some kind of customer service SLA could be in order when you sign up for things.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Maybe some kind of customer service SLA could be in order when you sign up for things

      In my experience, SLAs aren't worth the paper they're written on. Usually the penalties are trivial, so there's no incentive to improve.

      At the other end, I heard of one contract where the SLA penalties piled up so high that the customer was told: "If you invoke the [SLA] penalties, we'll go into administration as we can't afford them"

      1. 's water music

        first rule of credit: make your debt a big one

        At the other end, I heard of one contract where the SLA penalties piled up so high that the customer was told: "If you invoke the [SLA] penalties, we'll go into administration as we can't afford them"

        An early draft:

        "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure "like a boss", result creditors are your bitches"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      As someone who moved from customer support in Oracle to a small startup, I agree, but it's not the fault of the engineers or the humongous user base - the scale of the business determines the economies of scale of small cost-saving measures (ie. worth it vs not worth it), and the maturity of the business determines how encumbered it is by overzealous middle-management and therefore processes and procedure.

      Anon, cos I might still want to return to big red. Maybe. If I had to.

  10. rhydian

    As a fluent Welsh speaker...

    ...I do have a major advantage. Many major companies (BT/Scottish Power/Banks/Royal Mail etc) and all Government services have Welsh language call centres. The queues are much shorter and the chances of you being transferred to India are nil. This is very, very handy when even native English speakers find it hard to pronounce or spell your address, let alone someone speaking their 2nd Language.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As a fluent Welsh speaker...

      Doesn't always work on the corporate side of the fence. Our Welsh based, Welsh speaking account manager was taken away from us, and told to serve customers in England. Our account was then dealt with by people in England, who didn't understand the difference between Caernarfon and Carmarthen.

      1. rhydian

        Re: As a fluent Welsh speaker...

        Unfortunately I've yet to find any major telecoms firm that does business services in Welsh.

  11. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The support that never was

    > the slow but steady death of customer service

    In truth, we've never had good customer service. Sure, some owner-run shops may have "the guy" who knows the in's and out's of all the limited range of stuff they sell. But that is the closest you'll ever get - and you're paying high-street premiums for their over-the-counter stuff you buy. Not exactly 21st century, chasing the cheapest price no matter what, do everything online, way of making purchases.

    The biggest problem is that so much of our "stuff" is too complex, too cheap to have been designed and tested properly and too mass-produced to have spare parts available, or for every single item to work perfectly (even the first time).

    So yes, it is annoying when you have to call an anonymous call-centre. While I'm not trying to defend them, they do have their own problems: such as the utter, mind-boggling, ignorance of most of their callers. People who neither know what they have bought, are aware of its limitations nor sometimes even realise it needs batteries for it to work (confession time: I was, once, firmly convinced that the TV had gone "phut" until another person, who shall remain nameless, confessed to having removed the batteries from the remote control as the ones in her torch had gone flat). It's these sorts of problems, which must account for the majority of a call centre's enquiries that their systems are meant to deal with - not the geek who calls up to know how to change the dynamic dns settings on their router.

  12. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Paying for customer service

    With several big (house hold name) companies my employer deals with, we've said that we would pay extra to have our own dedicated, customer service person/people. (when you're spending millions, the cost would be a rounding error) The large companies refused, saying we'd have to use the same pool of agents that everyone else uses. Crazy....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Paying for customer service

      I don't know. I think what the large company's saying is that the cost to retain such a person would be higher than you're offering. Not only would they be on the hook for this person all the time, but this would be a specialist, likely require special training and raising the labor costs for that person. IOW, the cost to retain this deciated support person (which no none else may end up using) is such that it's no longer a rounding error.

      I think that's the big moral of the customer these days: we want maximum service at minimum price, but the acceptable levels of each have crossed each other to the point that the minimum price required for the level of service we want is higher than the maximum price customers are willing to pay (and many times that maximum is 0).

  13. auburnman

    I would happily never speak to 'customer service' if companies actually admitted they made mistakes and had protocol to fix it. If I could fill out a box saying 'I have been charged for X when X is included in my plan, please correct my account and refund the charges' and the company actually did it I would be ecstatic.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      And as the article and a poster or two have noted, the potential mistakes are myriad. Here's just a sampling:

      - "I was charged X for Y service but my agreement stipulated I only be charged X-Z."

      - "I was charged for Y service but have only received Y-Z of that service."

      - "My texts are not coming in/going out consistently or reliably."

      - "I get no coverage in the open in (X,Y,Z) even though your coverage map shows 4G coverage in the same spot."

      - "I'm getting charged for a service I never agreed to subscribe."

      IOW, such a form as you describe would probably go to multiple pages and become a deterrent to customers from the sheer size of it.

  14. Anonymous Coward 101

    I tried the 'call sales to get through to customer support' technique with NPower (which naturally means the phone is answered immediately), but they wouldn't put me through to anyone useful. I gave up.

    I have also had the experience of going through all the available choices on the menu, and then getting a useless recorded message at the end of it. This was to get Orange to cancel their fucking £2 itemised statements. The secret is to randomly press buttons on their menus to get through to someone.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Get what you pay for....

    ...we all want everything to be top notch, but don't want to pay for it.

    True, no excuse for mega-bucks profit corporation, but some smaller places, that extra £200k may make or break them.

    Still helping design contact centres, nothing pisses me off more than the call centre manager insisting on 200 layers of IVR, patronising hold messages and ill-thought out of info such as "see our website" when you are phoning up your broadband provider.

    A good interaction should deal with things like balances quickly, but shouldn't take you 45 minutes to get past that.

    Phone Barclaycard for a lesson in lousy design....

    1. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: Get what you pay for.... - Barclays

      A kind assistant at Barclays Bank recently phoned Barclaycard for me. Even he could not get any sense out of them, and that was talking to people.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    _You_ may not have an answer on the phone tree...

    ...but I can guarantee a substantial number of their customers do. As someone with some responsibility in the tech support side of a company with substantially more customers than employees I would say that 95% of our support requests should read "I'm sorry, but I was too lazy to actually read the two warnings on the order form, I also ignored them in the confirmation email you sent me after placing the order and in the email you sent telling me that my order was ready, and I'd now like to complain that it doesn't look like what I expected it to".

    Trying to catch these people before they end up wasting your time on the phone is in everyone's best interests. I'd pick a competent self-serve website portal over telephone support anytime.

  17. Mage Silver badge

    Frightening

    With some products there are helpful people out there that know MORE than the Company's R&D. Unfortunately there are others who are total ignoramuses but posting as if they are expert. You need a certain threshold level of expertise to tell them apart :-(

    It doesn't help that the HW appears to be designed from application notes written by the OEM suppliers Intern / Co-op Student and the firmware / drivers/ application / user manual produced by other students and possibly badly ported from ancient C or the User Interface (buttons on a radio with minuscule text LCD, or Camera with random GUI and buttons) designed by a Chimp/Alien/Rat with no human understanding or logic (perhaps a Corvid would do better).

    42 languages of user manual that's mostly disclaimers or warning about incorrect battery insertion (they ignore the excellent battery manufacturer's app notes on how to design battery compartments so batteries CAN'T be inserted wrongly!).

    You don't even get what you pay for as often the expensive brand is same product as cheap one.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Frightening

      42 languages of user manual that's mostly disclaimers or warning about incorrect battery insertion (they ignore the excellent battery manufacturer's app notes on how to design battery compartments so batteries CAN'T be inserted wrongly!).

      Because what you describe is impossible. At least some small but significant percentage of the help calls will be for people, in the sheer depths of stupidity, who somehow managed to cram a battery the wrong way into a compartment only designed to accept the battery one way.

      "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." - Douglas Adams

  18. Busby

    Surely there reaches a point where the diminishing cost of providing support is offset by the amount of business it loses you. Left Pipex a number of years ago after there once excellent support was outsourced after being bought out. Couldn't get them to understand the most basic of issues and they wanted to send a BTengineer (which I would be billed for if no fault found) when the issue was clearly there end.

    Also left giffgaff and BT for similar reasons. When staff are only able to deal with issues on a list and your problem falls outside of those it becomes it's own version of room 101. A swift legal threat in one case got me a refund and away from one. The filing of legal papers got me released from the other. If nothing else at least legal teams seem to have a little more sense but it shouldn't have to come to that to get the most basic of service.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      If nothing else at least legal teams seem to have a little more sense but it shouldn't have to come to that to get the most basic of service.

      Unfortunately, it's only when the legal team (very expensive) gets involved that the cost outruns the benefit of ignoring you. Any other situation, they could probably leave you high and dry 24/7/365.25 and they'd still turn a profit from the terminally stupid.

      IOW, they make a killing selling you the stuff but would get killed the moment they have to support it. Now imagine this being status quo through a whole industry.

      1. Hollerith 1

        Three strikes and the third is legal

        After struggling for years when goods were not fit for purpose, or engineers didn't come out, etc., I now call twice, and make a note of time and who I spoke to and, if nothing happened, I then write two letters, restating the problem and noting the passing time. I then write a third letter to say that Letter Four will be from my solicitor. I am always calm and polite. If no response comes, they get Letter Four from my solicitor. Yes, it costs me a bit, but the action is instant. Instant. I have been so impressed by this method that it is the only one I use for big-ticket items (i.e. I wouldn't use it for something that costs less than the solicitor's letter, e.g. a missing DVD, but for a new appliance, yes).

  19. Notas Badoff
    Mushroom

    Have you checked our website?

    Trying to understand another weirdness with McA-Mantic virus scanner, I started searching their 'knowledgebase' with keywords specific to my problem. Getting nothing back I began getting more and more general with the searches. Still getting nothing I finally clued in and searched for 'virus'. Nothing. No articles found. 'malware'. Nothing.

    Sent them an email saying their search function was dead-on-entry. After two round-trips with the AI answering the emails, and checking again *four* days later, still no articles found searching for 'virus'.

    Hmm... A year later, should I check again?

  20. rhydian

    A list of my most common CS annoyances

    "Please enter the telephone/account number on your keypad" yet the first thing the CS operator asks for is exactly the same information

    Voice Recognition. In that a recognises *A* voice, but usually not yours

    "Indirect" phone numbers i.e. to call my local bank I have to call in to a centralised call centre. Not much use if you want to check if you left your hat there...

  21. Irongut Silver badge

    If you pay peanuts...

    you get monkeys.

    I have no problems getting an engineer from my ISP on the phone in minutes, through to a person at my bank after entering my details and pressing one key, etc. My secret? I don't pick the cheapest possible option for everything.

  22. John Tserkezis

    I called microsoft support recently.

    Yes, shocking, but I did. My last experiece was a long time ago, they were easy to get hold of, but I just gave up because they didn't seem to know anything.

    More recently, they did know what they were talking about, and did fix the issues. However, true to the article, their phone number was near-impossible to find, the phone maze was worse (I had to hang up and start again several times when I realised they got me to follow a wild goose), but I eventually got onto a human - and that's where I was stumped.

    The waiting time was holy crap short, and although they seemed to have a meld of indian/america accent, shockingly, they could actually answer my questions. Believe it or not.

    If only I kept the phone number and the phone maze sequence... In my defence, there were a couple of numbers and multitudes of phone menu combinations, bit too hard to write all of the attemps, and too long to remember the last combination - especially when I was surprised to hear a real human at the other end...

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    nine times out of 10, it’s explicitly meant to keep you from talking to a human being

    You are explicitly wrong here, at least based on my 25-or-so experience (at the receiving end of the "so-called customer service"). What you're saying is that in 9/10 cases (metaphorically 9/10, I assume), they say, explicitly, when you call customer service: we're here NOT to help you. This line is designed to put you off trying our (unbeatable) customer support. Our helpline is here to rip you off instead of giving you ANY support what-so-f-ever. You got the wrong number / All of our support team are busy now, good bye.

    What they do, is anything but explicit (and for obvious reasons), they do all those nasty things (and more), but not "in your face".

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: nine times out of 10, it’s explicitly meant to keep you from talking to a human being

      At least most of them are toll-free now. Imagine if you had no choice but to put up with this on a toll number. And since it's likely a vendor in a captive market, the only alternative to give the vendor the finger would be to walk away with nothing at all.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge
        Flame

        Re: nine times out of 10, it’s explicitly meant to keep you from talking to a human being

        The phrase "Toll Free" isn't used in the UK, so I'd guess you're in the USA. And here in the UK they're usually not toll free. Sometimes they even use high cost payment sharing phone lines so that we are paying them for the privilege of being kept on hold.

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: nine times out of 10, it’s explicitly meant to keep you from talking to a human being

          "Toll free" support lines are the worst in the UK. Although you are not paying for the call, they can put you on hold for as long as they like. If they use a cost sharing number, like 0845, 0330 (or whatever variant BT are using these days to confuse us about the actual cost), then they aren't allowed to keep you on hold for extended periods.

          So BT is 0800, ring them up and they don't care if it takes 30+ minutes. Thames Water are 0845, you get through to a human within 1 minute of ringing.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: nine times out of 10, it’s explicitly meant to keep you from talking to a human being

      Er, I've seen every one of those situations.

      Yes, it's deliberate and yes, I've seen it in my face.

  24. LordHighFixer

    One thing I haven't tried

    is entering XYZZY or "kill troll with axe" in to the phone tree system. Maybe I should have put the batteries in the torch before I started...

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sales don't deal with problems unless there's (big) money involved

    Calling Sales in an attempt to get help with a Service problem will inevitably result in a contemptuous brush-off.

    "Excuse me, I wonder if you can help me... <explains problem>..."

    "There must be some mistake here, we've already got your money. Sorry, I must just pop out to lunch".

    <click, dial-tone>

    The idea is understandable, though, and is supported by Brownridge's Law:

    "The quicker a phone's answered in sales, the slower it's answered in customer services".

  26. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Not just phone support

    It's part of a wider process that can be described as "delay-avoid-ignore". And applies just as much to written complaints and inquiries.

    First they make themselves hard to find. Then they give lots of irrelevant "answers"..

    Then they stop replying on the basis that they've lost your future business anyway.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not just phone support

      And if the next letter they get is from a law firm...?

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Not just phone support

        Part of the calculation is that customers can't or won't take legal action in the majority of cases.

        If only because the Ts & Cs protect them too well. A legitimate complaint isn't the same as a legal challenge.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not just phone support

          Perhaps, but lawsuits are like spam. Just one hit is enough to ruin your whole day. Plus, once that one hit comes, there's lots of "snowball" potential. And if there's one thing lawyers know, it's that no one can shrinkwrap around a lot of legal regulations--they trump the T&Cs.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: Not just phone support

            Which I guess is why you hear so many stories of companies that fall over and settle just before it gets to court. They'll obstruct, threaten and make you suffer right up to the courtroom door in the hope that you'll give up.

            1. Vic

              Re: Not just phone support

              Which I guess is why you hear so many stories of companies that fall over and settle just before it gets to court. They'll obstruct, threaten and make you suffer right up to the courtroom door in the hope that you'll give up.

              I took Royal Mail to court over some numptiness. It was a tiny claim, but they sent me a full inch of paperwork from their legal department to try to deter me, claiming they'd spent many thousands for which I would be liable when I failed in my suit.

              I applied for a court date, and all of a sudden, they sent me a cheque...

              VIc.

      2. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: Not just phone support

        "And if the next letter they get is from a law firm...?"

        Repeat steps above.

        Remember the story here about the guy who spent 12 years suing the PC store and credit agency?

  27. Apriori

    Competition

    I have just been working with a telco in Africa. Because the customer base is large but poor, pretty much everyone uses low value scratch cards. In each of the countries I visited, there were several mobile phone companies, and SIMs cost next to nothing.

    As a result, if you get poor service from Telco A, you can say "Sodit" and tomorrow you buy a SIM and a scratchcard from Telco B, etc. Churn is phenomenal and costs the customers nothing.

    Guess what? Customer service is superb. Costs are very low. I never had a call dropped, even in the sticks, and coverage is brilliant. Oh yes, and unlike in the UK, you don't lose time you have paid for if it goes over a month end.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Competition

      As I commented elsewhere on el reg a few days ago, why is it that Africa is getting high speed broadband vis balloons and drones for a few million quid, while the UK throws over a billion at the local incumbent to simply bump the people with "only" 20Mbps up to a critical 80Mbps, whilst ignoring the "have-nots-but-want desperately"?

      I'd love to crowd-fund a drone based system for the UK. Wait until the tech is mature in the 3rd world, then buy a few in. Not just BT and the other fixed line idiots, but all the mobile phone companies might buck up their ideas too, and start offering decent coverage.

      Anon, just in case my<SESSION TERMINATED>

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This says it all

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/customer_service

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > “You folks work this out among yourselves, OK?” But considering that the technical knowledge of some of the participants on these sites is starting to rival anything you could hope to get from the companies themselves, the DIY solution may not be all that bad in the end.

    It's interesting that one of the points put *against* open/free software is the lack of support.

    Against the above reality, is this really a bona fide distinguishing feature these days?

    A lot of commercial companies selling propritary software claim to provide support. What they often offer is nothing of the sort.

  30. G R Goslin

    You really should maintain this article

    You reall should maintain this article. I can see it going on for infinity. As someone who has spent the last few days on a menu sage (which was at my expense), in trying to get a question through to both my mobile phone supplier, AND the landline phone company, I can sympathise and agree with every single post.

    And that doesn't include the absolute pointlessness of posting on the companies forums.

  31. arrbee

    Working for a software company we tend to be pretty strong on customer service - after all, the alternative would be to make us write proper user documentation...

  32. Herby

    Maybe the problem is the "customer"?

    Unfortunately for many calls to "customer service" the requests are for "really dumb" things, and the customers are a bit slow "right click" (where do I write click on my screen), and "cup holder" (recently seen on a TV commercial here) usage.

    What is needed is a bit more "customer education" so that the callers will have an idea what is going on. I only suppose that the majority of people reading this are of a higher class than the typical "1D10T" person who calls support asking for instructions on how to empty the "bit bucket" that is getting full. The root of the problem is that there isn't a test involved on using a computer. Back in previous decades (see S/360 article) the people who were using the computer actually knew something about its operation. Nowdays it is hoped that it will work like a telephone. Just "pick up the phone" (see Federal Express commercial).

    We've come a long way, and computer literacy hasn't come as far.

    As for phone service, those #$%^%#$& voice recognition services that ask open ended questions are TERRIBLE. Oh, and I don't want to blab out my credit card number to everyone in the office either!

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Maybe the problem is the "customer"?

      Herby

      Most switchboard hell calls aren't about trivial IT issues. They're "Why didn't the repair man turn up after I waited in all day". Or "Why did you take my payment three times this month". Or "The cupboard door you installed has been put on the wrong side up". And so on.

    2. Squander Two

      No, the problem is not the customer.

      The problem is the stinking attitude of people in the customer service part of the IT industry. "These fuckwits aren't experts in the same field as me! How dare they waste my time asking me questions I know the answer to and they don't!"

      > What is needed is a bit more "customer education" so that the callers will have an idea what is going on.

      If you work in customer service, that customer eduction is in fact part of your fucking job. You are supposed to do it, not complain that some hypothetical entity hasn't already done it for you.

      Other industries have managed to avoid this obnoxiousness. "I work for a railway company. Can you believe some stupid moron rang up the other day to ask why all the trains had been cancelled and THEY DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHETHER THEY USED OVERHEAD LINES OR DIESEL ENGINES?"

      People are ringing you for your help. How about you stop talking about how "dumb" they are, take some pride in the fact that you're an expert, and get some job satisfaction by imparting knowledge? I have dealt with literally insane people on the phone, and, although some of them did make for a good anecdote, I still helped them and I don't resent it.

  33. Sphinx86

    iiNet - best customer service ever

    For anyone in Australia (or I think New Zealand and South Africa also) I can't recommend more highly iiNet as your ISP/Phone/Mobile carrier due to the awesome customer service.

    24/7 Phone support, no phone trees (or at least so unobtrusive that I can't remember them), genuinely helpful support staff, and even the people on their Sales line have enough Tech savvy to help out with problems.

    For those talking about the size of the company being a problem - they are Australia's 3rd (2nd??) biggest ISP and they have offices in NZ and SA for support, hence why they can offer 24/7 support.

    Every contact with them ends with an email to rate the customer service you have received from.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: iiNet - best customer service ever

      Had reason to call them a few months ago (lost ADSL sync). When they realised I didn't have their standard BOB ADSL modem but a Juniper device they'd not heard of they cut short all the "have you turned it off and on again?" nonsense and booked an engineer to come out. It's great that they realise that the numpty on the end of the line might just have a clue.

      I think there's only a single level for their phone tree (sales/support/something else). As for call queues - not a problem. You get a recorded message saying how long your expected wait is. If that's too long for you they give you the option to receive a call back from them and you retain your place in the queue once you've hung up.

  34. ecofeco Silver badge

    It's even worse inside the company

    I've worked internal tech support for some of the biggest names on the planet and if you think retail support is bad, you ain't seen nuthin'.

    I would get many internal users who had spent half the day trying to get a problem fixed that took me 30 minutes to an hour to resolve. (if they were talking to us, the problem was always pretty bad. that was our job) And damn near everyone of them glad to finally talk to someone who spoke the native language, listened to what they had to stay, knew how to calm them down AND knew how to fix the problem.

    Which usually pissed off some of the more senior career techs. (took too long, too nice to the user, should've known some arcane bit of knowledge that was never readily available, etc)

    Meanwhile, my satisfaction surveys were always tops. Which would piss off the senior techs even more.

    Of course, you do get the ones who could not find the ON button with a map in broad daylight (no exaggeration), but they were actually few and far between.

    So my point is, it isn't just cost and (un)willingness to pay, but also a culture of screw the end user that is pervasive from top to bottom.

    Don't even get me started on "knowledge bases".

  35. Black Betty

    Omnbudsman is a magical word. (If you have access to one.)

    It's amazing how helpful people can be once one threatens to involve an industry watchdog with teeth.

    Payroll errors corrected now instead of next paycheck.

    New phone line now instead of next month, after I was told single pair flat didn't exist by the salesperson I'd ordered a second line through.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Omnbudsman is a magical word. (If you have access to one.)

      Too bad that doesn't exist in the US.

      "We screwed you? Sue us."

      1. proud2bgrumpy

        Re: Omnbudsman is a magical word. (If you have access to one.)

        Exactly, "America - land of the fee"

  36. Aslan

    Excellent Customer Service

    I'm in Ohio in the united States. I've gotten excellent customer service from 3 companies I can think of.

    www.Newegg.com They respond fairly quickly by email, quickly by chat or even by phone without to much hassle. On two occasions they've screwed up the free items badly. Particularly memorable was a free 2GB microsd card they sent me a 4GB SD card. I'm like this is great, but I've got plans for the microsd card. They said keep it. So they tried again, same results. So I called them up a third time they're like sorry about that, but at this point you have 2 4GB SD cards from us for free, can we leave it at that. I said sure but I'm disappointed you couldn't ship the right item. I ended up buying the card I needed from them anyway. Newegg made the effort and gave me free stuff. I'm willing to spend a few dollars extra, even $5-10 on a hundred dollar purchase, because I trust and like them. Though often their prices match or beat competitors.

    Wide Open West, or WOW. Cable company taking on the incumbents. Always works to make you happy. They answer the phone, help with problems and give you a bill credit if they're in error or maybe even if they aren't. I'm sorry to have moved away from their service area. Further more their prices were reasonable.

    Crutchfield.com Wow, these guys give you free lifetime tech support for any product they sell. If mom wants to buy a smart tv, have her buy it here, plug it in for her and let Crutchfield answer all her questions. The bad news is most things are MSRP and many of the products they sell don't require any support. It's a rare sale at Crutchfield that hits 20% off. If the price is the same everywhere or only a bit higher at Cruchfield I'll shop there every time.

    Some of the worst tech support ever? Dell. trying to get Dell to send you a product by part number is hopeless. My model of laptop had a 90 watt charger, the 150 watt charge worked just fine with this laptop, and let you use the laptop while charging the battery. My 150 watt charger went out. I called them, gave them the exact part number they read it back to me, everything was good they then changed the order to the 90 watt model and shipped it. I complained on receiving it, they sent me out another 90 watt instead of the 150 watt one I provided the part number for and they verified they would send me. Finally i spent four and a half hours on the phone and talked to a manager and they sent me out the 150 on the condition I sent the two 90 watt chargers back. I got my 150 watt charger, and said fuck you Dell and sat on the 90 watt chargers. Dell chargers tended to get breaks in the non removable power cable, so I gave the two 90 watt chargers away to friends who needed them.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Excellent Customer Service

      Ah... Dell.

      Dell went from the number one computer company in the late 1990s to number 3 within the span of 7 years.

      Why? Crap equipment and even crappier customer support. A situation that was so bad Micheal Dell himself had to take back the company and go private.

      I still hate dealing with Dell tech support. Even a corporate platinum contract doesn't mean squat some days.

      Back to the OPs comment, yes, there are still some really good companies out there that care about the customer. Costco (another US company) is one of those. Heck, they even care about their employees! That's damn near a commie concept here, these days.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    on hold after hours

    First Union (now part of Wells Fargo) used to have a really poorly implemented system. If you dialed in with less than a minute left of active helpdesk time, and it took you more than a few tries and more than a minute to enter your account number correctly, it would keep you in queue until you hung up (or more likely, Monday morning at 9am - i never lasted this long.) My record for one call, with nothing but a computer telling to continue waiting was about 14 hours. The only reason the call ended then was that I inadvertantly dropped the phone, causing the battery to pop off.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No need for service or accurate billing these days, get the sheeple on direct debit and count the money, no further action required.

    Actually, you may also need to take regulators and politicians out to lunch and put some of them on the board.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      "Actually, you may also need to take regulators and politicians out to lunch and put some of them on the board."

      There's an issue, well documented, called "regualtor capture". The regulators start to identify with the companies.

      Especially if they are already part of the same professional background.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      May? It's a damn revolving door and that's no exaggeration.

      The US government is by definition, a fascist one.

  39. proud2bgrumpy

    They have your money, stuff customer support

    Thats why we get tied into 6-12 month *contracts* because the odds are that any problems you have will be in the first 3 or 4 months and because you're in a poxy contract, you can't leave. After 6 months, you forget about how crap the support is and let the bank/broadband/insurance company keep syphoning cash out of your account like the leeches they are.

    The first sign of a company not giving a f**k about its customers is when it offshores its *help* desk - nothing against India etc but a little local knowledge goes a long way and India is a long, long way away - add to that impenetrable accents and anglicised psedo-names.

    So after a while, such abysmal customer service becomes the norm and we *abandoned- customers* actually find spending a few hours researching a problem preferable to explaining that I actually live in "Ipswitch" and don't have a problem with my "IP Switch" or that "Nottingham" is not a borough in London. Pretty soon Phone Tree 'Call Mishandling' services begin to seem acceptable.

    After suffering the abysmal *couldn't give a sh*t now we've got your money* service of Halifax Bank, RBS, Barclays, NPower, EDF, I discovered First Direct (08456 100100 or 0113 2345678) for Banking and Ovo (0800 5999 440 / 01179 303100) for Gas and Electric - give either of them a call, you'll directly get through to a human being - usually within 3 rings.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just spent a frustrating day trying to get a sensible answer from the UK Gov Home Office about a visa query. Eventually found an email address to communicate with and got a reply which amounted to "go look on the website" which I had already been unsuccessfully trawling for several hours with no success. Further persistance and hours of redialling, navigating the routing tree and hanging on hold got a real person who tried the "Data protection act: I can only speak to the applicant" (a 90 year old who speaks no English) however I succeeded in asking the question as a hypothetical enquiry.

    The problem with Government is that there isn't a sales number to call as a way of fast-tracking to a human.

    On a positive note (kind of) I use Virgin Broadband at home and in my office. The business connection costs me a lot more but when I had a problem I was quickly routed to a human who actually knew what he was talking about, used his network monitor to identify there was a fault in the local area, got that posted on the service status page, got an engineer on the case and service restored within an hour. I'd rate support for my domestic service as "adequate" which probably amounts to praise when compared to normal expectations, I was dismayed to hear an Indian accent but then surprised to get useful support and the impression that it wasn't just a script-following drone.

    On the whole the businesses that deliver the best support are small, individual customers matter to them.

    Done right user forums can be a good way of delivering support but there are many ways to do it wrong. For example GiffGaff mobile phone service provider incentivises customers to post solutions to other customer's problems (they award points which can reduce your phone bill). In principle that's a good idea but let down by poor implementaion - a simple question can get hundreds of responses many completely missing the point of the question, others repeating answers already provided so you have to wade through mountains of garbage to find one useful answer (if you're lucky)

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