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Posts Tagged ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE’

AOL: WORKING HARD TO COMMIT SUICIDE

In Bureaucracy, Business, History, Social commentary on October 18, 2017 at 12:06 am

When the movie, You’ve Got Mail appeared in 1998, no one needed to be told that America Online (AOL) would be prominently featured.

It was through AOL that the two main characters in this romantic comedy—Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—found offline happiness through an online romance.

You've Got Mail.jpg

The film was aptly timed to boost AOL’s popularity. By 1997, about half of all American homes with Internet access had it through AOL.

Founded in 1983, AOL began  began as a short-lived venture called Control Video Corporation (or CVC). Its sole product was an online service called GameLine for the Atari 2600 video game console.

Subscribers bought a modem from the company for $50 and paid a one-time $15 setup fee.

On May 24, 1985, Quantum Computer Services, an online services company, was founded by Jim Kimsey from the remnants of Control Video.

Kimsey changed the company’s strategy, and in 1985, launched a dedicated online service.

During the early 1990s, the average subscription lasted for about 25 months and accounted for $350 in total revenue.  AOL greatly expanded its customer rolls by distributing free AOL trial disks through companies like The Good Guys and Circuit City. At one point, 50% of the CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo.

By 1997, about half of all U.S. homes with Internet access had it through AOL.  

AOL’s Silicon Valley branch office

Over the next several years, AOL launched services with the a wide range of educational organizations, including:

  • The National Education Association
  • NPR
  • The American Federation of Teachers
  • National Geographic
  • The Library of Congress.

A big draw for AOL customers was its “Instant Messenger” service. Launched in 1997, it allowed AOL members to “chat” with each other. No other online service had anything like it, and AOL refused to share the technology that made this possible.

(Eventually, an anti-monopoly lawsuit by the Justice Department forced AOL to share its “Instant Messenger” technology with its online rivals.)  

By 1998, anyone with an Internet-connected computer could access AOL for free.  Its revenues were now driven by ads companies eagerly paid to showcase their services or products.

In January 2000, AOL and Time Warner announced plans to merge, forming AOL Time Warner, Inc.  AOL shareholders would own 55% of the new, combined company. The deal closed on January 11, 2001.

At the time, it seemed a merger made in heaven.  It would supposedly allow Time Warner to digitise its content and reach out to a new online audience.  And AOL would gain access to Time Warner’s cable systems, innovative broadband capability and additional content to provide to its 27 million customers.

Yet by 2002 the merger resulted in a net loss of $99 billion, the largest loss ever reported by a company.  By 2009, the merger-marriage was over. Time Warner Chief Jeff Bawkes called it “the biggest mistake in corporate history.”

In June, 2017, AOL warned its customers that, starting in August, they would have to pay about $5 a month to access its services. The company was switching to a “new, improved” version called AOL Gold.

As usually happens when new software is launched, there were bugs all around in it. A complainant to the Pissed Consumer website wrote:

“If I have to pay I don’t want to see ads all over my mail, reading or when I’m writing. Send to later folder is all messed up. It seems to crash more & runs slower….

“I read an email & clicked on ‘mark unread’ when I tried to pull it back up I only got the heading but NOT the info. Trying to send email to a group of friends & being told there is a problem, but no idea what is wrong.  I always used this group in my 9.8 desktop with no problems.”

And another customer wrote: “Aol gold sucks.90% of the time I get error to load account.”

A third customer: “Spent 4.5 hours waiting for aol gold to import my old pfc [Private Filing Cabinet–where emails are stored] only to find it imported the wrong version of my favorites…. Then spent 3.5 hours on a remote tech call where he repeatedly uninstalled and reinstalled gold with the same results.”

Other problems include:

  • AOL shutting off immediately after sending an email
  • The lack of a “Clear Toolbar History” function (as was available on the “old” AOL)
  • The inability to transfer an image from the Internet (such as a beautiful seascape) to the desktop (another feature that was also available previously)

Customers who call AOL’ at (888) 265-3733 and press “1” for “support on your existing AOL account” automatically get transferred to the billing department.  So anyone seeking technical help needs to press “2”.

But AOL apparently doesn’t have enough techs trained in its new Gold technology.  So there is usually a long wait before one of them comes on the phone.  This means that if you’re calling on a cell phone, you can easily run out of battery time before your problem is resolved.

Then, in early October, AOL announced that, on December 15, it would shut down its Instant Messenger service.

The reason: Competing “chat” systems—such as texting, Gchat and Facebook—have replaced Instant Messenger as go-to forms of communication.

Nor does AOL plan to replace its Instant Messenger service.

Perhaps only the movie business can rival AOL for sheer self-destructiveness. Once “the big dog on the block,” AOL now risks the fate of dogs sent to the pound.

WHY AMERICANS HATE CABLE COMPANIES

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on July 29, 2016 at 12:17 am

In 1970, Robert Townsend, the CEO who had turned around a failing rent-a-car company called Avis, published what is arguably the best book written on business management.

It’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation From Stiffling People and Strangling Profits.

Though published 46 years ago, it should be required reading–for CEOs and consumers.

Don’t fear getting bogged down in a sea of boring, theory-ridden material.  As Townsend writes:

“This book is in alphabetical order. Using the table of contents, which doubles as the Index, you can locate any subject on the list in 13 seconds. And you can read all I have to say about it in five minutes or less.

“This is not a book about how organizations work.  What should happen in organizations and what does happen are two different things and about as far apart as they can get.  THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HOW TO GET THEM TO RUN THREE TIMES AS WELL AS THEY DO.”

Comcast is the majority owner of NBC and the largest cable operator in the United States. It provides cable TV, Internet and phone service to more than 50 million customers.

So you would think that, with so many customers to serve, Comcast would create an efficient way for them to attain help when they face a problem with billing or service.

Think again.

Consider the merits of Townsend’s short chapter on “Call Yourself Up.”

Townsend advises CEOs:“Pretend you’re a customer. Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help. You’ll run into some real horror shows.”

Now, imagine what would happen if Brian L. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, did just that.

Brian L. Roberts

First, he would find that, at Comcast, nobody actually answers the phone when a customer calls. After all, it’s so much easier to fob off customers with pre-recorded messages than to have operators directly serve their needs.

And customers simply aren’t that important–except when they’re paying their ever-inflated bills for phone, cable TV and/or Internet service.

Comcast’s revenues stood at $19.25 billion for the fourth quarter of 2015.

In 2015, Roberts earned $36.2 million in salary, options and other compensation, a 10% increase from 2014.

So it isn’t as though the company can’t afford hiring a few operators and instructing them to answer phones directly when people phone in.

But instead of being directly connected to someone able to answer his question or resolve his problem, Roberts would hear:

“Welcome to Comcast–home of Xfinity.”

Then he would hear an annoying clucking sound–followed by the same message in Spanish.

“Your call may be recorded for quality assurance.

“To make a payment now, Press 1.  To continue this call, Press 2.”

Then he would hear: “For technical help, press 1, for billing, press 2.  For more options, press 3.”

Assuming he pressed 2 for “billing,” he would hear:

“For payment, press 1  For balance information, press 2.  For payment locations, press 3.  For all other billing questions, press 4.”

Then he would be told: “Please enter the last four digits of the primary account holder’s Social Security Number.”

Then, as if he hadn’t waited long enough to talk to someone, he would get this message: “Press 1 if you would like to take a short survey after your call.”

By the time he heard that, he would almost certainly not be in a mood to take a survey.  He would simply want someone to come onto the phone and answer his question or resolve his problem.

Then he would hear: “At the present time, all agents are busy”–and be electronically given an estimate by when someone might deign to answer the phone.

“Please hold for the next customer account executive.”

If he wanted to immediately reach a Comcast rep, Roberts would press the number for “sales.”  A sales rep would gladly sign him up for more costly products–even if he couldn’t solve whatever problem Roberts needed addressed.

Assuming that someone actually came on, Roberts couldn’t fail to notice the unmistakable Indian accent of the rep he was now speaking with.

Not Indian as in American Indian-because that would mean his company had actually hired Americans who must be paid at least a minimum American wage for their services.

No, Comcast, like many other supposedly patriotic corporations, “outsources” its “customer service support team” to the nation, India.

After all, if the “outsourced” employees are getting paid a pittance, the CEO and his top associates can rake in all the more.

Of course, the above scenario is totally outlandish–and is meant to be.

Who would expect the wealthy CEO of a major American corporation to actually wait in a telephone queue like an ordinary American Joe or Jane?

That would be like expecting the chief of any major police department to put up with hookers or panhandlers on his own doorstep.

For the wealthy and the powerful, there are always underlings ready and willing to ensure that their masters do not suffer the same indignities as ordinary mortals.

Such as the ones who sign up for Comcast TV, cable or Internet services.

“YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US”: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help, Social commentary on December 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

So you’ve spent the last half-hour or more on the phone, listening to one recorded message after another (and probably a symphony of bad music).

And you’re no closer to solving the problem that caused you to phone the company/agency in the first place.

What to do?

  • Go on the Net and look up the company’s/agency’s website.  Look for links to their Board of Directors.  Often enough you’ll get not only their names but their bios, phone numbers and even email addresses.
  • Start looking at the bottom of the website page.  Many companies/agencies put this information there–and usually in small print.
  • Look for the names of officials who can help you.  That means the ones at the top of the  company–or at least high enough so you can be sure that whoever responds to your call, letter and/or email has the necessary clout to address your problem.
  • If you call, don’t ask to speak directly with Mr. Big–that’s not going to happen.  Ask to speak with Mr. Big’s secretary, who is far more accessible.
  • Keep your tone civil, and try to make your call as brief as possible.  Don’t go into a lot of background about all the problems you’ve been having getting through to someone.
  • Give the gist and ask for a referral to someone who can help resolve your problem.
  • If the secretary needs more time to study the problem before referring you to someone else, be patient.  Answer any questions asked–such as your name, address, phone number and/or email.
  • State–specifically–what you want the company to do to resolve your problem.  If you want a refund or repairs for your product, say so.
  • Too many consumers don’t specify what they want the company to do–they’re so caught up in their rage and frustration that this completely escapes them. 
  • Be reasonable.  If you want a refund, then don’t ask for more money than you paid for the product.  If you want to return a product for an exchange, don’t expect the company to give you a new one with even more bells and whistles–unless you’re willing to pay the difference in price.
  • If you want an agency to investigate your complaint, don’t expect them to drop everything else and do so instantly.  Give them time to assess your information and that supplied by others.
  • It’s usually possible to get one agency to sit on another–if you can make a convincing case that it’s in that secondary agency’s best interests to do so.
  • For example: If you’ve been roughed up by local police for no good reason, you can file a complaint with that department–-and the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutor) to investigate.
  • That doesn’t guarantee they will resolve your problem.  But if you can show that the cops have violated several Federal civil rights laws, the odds are that someone will take a serious look at your complaint.
  • If a company/agency official has acted so outrageously that the company/agency might now be held liable for his actions, don’t be afraid to say so.
  • But don’t threaten to sue.  Just point out that the employee has acted in such a way as to jeopardize the company’s/agency’s profits and/or reputation for integrity/efficiency.  Make it clear that the organization is not well-served by such behavior.
  • Don’t try to win sympathy for yourself.  An agency/company doesn’t care about you.  It cares only about its profits and/or reputation.  So if you got a raw deal, but don’t have the means to threaten either, its top executives won’t lift a finger to help you.
  • If you can make it clear that the profits and/or reputation of the agency/business have been compromised by the actions of its employee(s), your letter/email will instantly catch the attention of Mr. Big.  Or one of Mr. Big’s assistants–who will likely take quick action to head off a lawsuit and/or bad publicity by trying to satisfy your request.
  • Give the CEO’s secretary at least one to two days to get back to you.  Remember: Resolving your problem isn’t the only task she needs to complete.
  • If you’re writing the CEO, make sure you use his full name and title–and that you spell both correctly. People don’t get to be CEOs without a huge sense of ego. Nothing will turn him off faster than your failing to get his name and title exactly right.
  • As in the case with his secretary, be brief–no more than a page and a half.  Outline the problem you’re having and at least some (though not necessarily all) of the steps you’re taken to get it resolved.
  • Then state what you want the company to do.  Again, be fair and reasonable.
  • If your main problem is simply getting through the phone system of the business, point out that most customers won’t put up with such rudeness and inefficiency. They will take their business elsewhere.

“YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US”: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help, Social commentary on December 14, 2014 at 9:08 pm

How many times have you called a government agency or company and instantly found yourself put on hold?

To add insult to injury, you usually wind up serenaded by recorded music that would be totally forgettable if it weren’t so unforgivably irritating.

And every 30 seconds or so a recorded voice comes on to assure you: “Your call is very important to us.”

Have you ever wondered:If my call is so important to you, why aren’t you answering it? 

The truth is that most companies and government agencies don’t want their employees speaking with the customers who make their existence a reality.

Having your questions answered by another human being requires the company/agency to assign–and pay–people to do just that.

Most hiring managers don’t want to hire any more people than they absolutely have to.  Assigning people to answer customers’ calls means that many of those calls will take time to answer, because some problems can’t be solved in a matter of seconds.

This is especially true when the problem involves technology.

(Technical support employees of computer/software companies are notorious for advising customers to “just put the Restore Disk back into your computer and restore it back to default.”

This wipes out your problem–and everything you’ve saved on your computer.  It also gets you off the phone quickly with Tech Support.)

To a bean-counting executive, time is money.  And that’s money that won’t be going into the pockets of some already overpaid CEO.

Even government agencies like police departments don’t want to spend any more time than necessary taking the calls of those who need to reach them.

Even calls to 911 can leave you talking to no one, with only a recorded message telling you to wait until someone deigns to speak with you.

That’s why many bureaucracies arrange that when you call for help, you’re fobbed off with a recorded message telling you to visit the company’s or agency’s website.

This assumes, of course, that

  1. You have a computer;
  2. If you do, you also have Internet access; and
  3. All the answers to life’s problems–including yours–can be found on that website.

If you

  • Don’t have a computer;
  • You have a computer but don’t have Internet access;
  • You do have Internet access but the service is down;
  • Can’t find the solution to your problem on the agency/company website

you’re flat out of luck.

And the agency/company couldn’t care less.

But it need not be this way.

Companies and agencies can treat their customers with respect for their time and need for help.

That’s why companies that genuinely seek to address the questions and concerns of their customers reap strong customer loyalty–and the profits that go with it.

One of these is LG, which produces mobile phones, TVs, audio/video appliances and computer products.

LG actually offers an 800 Customer Care number that’s good 24-hours a day.

Its call center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people who are willing to take the time to answer customer questions and guide them through the steps of setting up the appliances they’ve bought.

Another company that dares to have human beings stand behind its products–and explain how to use them–is The Sharper Image.

Recently, Dave, a friend of mine, bought an electronic alarm clock that allows you to wake up to a variety of exotic sounds–such as a thunderstorm, the seashore, chirping birds or foghorns.

A brochure on how to set the alarm and sounds came with the clock, but Dave couldn’t make sense of it.  Luckily, there was an 800 number given in the brochure for those who needed to be walked through the necessary steps.

Dave called The Sharper Image and quickly found himself connected with a friendly and knowledgeable customer care rep.  She clearly and patiently explained what he needed to do to choose which sounds he wanted to awaken to.

And then she just as patiently repeated that list of steps while he quickly typed them up for future use if he forgot what to do.

Such an approach to customer service is not new–just extremely rare these days.

In his 1970 bestselling primer on business management, Up the Organization, Robert Townsend offered the following advice to company CEOs: “Call yourself up.”

“When you’re off on a business trip or a vacation,” writes Townsend, “pretend you’re a customer.  Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help.  You’ll run into real horror shows.

“Don’t blow up and ask for name, rank and serial number–you’re trying to correct, not punish.  Just suggest to the manager (through channels, dummy) that he make a few test calls himself.”

So how do you cope with agencies/companies that don’t care enough to help their customers?

I’ll address that in my next column.

WHY PEOPLE HATE CABLE COMPANIES

In Business, Self-Help, Social commentary on December 12, 2014 at 12:01 am

In 1970, Robert Townsend, the CEO who had turned around a failing rent-a-car company called Avis, published what is arguably the best book written on business management.

It’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.

Product Details

Though published 42 years ago, it should be required reading–for CEOs and consumers.

Don’t fear getting bogged down in a sea of boring, theory-ridden material.  As Townsend writes:

“This book is in alphabetical order.  Using the table of contents, which doubles as the Index, you can locate any subject on the list in 13 seconds.  And you can read all I have to say about it in five minutes or less.

“This is not a book about how organizations work.  What should happen in organizations and what does happen are two different things and about as far apart as they can get.  THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HOW TO GET THEM TO RUN THREE TIMES AS WELL AS THEY DO.”

Comcast is the majority owner of NBC and the largest cable operator in the United States. It provides cable TV, Internet and phone service to more than 50 million customers.

So you would think that, with so many customers to serve, Comcast would create an efficient way for them to attain help when they face a problem with billing or service.

Think again.

Consider the merits of Townsend’s short chapter on “Call Yourself Up.”

Townsend advises CEOs: “Pretend you’re a customer.  Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help.  You’ll run into some real horror shows.”

Now, imagine what would happen if Brian L. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, did just that.

Brian L. Roberts

First, he would find that, at Comcast, nobody actually answers the phone when a customer calls.  After all, it’s so much easier to fob off customers with pre-recorded messages than to have operators directly serve their needs.

And customers simply aren’t that important–except when they’re paying their ever-inflated bills for phone, cable TV and/or Internet service.

Comcast’s revenues stood at $16.8 billion for the third quarter of 2014.

In 2013, Roberts earned $31.4 million in salary, options and other compensation, a 7.7% increase from his $29.1 million compensation package in 2012.

So it isn’t as though the company can’t afford hiring a few operators and instructing them to answer phones directly when people phone in.

But instead of being directly connected to someone able to answer his question or resolve his problem, Roberts would hear:

“Welcome to Comcast–home of Xfinity.”

Then he would hear an annoying clucking sound–followed by the same message in Spanish.

“Your call may be recorded for quality assurance.

“To make a payment now, Press 1.  To continue this call, Press 2.”

Then he would hear: “For technical help, press 1, for billing, press 2.  For more options, press 3.”

Assuming he pressed 2 for “billing,” he would hear:

“For payment, press 1  For balance information, press 2.  For payment locations, press 3.  For all other billing questions, press 4.”

Then he would be told: “Please enter the last four digits of the primary account holder’s Social Security Number.”

Then, as if he hadn’t waited long enough to talk to someone, he would get this message: “Press 1 if you would like to take a short survey after your call.”

By the time he heard that, he would almost certainly not be in a mood to take a survey.  He would simply want someone to come onto the phone and answer his question or resolve his problem.

Then he would hear: “At the present time, all agents are busy”–and be electronically given an estimate by when someone might deign to answer the phone.

“Please hold for the next customer account executive.”

If he wanted to immediately reach a Comcast rep, Roberts would press the number for “sales.”  A sales rep would gladly sign him up for more costly products–even if he couldn’t solve whatever problem Roberts needed addressed.

Assuming that someone actually came on, Roberts couldn’t fail to notice the unmistakable Indian accent of the rep he was now speaking with.

Not Indian as in American Indian–because that would mean his company had actually hired Americans who must be paid at least a minimum American wage for their services.

No, Comcast, like many other supposedly patriotic corporations, “outsources” its “customer service support team” to the nation, India.

After all, if the “outsourced” employees are getting paid a pittance, the CEO and his top associates can rake in all the more.

Of course, the above scenario is totally outlandish–and is meant to be.

Who would expect the wealthy CEO of a major American corporation to actually wait in a telephone queue like an ordinary American Joe or Jane?

That would be like expecting the chief of any major police department to put up with hookers or panhandlers on his own doorstep.

For the wealthy and the powerful, there are always underlings ready and willing to ensure that their masters do not suffer the same indignities as ordinary mortals.

Such as the ones who sign up for Comcast TV, cable or Internet services.

YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on November 6, 2013 at 12:56 am

So you’ve spent the last half-hour or more on the phone, listening to one recorded message after another (and probably a symphony of bad music).

And you’re no closer to solving the problem that caused you to phone the company/agency in the first place.

What to do?

  1. Go on the Internet and look up the company’s/agency’s website.  Look for links to their Board of Directors.  Often enough you’ll get not only their names but their bios, phone numbers and even email addresses.
  2. Start looking at the bottom of the website page.  Many companies/agencies put this information there–and usually in small print.
  3. Look for the names of officials who can help you.  That means the ones at the top–or at least high enough so you can be sure that whoever responds to your call/letter/email has the necessary clout to address your problem.
  4. If you call, don’t ask to speak directly with Mr. Big–that’s not going to happen.  Ask to speak with Mr. Big’s secretary, who is far more accessible.
  5. Keep your tone civil, and try to make your call as brief as possible.  Don’t go into a lot of background about all the problems you’ve been having getting through to someone.
  6. Give the gist and ask for a referral to someone who can help resolve your problem.
  7. If the secretary needs more time to study the problem before referring you to someone else, be patient.  Answer any questions asked–such as your name, address, phone number and/or email.
  8. State–specifically–what you want the company to do to resolve your problem.  If you want a refund or repairs for your product, say so.
  9. Too many consumers don’t specify what they want the company to do–they’re so caught up in their rage and frustration that this completely escapes them. 
  10. Be reasonable.  If you want a refund, then don’t ask for more money than you paid for the product.  If you want to return a product for an exchange, don’t expect the company to give you a new one with even more bells and whistles–unless you’re willing to pay the difference in price.
  11. If you want an agency to investigate your complaint, don’t expect them to drop everything else and do so instantly.  Give them time to assess your information and that supplied by others.
  12. It’s usually possible to get one agency to sit on another–if you can make a convincing case that it’s in that secondary agency’s best interests to do so.  If you’ve been roughed up by local police for no good reason, you can file a complaint with that department–-and the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutor) to investigate.
  13. That doesn’t guarantee they will resolve your problem.  But if you can show that the cops have violated several Federal civil rights laws, the odds are that someone will take a serious look at your complaint.
  14. If a company/agency official has acted so outrageously that the company/agency might now be held liable for his actions, don’t be afraid to say so.  But don’t threaten to sue.  Just point out that the employee has acted in such a way as to jeopardize the company’s/agency’s reputation for integrity/efficiency and that the organization is not well-served by such behavior.
  15. Whoever reads your letter/email will instantly realize the legal implications of what you’re saying–and, in most cases, will take quick action to head off a lawsuit by trying to satisfy your request.  The foremost priority of every bureaucracy is to ensure its own survival.
  16. Give the CEO’s secretary at least one to two days to get back to you.  Remember: Resolving your problem isn’t the only task she needs to complete.
  17. If you’re writing the CEO, make sure you use his full name and title–and that you spell both correctly. People don’t get to be CEOs without a huge sense of ego.  Nothing will turn him off faster than your failing to get his name and title exactly right.
  18. As in the case with his secretary, be brief–no more than a page and a half.  Outline the problem you’re having and at least some (though not necessarily all) of the steps you’re taken to get it resolved.
  19. Then state what you want the company to do.  Again, be fair and reasonable.

YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO US: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on November 5, 2013 at 1:15 am

How many times have you called a government agency or company and instantly found yourself put on hold?

To add insult to injury, you usually wind up serenaded by recorded music that would be totally forgettable if it weren’t so unforgivably irritating.

And every 30 seconds or so a recorded voice comes on to assure you: “Your call is very important to us.”

Have you ever wondered:If my call is so important to you, why aren’t you answering it? 

The truth is that most companies and government agencies don’t want their employees speaking with the customers who make their existence a reality.

Having your questions answered by another human being requires the company/agency to assign–and pay–people to do just that.

Most hiring managers don’t want to hire any more people than they absolutely have to.  They want to siphon off as much of the company’s profits for themselves as possible.

And assigning people to answer customers’ calls means that many of those calls will take time to answer, because some problems can’t be solved in a matter of seconds.  To a bean-counting executive, time is money.

Even government agencies like police departments don’t want to spend any more time than necessary taking the calls of those who need to reach them.

Even calls to 911 can leave you talking to no one, with only a recorded message telling you to wait until someone deigns to speak with you.

That’s why many bureaucracies arrange that when you call for help, you’re fobbed off with a recorded message telling you to visit the company’s or agency’s website.

This assumes, of course, that

  1. You have a computer; and
  2. If you do, you also have Internet access.

If you

  • Don’t have a computer; or
  • You have a computer but don’t have Internet access; or
  • You do have Internet access but the service is down,

you’re flat out of luck.

And the agency/company couldn’t care less.

But it need not be this way.

Companies and agencies can treat their customers with respect for their time and need for help.

That’s why companies that genuinely seek to address the questions and concerns of their customers reap strong customer loyalty–and the profits that go with it.

One of these is LG, which produces mobile phones, TVs, audio/video appliances and computer products.

LG actually offers an 800 Customer Care number that’s good 24-hours a day.

Its call center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people who are willing to take the time to answer customer questions and guide them through the steps of setting up the appliances they’ve bought.

Another company that dares to have human beings stand behind its products–and explain how to use them–is The Sharper Image.

Recently, Dave, a friend of mine, bought an electronic alarm clock that allows you to wake up to a variety of exotic souds–such as a thunderstorm, the seashore, chirping birds or foghorns.

A brochure on how to set the alarm and sounds came with the clock, but Dave couldn’t make sense of it.  Luckily, there was an 800 number given in the brochure for those who needed to be walked through the necessary steps.

Dave called The Sharper Image and quickly found himself connected with a friendly and knowledgeable customer care rep.  She clearly and patiently explained what he needed to do to choose which sounds he wanted to awaken to.

And then she just as patiently repeated that list of steps while he quickly typed them up for future use if he forgot what to do.

Such an approach to customer service is not new–just extremely rare these days.

In his 1970 bestselling primer on business management, Up the Organization, Robert Townsend offered the following advice to company CEOs: “Call yourself up.”

“When you’re off on a business trip or a vacation,” writes Townsend, “pretend you’re a customer.  Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help.  You’ll run into real horror shows.

“Don’t blow up and ask for name, rank and serial number–you’re trying to correct, not punish.  Just suggest to the manager (through channels, dummy) that he make a few test calls himself.”

So how do you cope with agencies/companies that don’t care enough to help their customers?

I’ll address that in my next column.

HANGING UP ON THE PHONE COMPANY: PART TWO (END)

In Business, Self-Help on April 26, 2013 at 12:02 am

From November, 2011 to February, 2012, AT&T demanded that Dave pay them for a service they had failed to provide.

They had promised to supply him with Uverse high-speed Internet–at 25 MBPs a second. Instead, he had gotten only 6 MBPs a second. And a big dot in the middle of his computer screen when watching YouTube videos.

Finally, an AT&T rep told him the blunt truth:

His geographical area was not yet supplied with fiber-optic cables that could provide high-speed Internet service.

Dave canceled Uverse–and began getting a series of bills from AT&T.

First one for more than $400.

Then a reduced bill for $260.

Then another for $140.

And still another for $126.95.

After getting a phone call from a collections agency, Dave asked me to intervene with AT&T on his behalf.

So I decided to go directly to the Office of the President.

Long ago I had learned a crucial truth:

The man at the top of an organization cannot fob you off with the excuse: “I can’t do it.” He can do anything he wants to do. And once he decides to do it, everyone below will fall into line.

I already had the phone number: (800) 848-4158.

I had gotten this via a google search under “AT&T Corporate Offices.” This gave me a link to “Corporate Governance”–which provides biographies of the executives who run the company.

And at the head stands Randall L. Stephenson–Chairman of the Board, CEO and President of AT&T Inc.

I didn’t expect to speak with him. One of his chief lieutenants would be enough–such as a woman I’ll call Margie.

First, I introduced myself and said I was authorized to act on Dave’s behalf. Then I handed the phone to Dave (who was sitting next to me) so he could confirm this.

I then briefly outlined the problems Dave had been having.

Margie–using Dave’s phone number–quickly accessed the computerized records documenting all I was telling her.

She said she would need three or four days to fully investigate the matter before getting back to me.

I said that, for me, the crux of the matter was this:

An AT&T rep had told Dave the company could not supply high-speed Internet to his geographical area because it had not yet laid fiber-optic cables there.

This meant:
1.There was a disconnect between what AT&T’s technicians knew they could offer–and what its customer service reps had been told;
2.Or, worse, the company had lied when it promised to provide Dave with a service it couldn’t deliver.

I said that Dave wanted to resolve this quietly and amicably. But, if necessary, he was prepared to do so through the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The PUC regulates phone companies at the State level. The FCC regulates them at the Federal level.

Just as I was about to hang up, I said I couldn’t understand why Dave should have kept getting billed, since he had been assured he wouldn’t be.

Margie said that the company felt he owed $150.00 for “breaking” the two-year contract he had signed.

I immediately noted that AT&T had not lived up to its end of the contract–that is, to provide the promised high-speed Internet service. As a result, they could not demand that Dave pay for something that had not been delivered.

Clearly, this set off alarm-bells for Margie.

When I asked her, “How soon can I expect to hear from you on your company’s investigation into this matter?” she said there was no need to conduct one.

In fact, she added, she was writing out a credit to Dave of $150.00 that very minute.

Previously, she had told me it would take three or four days.

Thus, Dave did not owe the company anything for his disappointing experiment with its Uverse service.

I felt certain that Dave’s experience with a rapacious AT&T was not an isolated case. Just as banks use every excuse to charge their customers for anything they can get away with, so do phone companies.

I knew that AT&T didn’t want the PUC and FCC to start asking: “Is ATt&T generally dunning customers for money they don’t owe?”

I believe the answer would have proven to be: “Yes.”

And I believe that Margie felt the same way.

So, when dealing with a predatory company like AT&T:
1.Keep all company correspondence.
2.Be prepared to clearly outline your problem.
3.Know which State/Federal agencies hold jurisdiction over the company.
4.Phone/write the company’s president. This shows that you’ve done your homework–and deserve to be taken seriously.
5.Remain calm and businesslike in your correspondence and/or conversations with company officials.
6.Don’t fear to say you’ll contact approrpriate government agencies if necessary.
7.If the company doesn’t resolve your problem, complain to those agencies, and/or
8.Consider hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit.

HANGING UP ON THE PHONE COMPANY: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Business, Self-Help on April 25, 2013 at 12:10 am

Lily Tomlin introduced her character of Ernestine, the rude, gossipy, know-it-all telephone operator, in the 1960s series Laugh-In.

A typical skit would open:

“A gracious hello. Here at the Phone Company, we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth.

“So, we realize that, every so often, you can’t get an operator, or for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order, or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn’t make. We don’t care!

“You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space age technology that is so sophisticated even we can’t handle it. But that’s your problem, isn’t it?

“So, the next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string?

“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”

All of which was–and remains–hilarious. Except when you face such behavior in real-life with the phone company.

That’s exactly what happened to a man I’ll call Dave.

Dave had had DSL Internet service with AT&T for a year, and had been entirely satisfied with it. So when AT&T offered him Uverse service for less than what he had been paying, he signed up.

But the new service never worked properly.

Dave had been promised that he would get 25 MBPs a second–double his previous download speed.

Instead he got only 6 MBPs a second. He was also being repeatedly disconnected from the Internet.

Dave called AT&T to complain. The company sent a technician to inspect the connection.

The tech told him that the line he was using for DSL was not working with Uverse. He was told he needed to install a new line to solve the problem.

Seeking a second opinion, Dave asked AT&T to send out another technician.

This one said there was already an existing CAT 5 line in Dave’s apartment. He said that by connecting this line to the computer, the problem should be solved.

But after he connected the line, Dave could not watch videos on YouTube because a dot appeared in the middle of the screen.

Since Dave had a Mac, he sought advice at his nearby Apple store. Was there was anything wrong with the computer? he asked.

The Apple rep said the problem was that he wasn’t getting enough download speed.

Dave called AT&T again.

A tech said the problem lay with the modem: Send it back and we’ll send you another.

Dave sent back the modem and AT&T sent him a second.

Dave installed the modem but still found a big dot in the middle of the screen while watching YouTube videos.

A technician tried to resolve the problem from AT&T’s own facilities, but was not able to.

Dave called AT&T and said he was going to disconnect the service because it still wasn’t working.

Suddenly, the blunt truth finally emerged:

An AT&T rep told him that his geographical area was not yet supplied with fiber-optic cables that could provide high-speed Internet service. In six months, the company would probably have such lines set up in his location.

Dave said that in six months, if AT&T had fiber-optic cables installed in his area, he would call back and have service restored.

The rep told him to send back the modem and he would owe nothing.

And that’s when the real trouble started.

Dave soon got a bill from AT&T saying he owed more than $400 for Internet service. He called them back and asked why he had gotten this bill.

The AT&T rep said the bill was to cover the costs of sending over the technicians.

Dave replied that they hadn’t installed any new lines or corrected the problem. They had only checked the line.

AT&T said they would reduce the amount Dave owed to $260. This was to cover about two months’ service and the modem—to be paid one month in advance.

Dave said that he hadn’t gotten service that worked and he would pay the money only if they could get it working properly.

AT&T told Dave to return the modem and he would owe them nothing.

Dave mailed the modem to AT&T in November, 2011.

AT&T then sent Dave a letter saying he owed them $140.

He refused to pay it.

He got another bill that said AT&T was reducing it to $126.95 for Unverse Internet service.

Dave called AT&T and complained.

This time, an AT&T rep said it had been a “computer mistake” and that this would be corrected on his next bill; there would be no such charge.

Shortly afterward, Dave got another letter on February 15, still demanding the payment of $126.95 for Uverse service.

After getting a phone call from a collections agency, Dave asked me to intervene with AT&T on his behalf.

COMCAST AND COMMUNICATIONS DON’T MIX

In Bureaucracy, Business, Self-Help on January 28, 2013 at 12:14 am

In 1970, Robert Townsend, the CEO who had turned around a failing rent-a-car company called Avis, published what is arguably the best book written on business management.

It’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.

Product Details

Though published 42 years ago, it should be required reading–for CEOs and consumers.

Don’t fear getting bogged down in a sea of boring, theory-ridden material.  As Townsend writes:

“This book is in alphebetical order.  Using the table of contents, which doubles as the Index, you can locate any subject on the list in 13 seconds.  And you can read all I have to say about it in five minutes or less.

“This is not a book about how organizations work.  What should happen in organizations and what does happen are two different things and about as far apart as they can get.  THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HOW TO GET THEM TO RUN THREE TIMES AS WELL AS THEY DO.”

Comcast is the majority owner of NBC and the largest cable operator in the United States. It provides cable TV, Internet and phone service to more than 50 million customers.

So you would think that, with so many customers to serve, Comcast would them with an efficient way to attain help when they face a problem with billing or service.

Think again.

Consider the merits of Townsend’s short chapter on “Call Yourself Up.”

Townsend advises CEOs: “Pretend you’re a customer.  Telephone some part of your organization and ask for help.  You’ll run into some real horror shows.”

Now, imagine what would happen if Brian L. Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, did just that.

Brian L. Roberts

First, he would find that, at Comcast, nobody actually answers the phone when a customer calls.  After all, it’s so much easier to fob off customers with pre-recorded messages than to have operators directly serve their needs.

And customers simply aren’t that important–except when they’re paying their ever-rising bills for phone, cable TV and/or Internet service.

Comcast’s net income stood at $2.11 billion in October, 2012.  And Roberts himself raked in a cool $26.9 million in 2011 compensation.

So it isn’t as though the company can’t afford hiring a few operators and instructing them to answer phones directly when people phone in.

But instead of being directly connected to someone able to answer his question or resolve his problem, Roberts would hear:

“Welcome to Comcast–home of Xfinity.”

Then he would hear an annoying clucking sound–followed by the same message in Spanish.

“Your call may be recorded for quality assurance.

“To make a payment now, Press 1.  To continue this call, Press 2.”

Then he would hear: “For technical help, press 1, for billing, press 2.  For more options, press 3.”

Assuming he pressed 2 for “billing,” he would hear:

“For payment, press 1  For balance information, press 2.  For payment locations, press 3.  For all other billing questions, press 4.”

Then he would be told: “Please enter the last four digits of the primary account holder’s Social Security Number.”

Then, as if he hadn’t waited long enough to talk to someone, he would get this message: “Press 1 if you would like to take a short survey after your call.”

By the time he heard that, he would almost certainly not be in a mood to take a survey.  He would simply want someone to come onto the phone and answer his question or resolve his problem.

Then he would hear: “At the present time, all agents are busy”–and be electronically given an estimate by when someone might deign to answer the phone.

“Please hold for the next customer account executive.”

If he wanted to immediately reach a Comcast rep, Roberts would press the number for “sales.”  A sales rep would gladly sign him up for more costly products–even if he couldn’t solve whatever problem Roberts needed addressed.

Assuming that someone actually came on, Roberts couldn’t fail to notice the unmistakable Indian accent of the rep he was now speaking with.

Not Indian as in American Indian–because that would mean his company had actually hired Americans who must be paid at least a minimum American wage for their services.

No, Comcast, like many other supposedly patriotic corporations, “outsources” its “customer service support team” to the nation, India.

After all, if the “outsourced” employees are getting paid a pittance, the CEO and his top associates can rake in all the more.

Of course, the above scenario is totally outlandish–and is meant to be.

Who would expect the wealthy CEO of a major American corporation to actually wait in a telephone queue like an ordinary American Joe or Jane?

That would be like expecting the chief of any major police department to put up with hookers or panhandlers on his own doorstep.

For the wealthy and the powerful, there are always underlings ready and willing to ensure that their masters do not suffer the same indignities as ordinary mortals.

Such as the ones who sign up for Comcast TV, cable or Internet services.

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