February 18, 2007

Seven Steps to Better Customer Support

All of a sudden I can no longer send email to my friend Jim at his Earthlink address. Their server is bouncing everything back to me. When I looked closely at the header of the returned communication the problem was clear: “reason: 550 550 Dynamic/zombied/spam IPs blocked.” Well, okay, it was clear to me. Translated, Earthlink had decided the outgoing mail server I was using had either been hijacked by another server or was directly the source of spam.

The solution was really simple: get the owner of my mail server to talk with Earthlink to get them taken off of their spam blacklist. I was so mistaken. The solution was simple, but actually get someone to help me was not.

First I called Verizon. Over the course of the evening I spoke with three of their tech support staff, kindly recounting the issue only to be disconnected each time. All I wanted was someone to say: “Mr. Gates, I’m sorry you are having a problem. I will make sure the proper people take care of it.” Instead, I was often told it wasn’t their problem, but mine. It was a frustrating experience I’ve grown to expect with Verizon and other companies I rely on for my technical wellbeing.

Jonathan Grubb, Chief Product Officer of a new company called Satisfaction has just written an article called 8 Types of Customer Service. Verizon comes under his fifth category called Understanding but Inflexible Customer Service. Jonathan describes the type:

This is sometimes a hard one to spot. The customer service person listens to you, tries to understand your problem, acknowledges how frustrating it is, then tells you that the company is prepared to do absolutely nothing to remedy the situation… Online example: Verizon, where they will never ever stray from the rules but they will talk with you as long as you like.

Yes, Jonathan, that was exactly my experience. Each listened quietly while I concisely described my problem after which each expressed his regret that I was experiencing such pain. Then nothing. Which leads me to suggest to tech companies a few steps towards better customer support:

  1. Dismantle your “silo” approach to customer support.

    Solving technical problems demands an overall approach. Adhering to a narrowly defined “problem tree” (“If customer says ‘this,’ do this. If customer says ‘that’ do something else.”) —a one size fits all approach— does not help those whose problems fall outside predefined parameters.

    It’s bad enough when one company refuses to help connect their product to another company’s (see Step 3 below). It’s worse when a company refuses to help you solve a problem with a product from one of their own quasi-independent subsidiaries. Verizon is an example of a company built within various silos with no direct communication between them.

    Verizon DSL doesn’t talk to Verizon telephone. Each is in their own independent division but the customer’s problem resides with the phone lines that bring in the DSL connection. Different divisions but one problem. Start working together for the benefit of your customers.
  2. Train technical support staff to deal with more sophisticated home networks.

    Customers are becoming more savy and their home networks are becoming more complicated. DSL or cable modems attached to routers and networking of entertainment devices like TiVos and other DVRs (digital video recorders) are becoming commonplace. But right now support staff are told they can only deal with the most basic and most narrowly defined of problems.

    Service providers: you’re a victim of your own successes. High-speed connectivity is a reality for a growing number of your customers. And with it comes more interactive products you’d like to sell us. But if you want us to buy and buy-in you will have to change your business plan to reflect this shift.
  3. Acknowledge that customers will often be using more than one company’s product to create their networks. Don’t automatically pass off the problem to “the other company” (leaving your customer to fend for him- or herself).

    Recently, when I tried to connect my Verizon DSL modem to an Apple Airport Express I had to shuttle from one company’s tech support to the other. I felt adrift in a no man’s land where neither company would take responsibility to look at my problem as a whole.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when you called Verizon to set up your DSL with you Macintosh network their staff helped you from beginning (configuring the modem) to end (connecting it to your Mac)?

    This actually happened once, but the Verizon tech support person could have gotten fired for doing so. Their DSL set up CD (which I was told to use to create my DSL account) didn’t work on Macs. But no one told me this. When I finally got a hold of one special person in Verizon’s call center he informed me of this problem and offered to not only help me finish the setup but configure my laptop to connect as well. I was so appreciative I asked to speak to his supervisor. But this is the exception and a dangerous one for these entry-level people. They could lose their jobs if they offer too much help.
  4. Make each technical support staff accountable for their customer’s problem until it is solved. Give each of them phone numbers so customers can reach them.

    Instead of typing our issues into a computer for the next tech support specialist to read when we inevitably call back, let your customers stick with the same support person until the problem is resolved. Change your benchmark for employee success from the number of calls answered to the number of problems solved. And as a related corollary:
  5. If a support specialist can’t solve a problem, stay with the customer until s/he is successfully connected to someone who can. Don’t hang up.

    If no one is available, tell the customer YOU will see that this information makes its way to the right person. Make the front-line staff responsible for making sure this problem gets resolved.
  6. When a tech support representative asks for a phone number “in case we get disconnected,” call us back if we do.

    In talking with these three Verizon reps, in each case I was put on hold for a long time and then “mysteriously” disconnected while they were supposedly a) gathering additional information so they could solve my problem, b) connecting me to a Mac specialist for I had inadvertently been speaking with a PC one (even though my issue had nothing to do with which brand computer I was using), or c) connecting me to their supervisor for I was getting nowhere with them. Each had an alternate phone number to call me back but none ever did.

    Verizon, is hanging up on a customer and going to the next one in hopes of quickly solving a simpler problem standard procedure? Why, I felt like you were actually hanging up on me on purpose. If we had your phone number we could, and would, be amenable to calling you back.
  7. Finally, for those of us who call these customer service centers: let’s stop accepting bad customer service.

    Whenever possible, buy from companies with customer focused support. I never thought I’d say this but I will now pay extra for a talented and customer-centric company that knows how to treat its clientele with respect. It shouldn’t be that way. When I buy a product I should get that type of treatment for the price of the item and the length of its warranty. My time is worth more than sitting on a phone and coming away frustrated and exhausted.

    The vacuum created by point-of-purchase companies is giving a boost to the after-buy tech support market as exemplified by the Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Circuit City’s Firedog, and other such services (see this recent 60 Minute segment on the subject). Your sanity might be worth this extra cost.

    When you have to spend hours on the phone trying to resolve a problem, be it technical or billing, ask to be reimbursed for your time. I’ve gotten up to a $50 credit numerous times with Sprint when I’ve had to call them to figure out their confusing bills. In each case, I was overcharged. After the overcharge was resolved I asked to be compensated for the time I had spent on the phone with them. Note: this only works when speaking with people in power (like Sprint’s Account Services). Entry-level tech support staff have no power. And that’s part of the problem.

    When you do get bad service, let the company know. Make companies accountable for their bad service (and, conversely, compliment them when they give you good service).

    After my most recent Verizon experience I called their corporate headquarters. I again recounted my tale to the woman in Corporate Customer Relations (this was the fifth time I had to tell my sad tale), employing any leverage I could muster. “Sandy,” I said calmly, “I work for the Federal government and am responsible for giving quality customer service all the time. We are accountable for how we treat our clients. Don’t you think Verizon should do the same? She agreed, while complimenting me on how I was able to easily explain to her “mail servers” and “blocked dynamic/zombied/spam IPs” (employing my special reverse technical support when I have to tell them how it should be done). She said I’d be receiving a call from someone who could help me resolve this issue. And, true to her promise, the very next day Dan called.

    Within hours the answer was in my hands. It turned out NOT to be Verizon’s problem. I’d been sending email directly from my Web host’s mail server. It was THEIR problem. So it was. So it was. I apologized, thanked Dan for his time, and…

This morning I got on the phone to start recounting my story to a whole new set of technical assistants. It’s been a full day. I hope my friend, Jim, reads this post because I still can’t send him email.

Related Article: The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein questions whether consumers are willing to pay for better service: Why Status Sells Better Than Service.

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If you really want change, you need to send your list of proposed changes to the CEO of Verizon with a bit on your problem. THAT is what usually get results in my experience.

Unfortunately, snail mail has become such an anathema to most of us that we’d rather waste time on the phone with morons than get out an envelope and stamp.

PS I recently read a review of a product (not a book) being sold by Amazon and they recommended the product because the tech support was NOT in India :-)

Posted by: Nina Bunin on February 18, 2007 1:04 PM

Hmm, having worked in tech support, and for a phone company (separately), I can tell you that these ideas, are good, but completely impossible.

1) Verison separating DSL and Voice is a state law in pretty much every state. I am sure Verison would rather deal with both at the same level than set up to separate companies that are regulated, and watched closer than prisoners in a maximum facility prison.

2) When I worked at tech support I spoke to 60-100 people a day. What would be beneficial is a notation system that the first guy could log all of your system info, and your story, as well as what you’ve tried. Then on subsequent calls it could be updated. I would see it, as your rep, and know we checked to make sure everything was on, and the problem wasn’t that you forgot to turn something on. May sound funny, but a good 20% of the calls are simply that.

3) Expecting tech support to know complex home networks is asking them to be ccna/ccnp/ccie certified. The amount of software/hardware combos possible in that market make it near impossible. I have 2 operating systems, and a hardwire/wireless router with 3 different computers, and 2 versions of windows, OS X 10.3.9. My grandparents have a 386 and my dad has OS 9. Having to know all of that, plus advanced networking, you would have to pay me a hefty salary to say the least. And that cost would be past on to you.

Also, if Verison supported your Airport hub, and screwed it up, Verison could find themselves in a sticky litigation.

I do, however, agree that customer support needs improvement. Tech Support should stay with a problem and conference with other tech support. At my current job I can conference call 9 lines at once. So why can’t Verison, Mac, Belkin, and myself be on the line at the same time.

Also, companies should be forced to have Rep ID’s that you can use to complain. I called Washington Mutual Support and the girl was extremely rude, enough for me to leave their company permanently. I asked her name, and she refused to give it to me. When I asked for a user ID she refused to give it. I asked to speak to her boss and she said the wait time was 31 minutes. Too long. If WAMU had a website that I could use to complain and I could have had that girl’s name I would have complained. I would have demanded her head on a platter or at least that she is reprimanded.

Sorry this is so long, thanks for listening to me. If a company does do your suggestions let me know, I will be a customer for life.

Posted by: John on February 22, 2007 8:23 PM

John, thanks for your “inside” input. My suggestions were more wishful thinking, that is, mentioned more as pointers to what is wrong with tech support. Some are certainly more doable than others.

Regarding your comment about Verizon DSL and Voice having to be separate companies, that’s fine, it’s just that the customer thinks s/he is talking to one company. One of the biggest cash cows for Verizon and Comcast is their service bundles (get Internet, Telephone, and Cable all for one price. So, if they are separate companies, how come they can offer these bundles? And even if they are separate, it’s not impossible for two related companies to make it easier for their customers.

Tech Support should stay with a problem and conference with other tech support.

I think this is a great idea.

Posted by: Jeff on February 23, 2007 6:16 PM

Technical Support is considered very crappy right now by older techs because people ask “in their minds” really stupid questions that people should be able to read the manual provided. I know I used to work it and thought that at first, but seeing as how I can hardly get my 61 year old father (who has had several strokes and lupus) to work the remote Comcast provides for it’s digital cable service. I can certainly see why tech support needs to improve.

Posted by: Matthew Milam on February 24, 2007 10:46 PM

I love Step 5. I have USAA car/rental insurance and I also hold bank/credit accounts with them. They may not be the best cost wise, but they can and will transfer between insurance offices and bank offices. And they stay on the line and introduce you to the new representative after the transfer is made! I can call and talk to Sue about insurance and then she will transfer and introduce me to Steve so I can talk about credit card issues. I couldn’t believe that the first time it happened and thought it a fluke occurrence. But it has happened ever since then. I love them and will not go anywhere else now!

Step 7 holds true for me as well; I have T-Mobile as my cellular provider. They may not have the best coverage out of all the possibilities but I can always talk to someone I understand when I call in. They thank me for being a good long-time subscriber, and then offer me credits on my account for anything that I happen to call in for.

Fantastic customer service is definitely controlling where I go and what I do, and especially where my hard earned money is going.

Posted by: Katharine on February 26, 2007 1:28 PM

I think the problem here is with Earthlink. It appears that many more than Verizon are showing up on their black list.

I wasted so many hours trying to figure out why my boss’s Earthlink mails were bouncing back and now see its not just my mail server, but lots of others including the popular gmail. And we can’t expect customers to go though all the hassle of getting their server to unblock them.

Posted by: Hazel on April 3, 2007 5:32 PM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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