By Scott Jacobs

I lost my credit card the other day, which when you think about it,  is not hard to do, and got back in touch with my favorite oxymoron in the business lexicon: customer service.

I called the credit card company’s 800 number to report the loss. I know, I should have an online account set up so they can avoid the inconvenience of talking to me. But I like knowing that some person, however remote, is handling my case.

I actually don’t mind that first minute when I know I am talking to a voice recognition machine. “Okay, so tell me, what are you calling about. You can say billing, or tech support . . . etc.”

“Lost card,” I blurt out.

I don’t even mind giving them my 16-digit credit card number and the last four digits of my social security so they can better assist me. (Although it does seem strange that this information is never passed on to the person I wind up talking to.)

My first customer service representative was in California. (I always make a point of asking.) She could not have been more helpful. My concern, of course, was that some bandit was running up charges on my dime. She said she could check on that.

“Just a minute while I look up your account,” she said. “How’s the weather in Chicago?”

“Oh fine,” I said.

I could almost see the little ball spinning on her computer screen.

“It gets pretty hot in the summer in Chicago,” she said.

The ball was still spinning. I didn’t want to be impolite.

“Yup. About 90 degrees today,” I said, “and how’s the weather out in California?”

“Nice, very nice,” she said. Then the ball apparently stopped spinning.

She gave me my most recent charges––the last being the Green Door where I charged lunch two days earlier––and I knew where I’d left it. Undecided about canceling the card or just going over to retrieve it, she gave me the option of putting it “on hold”. I took it. “If you want to release the hold, just call us back,” she said.

Now that she had a fish on the line, she didn’t want to let me go. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked. I suggested she lower my interest rate. With my payment history in front of her, she said (politely) not a snowball’s chance in hell.

“My name is Yvonne,” she said before signing off. “If someone should contact you, please let them know whether you were satisfied with the service I have provided.”

My problem was pretty much solved. I went over to the Green Door and retrieved my card. I called the credit card company back. My customer service representative this time lived in Ontario, Canada.

“How’s the weather in Chicago?” he asked.

“Oh, fine,” I said.

“It gets pretty cold down there in the winter,” he said.

“Who are you to talk?” I thought. “At least we don’t go to work on snowmobiles.”

The spinning ball stopped spinning. He re-activated my card.

“My name is Don,” he said after our conversation. “If someone should contact you, please let them know whether you were satisfied with the service I have provided you.”

I have had dozens of these conversations over the telephone with customer service representatives all over the world – and they all seem inordinately concerned with the weather in Chicago.

Everyone from Texas, Colorado and South Dakota to customer service representatives in India, Bangladesh and The Philippines invariably ask. But the worst of them always seem to work for AT&T. After they bounce you around from one offshore call center to another, you  wind up with someone in America who has the authority to send out a telephone repairman to fix the problem in your alley. But not without giving the local forecast.

The Up-Sell

If they are the right person, they then take advantage of having your phone bill in front of them to up-sell you on other services: faster internet, a second cell phone, more minutes, cable TV channels. You name it. They are relentless. However much you are spending with AT&T for communication services, they have customer service representatives trained to show you how to spend more.

For instance, I to pay about $125 a month for two land lines into my house, unlimited long distance, a cell phone I rarely used and a DSL Internet connection. iPhone envy convinced me that it was time to upgrade. (I justified this by discontinuing one of the two land lines.) The changover was free, the customer service rep noted, but somehow a few little changes rippled over into a new service plan that costs me $250 a month.

“If you are satisfied with my service,” she said, “I hope you will answer an Internet questionnaire that AT&T will send you. My name is Diane.”

I’ve heard the same phrase from so many different people it’s not hard to think there is a conspiracy at work here, a conspiracy of customer service consultants. Keep ‘em on the line to disguise the slow response of your own network. Up-sell the client while they are waiting. (There’s nothing better than a captive audience.) And always be friendly. (If you’re not, we’ll know from the customer service questionnaires we send out.)

I didn’t know how pervasive this nicey-nice attitude was until I ran into the local AT&T lineman who fixed my last phone issue working in the alley a block away. (We had a certain rapport because he arrived during our block party and helped string a cable from a neighbor’s house to the street so we could watch the World Cup.)

“Did you fill out the questionnaire?” he asked.

I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said that after every job AT&T sends out an Internet questionnaire asking about your satisfaction with your service.

“I just delete them,” I said. “I get enough spam.”

“I don’t blame you,” he said. “I do the same thing. But now they’re handing out raises based on the questionnaires. So if they send you another one, my name is Bill.”

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