Why is getting support over the phone so excruciatingly painful?
November 21, 2014 9:11 PM   Subscribe

In my experience, any time I have tried to have gotten help over the phone or the live chat many companies seem to have nowadays, it has been excruciatingly painful.

First, I am usually directed through an endless series of automated prompts, whose purpose, I would assume, is to get me to a specialist who can assist with my particular issue. Once connected, I will usually describe my issue in as much detail as possible and almost certainly, they will put me on hold (they will usually ask, “can I put you on hold?”, the ones that particularly irritate me will usually just put me on hold without my confirmation). On live chat, the same issues persist, just manifested in the fact that responses take a seemingly long time.

To give some context to my example, today, I was shopping for an item at the Apple Store Online, but didn’t find it after performing a quick search query (took me less than a minute...and I had to navigate to their site, find their online store, etc.). I decided to call the online store support to verify that they did not actually have the item. After getting through their automated prompts (the prompt began something along the lines of, “in order to connect you to the right person…"), I was connected to a representative giving as much detail about the product as possible. After describing the product, they immediately put me on hold for about 10 minutes. Now this is the part I don’t understand, if I am being connected to a sales agent, shouldn’t they have the search box open to search for the product? It’s not like they are actually in a warehouse searching for the actual product, everything in this day and age is computerized. Why did they have to put me on hold and why did it take such a long time? I could understand a slight delay (maybe 30 seconds or so) if I was connected to a generalist and they had to open some software and their system was acting a bit sluggish. They usually complain that their systems are down or acting slow, but, again, it seems that even on a dial up connection I would be able to get answers sooner, especially for such a simple request, “do you carry this item?" This isn’t the first time I have experienced this same situation, it becoming to seem boilerplate, not only with sales, but also for support for products and services.

My question to all of you is, how do you cope with dealing with support over the phone or live chat? What are some tips and tricks to reduce the time to get the answers I need? I have been trying to be as polite as possible as I know there is an actual human behind the phone and computer, but my recent experiences have tested my patience and resolve. Is this an issue with me personally and portray a personal lack of patience or does the general crowd have the same experiences as I?

For the people in call centers and behind the live chat lines, can you say with 100% confidence that you are devoting your complete attention to the customer or are you off browsing Facebook and goofing off with your co-workers when on the line with a customer? If you aren’t devoting your complete attention to a customer what are you doing? What are your bottlenecks? What can I do as a customer to expedite the process?
posted by nathanm to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
To answer the first part of your question: I think it takes so long because everything is scripted. They're identifying/finding the correct script to use for your problem. For live chat, multitask. You can read a book chapter before the acknowledge your question half the time.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:31 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Way back in the mists of time, I used to work inbound customer service. The first team I was on, no matter who called or why, we had a script to follow. Theoretically the computer systems were tied into the phone system, so--theoretically--the customer information would pop up when the call was connected. That didn't always happen--computer error, human error, whatever. But for the script, it was basically a decision tree--so they ask a question, click click, new set of questions come up, lather rinse repeat. And there's no way to skip through it.

So, following the script is part of the problem, not least because if you deviate at all and QA is listening, you get marked down--even if you're doing the right thing! Everything has to be done a certain way in a certain order, no matter what. That's part of why it takes time.

The truly weird thing that happened where I worked was managing the call centre metrics and our SLA. Usually Workforce Planning was right on top of everything, predicting call volumes and times with almost creepy accuracy. Then 9/11 happened, as I was working there, and predictions went all to hell--call volumes dropped like a rock. Now, naturally, if Parent Company is looking at the contract, it's going to be asking "why are you staffing at this level when ACH (Average Call Handling) times are so low, and wait time is nonexistent? Why are we paying you?"

So vast swaths of the entire centre would be in 'meetings' all the time, or told to take longer on calls than strictly needed, to drive the metrics down. This may be happening sometimes when you call.

Oddly, I ended up on a specialist team there that was given extremely wide latitude to ignore scripts and just do what the customer needed; a pilot project looking at implementing the same handling across all customers. That didn't happen, I have no idea why--our customers were actually happy to talk to us.

The one tip: if you are asking for something specific, just say flat out "I am asking about $thing. Are you able to answer my question? If not, transfer me to someone who can." If they witter on, just say "I want your supervisor, now. Thank you."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:38 PM on November 21, 2014 [13 favorites]


I've worked in such places and I absolutely guarantee that the bottleneck from the customers perspective comes from the design [maximiing the utility of the the phone workers, stupid I know] and not the willingness of the people that answer the phones. The bottlenecks mostly come from multiple databases. I would love to get you on and off the phone as quickly as possible. That makes me happy, that makes you happy.

At any rate it's the fault of management and not the front line worker.
posted by vapidave at 9:41 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi, phone/chat agent here. I think you have a really idealized concept of what is happening when you're calling or chatting in.

For calls, pretty much every level of complication between you and the phone agent is intended to get you to not actually complete that call. Phone agents are one to one and thus are way more expensive to the company.

When it comes to live chat, this might be a shock but you're not the only customer the agent is talking with. Where I work we max out at three simultaneous chats (and we do extremely technical, specialized stuff). Some people have a different chat cadence than others but be aware that live chat is great and super helpful but chances are you're not the only one talking to that agent.

Finally, if I can soapbox for a second, please remember that these are real people and no one is perfect. Direct support is already soul-crushing work. Most of the time, speaking calmly and being understanding is going to get you just as far as getting angry and demanding a manger. And, even if you're frustrated, what gives you the right to take your frustration out on a stranger?
posted by sleeping bear at 9:52 PM on November 21, 2014 [35 favorites]

can you say with 100% confidence that you are devoting your complete attention to the customer or are you off browsing Facebook and goofing off with your co-workers when on the line with a customer?

I used to do phone support for an internet service provider and I could say with 100% confidence that for the crappy amount I was getting paid, you were getting what was surprisingly close to my full attention. This is because

- calls are monitored and you're not the only one who cares about the outcome of your call so if we're actually noticeably goofing off, someone will know
- phone support is expensive, much more expensive than you self-serving on the website, so there are a lot of hurdles built in to try to encourage you-the-caller to not use it. It's not really supposed to be pleasant, it's supposed to be functional in most cases.
- the systems on the back end are usually built with different end results than "Let's get this person the answer they need as quickly and efficiently as possible" Or, they sort of are, but in a general phone support situation you'll have a TON of different things people might be calling about and so you want to make most of those things accessible with a few clicks. So we'd have to look you up on the database and then look something from that up in another place and IM with a technician or something at the same time while you are drumming your fingers. Everything takes time and since you can't see it you're maybe imagining facebook. Ha.

This was a while ago and we didn't actually have scripts so anything we said was because we wanted to say it. Some techs make small talk or jokes while they wait for pages to load. Others are all business. Different people like different types of interaction and so while I personally don't like the "Hi how are you today...?" line of chatter, I'm certain other people do. I'm usually polite, to-the-point, I speak clearly and I usually just read Twitter or something nowadays while I'm waiting.
posted by jessamyn at 10:02 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you are being too specific when you call, and that is messing with their script they have to follow.

Specifically, you are confusing them by being too wordy. They are monitored and can't go off script.
posted by jbenben at 10:14 PM on November 21, 2014

Why does phone support have to be so scripted and manufactured? Why hasn't there been more innovation on this front? It seems to me that it is in the best interest of the company providing the support economically to get customer's issues answered as quickly as possible. This not only makes sense economically as it would require keeping around less support staff, but in keeping customers happy and returning making more purchases, renewing their service contracts, returning to the physical store locations, etcetera. At physical retail locations, on the floor and behind counters, service representatives at companies are able to cut to the crux of my issues efficiently and almost immediately, there is no such thing as "let me put you on hold for 10 minutes." Why is there such a great divide? Why can't people in the profession of providing customer service be trained the same way? I understand I may be a bit harsh in that implementing my solution would cut jobs, but I feel that this would be best for consumers and businesses alike.
posted by nathanm at 10:29 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is no one-size-fits all answer here, but in general, the frustrations you're bringing up all have to do with how these particular centers are set up and managed. To get deeper into the "why" part of your question - many large centers are managed to death with the goal of full optimization and efficiency. A lot of businesses see these places as cost liability, especially if they don't generate sales. In places like these, everything is about the black and white metrics that can be used to describe how costs are being controlled or reduced. The scenarios you've described are totally symptomatic of these larger issues in the industry - you are often dealing with smart people who are underpaid, stressed out, and overly micromanaged through these metrics to the point of learned helplessness.

That said, its not all bad. There are plenty of places out there getting it right and throwing all of this out the window. Interactions with places like this just feel different and are usually an indication that the overall business gives more than lip service to customer experience.
posted by marmago at 10:44 PM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I tend to have a good experience with customer service calls if there's a specific problem I'm having that the company will want to fix, like a (fixable) tech support issue or a payment issue that is going to result in me willingly giving the company money.

I tend to have a bad experience with customer service calls when I either don't have an actionable goal to accomplish (calling to complain, calling to try to solve an unfixable problem), or when my goal and the company's goal are at cross-purposes (calling to get a refund, calling to cancel a service).

So I tend to minimize calls to customer service, and if I must call, and I know it's about something that isn't going to go smoothly, I just brace myself for a shitty interaction.

I'll also echo the folks who've said that companies don't really want you calling up and talking to someone for something that could be accomplished in another way, like verifying if a company sells a certain product on their website. Most websites are pretty easy to navigate in terms of that sort of thing, and most customer service departments aren't really designed to field calls like "do y'all sell x product?" That's what the website is for.
posted by Sara C. at 10:53 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I worked in call centers, the phone tree with the prompts and buttons to push was a thing to basically survey you without talking to you first. They want to get all the information from you for their system, but none of this information actually reaches the person you talk to. This was so that, at some future date, they could analyze all these button pushes and say, wow, we get twice as many calls for X (and from people over 50 and under 12) than for Y, so let's put another person in the Y call center and eliminate one from the X call center.

They also desperately want you to hang up at some point during the phone tree so that you are not on hold. If you are on hold, you might hang up after waiting any period of time, thus contributing to their abandonment rate. This is why all things that you call now have a million choices to listen to and then finally they have you push some outrageous thing (not zero, usually) to get to finally get to a message that says there is a high call volume and you can try later. It often does not say you can wait. If you do wait, you may be on hold or you may get hung up on automatically.

That first person you reach only has scripts for various things. If you don't match a script, you either get brushed off or sent to another department (often without an introduction, so all the information you gave will not get passed along, they just hit 2-3 buttons and you're out of their hair and in someone else's).

These calls are often recorded, monitored, and timed. The further off script they go and the longer they talk, the more they are penalized.

Give the BARE MINIMUM of information; do not tell the whole story. "I want to know if you have a product in stock. Can you tell me that? If not, can you transfer me to someone who can?" Then you get another person and you say the exactly same thing.

Why? Money. They can pay no one if your question is answered by an automated choice. Things like current balance, status of your order, anything a computer voice can be prompted to give you from a database.

This is the innovation. Automating everything to eliminate paying people to answer the phone with lengthy answers and deep thought is what companies are doing now.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 10:56 PM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Because customer service is regarded as a cost center, so companies cut costs as much as possible, and because for all their complaining, most people care more about saving money than good service (witness the airlines: Despite all their complaining, most people will buy the cheapest ticket to where they need to go) or because you don't really have that much choice after all (witness ISPs in the US: What are you going to do, switch to the OTHER company that provides terrible service? Ha!).

So, we view customer service as a cost center. We give them just enough equipment to do their jobs (which is why their systems are always slow and overloaded). We develop metrics and standards and scripts that cover most situations. If it takes the average person 5 minutes to read the script and one guy is taking 10, we boot him, because he could be handling 2 customers in that time instead of one. Is he providing good service? Doesn't matter. It's a volume business. Plus the scripts mean we don't HAVE to train workers, they just have to follow the flowchart, which means not only do we save money on training (cost center, remember, we're trying to save money here), we also don't have to pay them as much as we would a more trained or more experienced worker because if it's a job "anyone can do", then we can pay minimum wage and toss them right in.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:59 PM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

My husband worked tech support for a while in college. His theory was everything was so scripted because 90% of callers were idiots. You have to walk them through all the basics because you cannot assume they know anything for certain, or that what they "know" (or think they know) is actually relevant or even true.

Now add in the fact that the call centres are trying to maximize the amount of work they get out of their staff, while minimizing how much they have to pay their staff, so not everyone that works there is as qualified or motivated as they could be, so they have to simplify everything that end and keep things measurable so they can "quality control" their staff (ie treat them like idiots for taking too long to determine a problem because the customer kept trying to skip ahead of the questions). So what you are left with is a system that caters to the lowest common denominator, set up so everything can be measured and tracked to the second, staff that want to help you but have to follow the script and customers that just want help without jumping through hoops, but the companies don't care as long as their numbers look good. This is what happens why you try & make people work like computers.
posted by wwax at 11:28 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Why does phone support have to be so scripted and manufactured? Why hasn't there been more innovation on this front? It seems to me that it is in the best interest of the company providing the support economically to get customer's issues answered as quickly as possible

Ah, I see what you're getting at now. What's actually in the company's best interest is people not calling in the first place, and if you do call, either resolving your issue or hanging up before you get out of the phone maze (as said above). Making the experience unpleasant is a feature, not a bug, from a $$$$ view; you're less likely to call next time if you know you have to spend X time dicking around.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:40 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

The reason the support experience is scripted is because it's amenable to scripting. I've done tech support for fairly complicated software systems and a very large percentage of the calls were about a very small set of problems. People don't call support when they first encounter a problem. By the time they get to an actual person they've been wrestling with the problem and the frustration of looking for a solution for a while. So they don't come to you and say; "My X does Y but not if the Z toggle is activated". Instead it's; "My Z is broken again" or "My Z isn't working because...". Scripted questions allow you to get the actual problem. The questions have to be simple because you want the customer to give you small chunks of information about their situation rather a long history of their relationship with whatever it is they're calling about or their theory of what's wrong with it.

Scripting means you can hire less skilled workers but even when that's not a concern it's likely that a support person is going to lead through a fairly standard set of questions.

You asked why people at retail locations are so much more efficient at solving your problems. It's because they see the problem. They don't have to play a game of twenty questions to discern what is actually going on.
posted by rdr at 12:59 AM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

[One comment deleted. Sorry, OP, but Ask Metafilter is really just for providing answers to specific questions, and not for back and forth discussion or debate about the general topic. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:10 AM on November 22, 2014

Why does phone support have to be so scripted and manufactured? Why hasn't there been more innovation on this front? It seems to me that it is in the best interest of the company providing the support economically to get customer's issues answered as quickly as possible.

How so? If you're calling support, chances are you already bought the product. You're not paying for the phone call. And products/services that are complex enough to warrant a customer service line are usually ones the average person buys infrequently.

The automated menus and the scripts are the innovation. And the people who have a ton of product expertise and problem-solving skills are often qualified for positions more pleasant than getting yelled at by irate customers. Attracting and retaining experts would require pretty hefty compensation packages (what would it take to keep you in a customer service position for five years?) so it's much more efficient to require little from employees other than the ability to follow a script, and pay accordingly.

I worked at a customer service line for three or four months - you better believe I got out of there as soon as I could. Yes, all of our time was spent answering calls. You just can't do other shit when you're on the phone with a cranky customer and trying to figure out what they want. Not only did we not have time to goof off, management was obnoxiously, demeaningly strict about what we could and could not do at our desks, when we could take breaks, and so on. And this was a small department, not a huge regimented call center.

Be kind and remember that none of this is the fault of the person on the other end of the call. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but because people are more eager to help someone who treats them well.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:51 AM on November 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

I do get frustrated with some of the menu options on automated calls. (Like my bank's prompt tells me that "to save time on your next call, you can eliminate the first four digits of your account number", which takes 20 times as long to hear as it does for me to punch them in, which I do because of muscle memory. Or whatever, that's how I do it. Anyway). But 99% of my experiences with customer service representatives have been totally fine or even great. I find most are professional and helpful, and many go beyond what is really necessary to fix the problem.

how do you cope with dealing with support over the phone or live chat? What are some tips and tricks to reduce the time to get the answers I need?

I have my account or order number ready before I call, and the company's webpage is open. I put the phone on speakerphone and do other things while on hold (if I miss a menu, there's always the star key). I write down my key points so I can focus my query when I have to leave off washing spinach or whatever and go back to the call.

I'm friendly with the person I speak to, and remember that they have limited power to make huge changes, and are not personally responsible for the problem. I let them lead and shape the call according to whatever script they're using, because if I treat it like a normal conversation, there's backtracking and confusion. I make note of things discussed or steps to be taken. Even if a problem requires a manager's assistance, or I am actually distressed (rare), I stay respectful and coolheaded. (There is almost nothing that justifies shouting at someone or being angry, imo.) I get the rep's name and ask them to confirm actions again (because I like to be sure I'm clear on what's happened), and I thank them sincerely for their help. Honey, not vinegar, definitely works every time. And, it's just more pleasant. And it actually saves time, imo.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:01 AM on November 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Why does phone support have to be so scripted and manufactured? Why hasn't there been more innovation on this front?

All of the things that you find frustrating, like phone trees and scripts, are the innovations.

I used to work in phone support for a very expensive, very technical professional product. As such the phone support staff were unusually highly educated and qualified -- we're talking about super nice and friendly Ivy League computer science graduates. A lot of them were terrible at solving problems over the phone and talking to clients. We're talking about the best of the best here, and they fell flat often. Now imagine a call center for a cheaper product or a consumer product, and think about how much salary can be offered and the kinds of people who will take those jobs. The innovations that you want would basically amount to "use technology or magic to make people smarter and harder working."

I don't think you're aware of the ridiculous breadth of issues that people call phone support with. You said, "Now this is the part I don’t understand, if I am being connected to a sales agent, shouldn’t they have the search box open to search for the product?" Everyone who calls thinks that they have been connected to a support person whose entire job is just solving the kind of problem they have, and that they have a search box open right now to do exactly what needs to be done. This is very rarely the case. People who get frustrated enough to call are often dealing with an issue that is unique and will require ingenuity to solve.

The other kind of person who calls in has a typical, easy to answer question, but they are completely unable to communicate it in a way that lets the support person help them quickly. If they knew how to phrase the issue they're having, chances are good that they would have found their answer already on the website.
posted by telegraph at 5:10 AM on November 22, 2014 [9 favorites]

There do exist companies that do this well. Every single interaction I've had with Charles Schwab, both phone and online chat, has been great- if they're reading from a script it isn't asinine, they're patient even when I'm the idiot who can't find Thing X on their website, and the info I enter in whatever phone tree seems to actually show up to the person on the end of the line.

So, I keep using them. If I ever find a company that does this well, they keep getting my money.

Of course this doesn't help in spaces (e.g. cable, phone, etc) where every company does this poorly, but it *is* possible to do it well, and my policy is to reward (in what small ways I can) those that do.

And as for dealing with the ones that don't, honey is better than vinegar, yes. I make sure to let the person on the end of the line know that I am not mad at them, but that this is a bit silly/terrible/whatever, and that I think this call needs to be escalated (if appropriate).
posted by nat at 5:47 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

> … I decided to call the online store support to verify that they did not actually have the item

I'm not quite sure what you wanted to accomplish here. An online store shows all the products and stock that it has, and will make it easy to find the product you want in order to close the sale. Online support is more for problems with the website itself (not loading, accessibility, …). If you did eventually get through to a human, they don't have access to a secret stash of things you can't find on the website. It's all the same database.

We're in the run-up to the biggest week of sales the planet has yet seen. Phone support will be stretched thin. It is unfortunate that they didn't have the thing you wanted.
posted by scruss at 5:48 AM on November 22, 2014 [10 favorites]

I almost always get good phone tech support. Usually it concerns installation or first use and they probably know that if I just bought something and can't install it or figure out how to use it I will return it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:48 AM on November 22, 2014

When I worked tech support we were massively undertrained (learning on the job is the best way!) so all those pauses and gaps were us relaying the information to a team lead via instant messaging and waiting for them to tell us what to do next.

As a customer there was nothing you could do except hope you didn't get a new person. I get a headset or speaker phone to make it more comfortable to be on the line a long time and catch up on your Internet browsing while waiting.
posted by platypus of the universe at 6:02 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

# Why does phone support have to be so scripted and manufactured? Why hasn't there been more innovation on this front?
Innovation? What you're asking for is that a non-sales position (so a cost center for a company) be staffed with better qualified, more knowledgeable employees who are not just empowered to think and act on their own by trusted to do so. These types of people cost more money. In an area for the company

That's not innovation. That's just something many companies have decided isn't worth their time.
# At physical retail locations, on the floor and behind counters, service representatives at companies are able to cut to the crux of my issues efficiently and almost immediately ...
Sorry, my experience has been the opposite. Sales drones at stores are useless.

Case in point, when I was first in college, I worked nights at Best Buy. Whatever item was on sale that week was usually gone by Sunday night, maybe Monday. That didn't stop people from showing up on Thursday and looking for it. The conversation would go something like this:
Customer: Do you have any more of these cheap foobars on sales this week? *waving circular from newspaper*
Sales Drone: Sorry, we sold out a few days ago.
C: You don't have any? It says here you're having a sale on them!
SD: Yes, we did have a sale, but because they're on sale, everyone came earlier in the week and bought them.
C: Maybe you could check the back.
SD: We don't have any in the back, as we sell items be bring items from the back to the sales floor.
C: Maybe you could check the back.
SD: ...
SD: OK, one minute.
*SD walks to the back, sees that some haven't magically appeared, walks back*
SD: Sorry, we still don't have any.
C: Well when will you get some more?
SD: I'm sorry, our store carries thousands of SKUs and they don't share with us which ones will be arriving when, every new truck that arrives is a surprise.
C: Can you ask a manager?
SD: They don't know either, the entire inventory system is controlled by a computer algorithm in our corporate headquarters.
C: Can you ask a manager?
SD: ...
SD: Sure.
*SD walks over to manager*
SD: Hey, this guy wants to know if we're getting in any foobars on the next truck.
MG: How should I know, do I have x-ray vision on a truck that's several hundred miles away? Sell him a fizzbot with a PSP [BB's term for an extended warranty] and it comes out to the same price, you already spent 15 minutes with him.
*SD walks back to customer*
SD: Sorry, we don't know when we'll be getting in any more foobars. Can I interest you in a fizzbot? I'll discount the extended warranty on it so I can get it for you for the same price as the foobar. While you're here, will you need any of these MONSTER CABLES XTREME!!!!!11ONEONE to hook it up to your TV?
C: Fizzbots suck, why would I want one?
SD: That's why I'm discounting the warranty for you! It will protect your purchase!
C: What do you do here if you can't help me?
SD: I'll level with you. I'm here to move heavy boxes from Point-A to Point-B, to make sure people don't steal and most importantly to tell you to buy our extended warranties and overprices cables and other accessories.
C: That's ridiculous, why don't they educate you on their products, share their inventory process and empower you to make changes to how the store is run?
SD: Because they don't think that's as profitable as the current situation. Besides, half the customers here only come in for a big sale and the other half only come in to check out the product before buying it from Newegg or Amazon. We should charge $5 admission and $3 a question.
So many people were upset that the sales drone in the blue polo and khakis couldn't do anything. It's not our fault the company is run this way. I'd like to be a well-compensated, knowledgeable and empowered employee. My employer doesn't think that's worth it.
I decided to call the online store support to verify that they did not actually have the item.
I agree with scruss. You called someone so they could see the same screen you're looking at and then you got upset that they didn't see something different. This is the new, online "do you have any in the back?".

Now factor in that these are high turnover jobs and you've got a good chance you're talking to someone who just started.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:48 AM on November 22, 2014 [20 favorites]

I worked phone customer service back before it was so automated and scripted. We actually had all of our answers in an enormous loose leaf binder attached to our desk. But even then the number one thing the company cared about was call volume, not customer satisfaction. You got a much better employment review for getting people off the phone quickly with their problem unsolved then you did for actually taking the time to fix their problem.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:54 AM on November 22, 2014

Phone support may be changing now. In Canada, Koodo Mobile doesn't offer much phone support. Instead all questions are directed to other customers on their online forum. If you do call in for support, but it's something you could do online for yourself, it will cost you $5.00. However any phone support you get is excellent.

This is a new model of crowdsourced free support. You can learn about here Koodo crowdsourced customer support
posted by Coffeetyme at 8:24 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I decided to call the online store support to verify that they did not actually have the item.

This is either a dead simple question, such that the answer you got when you searched the website is the only answer you could have reasonably expected to get, or it is a more complicated question that involves some combination of a) figuring out the actual name for whatever the thing you're describing is if you don't know b) verifying that it is actually not visible in the store catalogue and that you don't just suck at google c) if it's the sort of thing that they normally carry, determine if that represents a lack of stock or a problem with the website or a problem with the stock or a discontinuation of the product. If it's the former, why would you even call? And if it's the latter, systems are not generally well set up to provide information on things they don't have. Computers are pretty good at telling you what they know, they're pretty bad at telling you what they don't know, so trying to verify that something once existed but no longer does or whether it never existed is a non-trivial exercise.

I'd also reiterate what others said above about the fact that the scripts are the innovation in call center handling. And one of the things they mean, is that call centers are often not completely dedicated to a single client, or specific call center employees aren't dedicated to a specialty area of knowledge. Turnover is high, people move around, they follow the scripts because that's what's necessary to get the job done and explain to people about things they have no actual personal knowledge about.

I used to help write those phone scripts for the people who did internal support for applications at a large technology company. We wrote the scripts for our product, and about 20 other teams wrote the scripts for their product, and the call center guys just trusted that the scripts were correct, because they didn't use the products or know anything about them other than what was in the script. To do otherwise would have required constantly re-training masses of people as those applications changed or those people changed.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:33 AM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

As everyone's said, phone support is so scripted because it's a cost center, not a revenue center. And good support is expensive. Scripts are how you industrialize support, make it measurable and optimizeable. It also betrays deep contempt for the customer.

I now choose to do business with companies specifically because they have excellent phone support, are willing to pay more to hire adaptable people. My old ISP sonic.net has amazing support, no scripts. My upscale Chase credit card also has very good phone support; a bit scripted, but only enough to be more efficient for me. Smaller companies often do better too, because they haven't invested in industrializing their support yet.

You mentioned Apple sales in your question. They have an excellent experience if you go in person to a store.

Somewhat related GetHuman is a useful tool for at least getting through the fully roboticized support to an actual human being. Often that human is tier 2 or 3 support for people whose problems are off-script, so you can get further with them.
posted by Nelson at 8:36 AM on November 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you anticipate calling again, write down the phone pad sequence that will take you to a human bean. Wait till the recorded voice intones the first syllable, then punch your number. Alternatively, you can try pressing 0 from the get go. I've had great results from online live chat. Wonder how long till they eff that up.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:00 AM on November 22, 2014

fwiw, I just emailed Peets Coffee about a limited seasonal thing that was "Sold Out" and it turned out they still had some.

I've had pretty decent luck emailing to ask about this sort of thing.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:09 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are tricks of the trade to get you through as efficiently as possible, which likely require understanding what good customer service looks like from inside a call center. If you called a call center I worked with for a good chunk of my career, you would find highly intelligent, motivated individuals working off a loose script, with flexibility to make any problem go away. They were extremely empowered and blammo, they solve problems quickly or slowly, depending on your need and the complexity. For the company, it was an investment. I've also called a well known, discount furniture chain in my area and had shitty shitty shitty customer service, where I immediately bump my call up to the supervisor to get problems resolved - because I can tell them intimately how their scripted process and lak of autonomy damages their customer interaction. Yesterday I called K'nex customer support and ordered three spacers for my son's new kit painlessly because I knew exactly what I needed and how best to push through the phone tree and what information the representative would likely need from me (serial number, purchase date, my address). Basically I call with the resolution in mind and the path to the resolution pre mapped. All I need to do is figure out whether this person or the next person I am going to have to talk to can carry out my plan. Also, when I am done with a call, I always ask to speak I a supervisor if my service was excellent so that i can properly praise the excellence. I'll also recommend training if necessary, how to increase agency, and if it is really going poorly, I'll ask how much of a nuisance I need to make before the company loses money on me. The only two companies I will never do business with again so far are United and Bob's Discount Furniture - but those are because their corporate policies ate not focused on customer retention.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:59 AM on November 22, 2014

Also I hate to tell you this, but at the company I worked for, if you asked to speak to a supervisor, we would transfer you to the person at the next desk and pretend they were a supervisor. Our supervisor was hardly ever around.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:48 PM on November 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

My Worst Job Ever was at a major call center company, as a temp on a major account. Most of the people on that account were temps, many with little or no call-center experience.

Most of us were grossly unfamiliar with the products we were supporting. (Think life-long apartment dwellers supporting lawn equipment.) Training was very limited, and product familiarity was not something the training really offered. As a temp making only slightly over minimum wage, you can understand there wasn't much motivation to pursue understanding on one's own, nor was there time allowed during one's shift.

Breaks were highly regulated and generally scheduled by the computer system and we were docked for being as little as thirty seconds late back to the phone from a break.

There was literally No Time between calls. There was a beep and then a caller was in my ear. There was a way to delay your next call, but management frowned on it's use. Putting calls on hold was also a big no-no to avoid. As soon as one call was finished, there was another beep and another frustrated jerk in my ear. Sucked when I'd get dry mouth and not get a moment to sip water.

Our callers did have to go through a fairly useless and long-winded automated system, but unless the customer somehow happened on a combination of answers that sent them to a "specialist", all calls were dumped to the general que. No information from the automated system was ever transmitted with the call, so customers ended up answering the same questions again.

I didn't last long at that job. Nobody did, really. I haven't worked in another call center environment, but I know a lot of people who have "done their time" in some of the other infamous call centers here, and I would guess that some of what you're seeing on the customer side is at least partly due to some combination of the above factors.
posted by MuChao at 5:06 PM on November 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are two problems with providing higher quality customer service:

1) qualified people cost more money (obviously)
2) if the support is better, people will call it more frequently

I think people are underestimating the second factor. On the rare occasion I actually have gotten good support (my bank is actually quite good), I've been far more likely to call frequently. So now they're stuck paying 2x more to hire a highly competent support rep, and maybe 4-5x more because I'm calling that much more often!

I've heard that at the company I work for, after overhead, answering a single support call costs on the order of $50. For a consumer product, that kind of expense could eat up your entire profit margin. So companies provide terrible support in order to incentivize you to not use it.
posted by miyabo at 5:21 PM on November 22, 2014

I have twice had success getting Dell tech support to put down the script. The first time, something about my TV Tuner wasn't working (don't remember what it was) and there was 13 minutes to the start of Lost. I called tech support and when they started their spiel I said "Look, I promise I won't hang up when this is fixed. I will stay on the line and answer all your questions and do your surveys and your script and whatever you want. But let's fix this first because we have 13 minutes." They did fix it in 13 minutes and then I went through their whole ridiculous script.

The second time I just refused to follow the script. I had called for some problem that was clearly related to some Windows registry crap and I got the tech support path of least resistance: Format the hard drive. I just flat out refused to format the hard drive. He said, "but that's the way to fix it" and I said "that'll fix it, but it's not the only way to fix it. It's the way that's the least work for you but it's the method that's the most work for me and the least likely to leave me with a computer like the one I had yesterday. I don't want to format the hard drive, I want to find the problem and fix it." The guy was clearly annoyed (and I get it. they're evaluated on their call times, but I shouldn't be told to format my hard drive every time there's some little glitch) but he did find and fix the problem.

I imagine that has tech support has gotten more scripted and the employees consequently less skilled, this would work less and less.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:32 PM on November 22, 2014

You have to walk them through all the basics because you cannot assume they know anything for certain, or that what they "know" (or think they know) is actually relevant or even true

I'm an IT technician and I've seen this at first hand. I was at a customer's house and after fixing some issues with their PC they drew my attention to the disappointing speed of their ADSL connection. They'd talked about it to the ISP (one they'd hooked up with on my recommendation, incidentally) and were not satisfied with the help desk's attempts to find the cause. And I had the following conversation:
Me: Are there any other phone points in the house apart from this one? (pointing to the outlet that the correctly filtered ADSL modem and portable-phone wireless base station were connected to).

Customer: No.

Me: Isn't that a standard Telstra phone over on the table near the door?

Customer: Oh, we never use that.

Me: Does it ring when you get a phone call?

Customer: Yeah, it does, but like I said, we never use it.

Me: Did you unplug it when the ISP's help desk folks asked you to disconnect everything but the ADSL modem?

Customer: No, they always tell you to do that. Our last ISP was the same. We never bother with that. It couldn't possibly make any difference because it doesn't have one of those little splitter boxes.
I walked over and unplugged the "unused" phone, then power-cycled the ADSL modem. Oh look! Now it connects at 16Mb/s instead of 6Mb/s! Whoda thunkit. And no, they didn't want me to fit another ADSL filter:
Customer: No, that's fine, just leave it unplugged. Like I said, we never use it.
I'm fully expecting to find it plugged in again next time I go there. After all, it couldn't possibly make any difference.

how do you cope with dealing with support over the phone or live chat? What are some tips and tricks to reduce the time to get the answers I need?

As soon as I find myself in voice-recognition option tree hell, I simply say "complaints" in response to every prompt. I used to say "cabbages" but I've found that "complaints" makes the computer give up and connect me to an actual human much faster.

If I'm talking to tech support, I make sure I've already done all the obvious things that I'm pretty sure they're going to ask me to do, and that I have the exact results, including the exact text of any resulting error messages, written down and ready to read back. That way, we get to work through the opening script very quickly.

I quite often need to speak to tech support at customers' houses, and when I do that, I make sure the authorized account owner is in the room with me and I put my phone on speaker. That way, we don't waste time passing it back and forth or relaying messages to get me authorized to act on the customer's behalf.

Even if I'm not acting on behalf of a customer, I'll use speakerphone any time I'm on hold. Doesn't make it any quicker, but it does make it way less irritating.
posted by flabdablet at 6:43 AM on November 23, 2014

One reason I dropped Time-Warner cable is that I loathe the muzak-on-hold-with-constant-wretched-ads. I despise phone trees and their lengthy menus. Can that woman possibly talk any slower? The ads are way louder than the customer service rep will be, so good luck leaving the phone on speaker and doing anything else at all.

They don't care about service or customers. at all. They want to own the market so that you have no choice. There's seldom an actual storefront or office where you can go talk to a human, and they love that. Customers are not people with whom they have a business relationship, customers are wallets. period.

I still get broadband from TW, because my options are limited. I would hate most corporations anyway, for reasons that don't need to be here, but the bland way they treat people like a commodity to be exploited makes me seethe.

You called, looking to buy something. Somebody has produced numbers, valid or not, that show that a few lost sales cost less than providing adequate service.
posted by theora55 at 7:42 AM on November 23, 2014

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