On Customer Service

I’m sitting at a Panera two blocks from my apartment to write this blog post. Partially, this is because I love their frozen lemonade. Mostly it’s because my Internet is out at home.

I moved into my apartment less than a month ago – May 22, to be specific, though my lease technically started on the 15th. Right now, the only things I actually love about it are the fact that it’s mine, it’s big, and I have rose bushes right next to my front door. The rest of my experience there has been educational, to say the least. In this last month I have dealt with:

  • a leaky bathroom sink
  • a highly problematic fridge
  • a burnt-out pilot light, resulting in no hot water
  • no water pressure in the kitchen sink
  • the wrong mailbox key
  • an…old toilet (that problem is kind of hard to explain)
  • an Internet outage

The last two actually haven’t been fixed yet. I haven’t reported the former; it’s either not actually a problem or will require possibly two new toilets. As for the Internet, well, that went out on Tuesday. The DSL light started blinking, indicating no connecton.That night’s response was to sigh, unplug the modem, and go read instead of write a blog post. When it wasn’t back by Wednesday, I called my provider, who claimed that there weren’t any outages for my area and since I was using an off-brand modem, they’d have to connect me to the department that would charge me $130 to fix it.

Thanks, ISP! I totally want to pay you $130 to tell me my modem’s broken!

So I unplugged it again, borrowed some other modems from my friends (none of which worked at my place), and took mine over to a friend’s house, where I verified that the modem was indeed working. A second call to my ISP finally got them to check the line and discover that the problem was indeed their fault. If I’m lucky, it’ll be back tomorrow by the time I’m home from work. If not, I get to call and yell at tech support again.

The long and short of this is that I get to learn how to actually have and handle conflict. I’m horrible at that. I avoid it like the plague. Like, I wouldn’t even tell a restaurant that they got my order wrong because I didn’t want to risk the wait staff getting mad at me. And having worked in customer service for a number of years, I’ve never wanted to be the problem customer, making a fuss because something wasn’t absolutely perfect. This, coincidentally, seems to run in the family; when I told my dad about this yesterday, he mentioned that he and mom had told my brother that they should get their toilet fixed in their (rented) duplex when he moved in a year ago; supposedly, he hasn’t done so yet because he “doesn’t want to be a bother.” (A theory: working customer service for any period of time will forever ruin your opinion of your own rights as a customer.)

So, mostly for my own benefit, here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. The Internet (or hot water, or whatever) is not an inherent right. Believe it or not, I do not take it for granted that I live in a country where I can go to the restaurant down the road whenever my home Internet is out. And yes, I can survive a 24-hour period without checking Twitter.
  2. The Internet is a service. It’s becoming a vital one in the U.S. My livelihood literally depends on it right now.
  3. I have the right as a customer to get the service I pay for. This one is surprisingly key for me. See also: I don’t want to be a problem customer. But I pay for my DSL, and part of the rent I pay goes to the salaries of the maintenance workers at my apartment complex. So if my Internet is out and it’s the fault of the company, then I’m not being a problem customer if I call them up politely and work with them to solve my problem. Nor am I a problem resident if I ask maintenance to fix a problem in my apartment.A case in point is the saga of my refrigerator. The short version is that there was a brand new fridge in my apartment when I started the lease. This fridge had electrical problems. It took maintenance a week to finally figure out that the fridge itself was the problem and give me a different one. And I truly felt bad for bothering them every single day for several days in a row to tell them, hey, guess what, the fridge is out again. But the thing is, I know they were just as frustrated with it continually not working as I was. And they didn’t blame me for my problems, just as I didn’t blame them for not getting things fixed the first time. I let them know, hey, nope, sorry, for whatever reason the fridge is out again, and we’d try again. This isn’t like me, say, nagging them because my rose bushes aren’t properly pruned or because there’s a scratch in my paint. If something is actually broken, I have a right to get it fixed.
  4. Good customer support is vital to any company. Seriously. In fact, they and the UX team should probably be the best-paid employees of any company, since a bad experience is likely to turn a customer away.In a perfect world, of course, there would be no need for customer service. Products would always be usable and functional. Our world not being perfect, good usability will solve a number of problems, but will never solve them all. And that’s where your customer support team is crucial.

    Case in point 1: I was significantly happier with my ISP after the second phone call to tech support, wherein the nice lady on the other end actually listened to what I had to say, ran a simple test, apologized for putting me on hold during the test, and then nicely explained what exactly was going to happen after she submitted a trouble ticket to the Line department (including, coincidentally, the fact that they’re closed on Sundays and they might not get to my problem that same day, as indeed they did not). If I had been forced into paying the $130 they wanted to charge me to fix something that wound up being their fault after all, I probably would have canceled my service with them. (As an aside, while I actually had surprisingly “good” experiences with their automated support line both times I called, the fact that their core assumption as stated in this system was that the problem was with my technology, not theirs, definitely counts as a negative.)

    Case in point 2: We recently made the decision to use Constant Contact for our newsletter at work. On Friday, I discovered a major usability failure in their image editing technology (in short, I couldn’t resize a logo I had uploaded despite them claiming I could). A quick gripe on Twitter got noticed by their customer support team; while this particular problem is, I suspect, only solvable through a major redesign, they get major bonus points for noticing and caring. Even if it turns out that the Twitter response was just an automated reply established through Google Alerts, they still took the initiative to reach out to a customer who was having problems. Wait, let me reiterate that point: I was havingĀ  a problem with their service and wasn’t going to bother the company, but they still stepped up to help me out.

If you can get a customer support team together that is friendly, knowledgeable, and proactive, you’ve got yourself a strong backbone to your company. And if my ISP can continue to listen to my problems and explain reasonably why it may take a few more days, well, I’ll be okay with using Panera’s wifi in the meantime.