Soapbox: Sex, Lies, and Customer Service


IÂ'm trying to recall when last I phoned a customer support number with a genuine problem, and then, through the assistance received, rectified that problem to a satisfactory conclusion. IÂ'm not coming up with much. DonÂ't get me wrong, IÂ'm rarely short of problems, but for the most part IÂ'm a pretty resourceful guy and can, by and large, take care of myself. So, when I get right down to the point of having to call customer support, I swear to God, IÂ'm not wasting their time, though I am probably wasting my own.

TheyÂ're always, and I mean always, taken aback by a genuine dilemma. They run through their script, perhaps labeled Script To Solve Problems Only Idiots CouldnÂ't Figure Out For Themselves, get to the other side with my problem still firmly entrenched and now shouting obscenities at us from afar, and have this surprised tone as though theyÂ'd never encountered an actual problem before. At about this point they either panic, ferry me off to another number that also will not be able to help me, or occasionally "level with me". All of these methods mean they have no idea what I, or anyone else, should do. It makes me wonder why I even bother to call customer support in the first place.

For a long time I lived under the naive delusion that customer support was a useful resource for all users. IÂ'm beginning to understand that customer support is really only a resource for pacifying the terminally stupid, but I wonder, who can blame companies for taking this tack? After all, should you spend thousands of dollars training a competent staff only to put them on the phone with people who havenÂ't figured out that the wire hanging off the back of the monitor serves the purpose of transferring electronic information from the computer to the display, and thus it really needs to be plugged in before a desktop can appear? Not unless you want to wander into the customer support center one day to the sight of a thousand disgruntled support personnel hanging themselves from the rafters. No, unfortunately you fight fire with fire, and considering that seventy-five percent of technical support calls could be solved by Koko the Gorilla - who would inevitably become disgruntled and hang herself from the tire swing - a well trained staff just doesnÂ't make fiscal sense.

Shall I illustrate, then?

We recently received a review copy of AsheronÂ's Call 2 here at GWJ. Let me rephrase that, we recently received a copy of AsheronÂ's Call 2 here, which we assume is meant for review purposes, and was not actually sent as a joke. Certis immediately tried to pawn the duty of reviewing AC2 onto me, because I had once played, and for a brief time even been enthusiastic about the game. My initial thought was no, as were several subsequent thoughts I had, though some were variations on the theme like Â"˜definitely notÂ', Â"˜hell noÂ', and Â"˜not if you paid me which I should point out you donÂ'tÂ'. Finally I compromised and said the best he could expect would be for me to reinstate my account for a short time, and suffer through with him, leaving the final reviewing responsibility up to him (which IÂ'm pretty sure is a task heÂ's since pawned off onto someone else entirely). Like I said, IÂ'd played AC2 before, and I let my account expire in January. Now, and hereÂ's where I inadvertently went wrong, I never actually cancelled my account. I knew the credit card I had been using to fund my account was set to expire at the end of January, and instead of transferring the account to an active card, I simply let the card expire on Turbine. I had no idea that this would make my copy of AC2 completely, and forever, useless.

The AsheronÂ's Call 2 account system is handled completely through MSN Passport, apparently as some kind of cruel and unusual punishment. IÂ'm not exactly sure who put this account system together, but IÂ'm pretty sure he should be banished from the industry and sent to work at a landfill or perhaps some unstable mine. You see, the only way to work with your account is through the AC2 login program, and even then it doesnÂ't appear that you can make significant changes to your account unless youÂ're already logged in to that account. That is to say, that the only way to make changes to the credit card info attached inextricably to your account is to be logged into that active account, which proves difficult when, say, your account has expired and is inactive. So, by logging in to my old account, it would ask me if IÂ'd like to resubscribe. Yes, I would say not really meaning it, and then it would pleasantly inform me that my credit card had expired, and then send me packing back to the desktop. It occurs to me that this might have been a good moment to ask if IÂ'd like to, perhaps, enter a valid credit card instead, but thatÂ's the kind of organized and logical thinking that obviously has no place here.

I wonÂ't exhaust you with a litany of details about the different methods I tried to replace my old credit card number with a new one, because many of them were pointlessly desperate (maybe if I click the mouse button with my eyes closed!), and at the end absolutely none of them came close to working. So, with my reasonable series of feeble attempts exhausted, I finally turned to Microsoft and Turbine, wearing a meek expression like a groveling supplicant seeking alms, and beseeched their sage wisdom.

I talked to a perfectly pleasant automaton after holding for only four or five minutes, who was named something like Steve or maybe Reggie. Frank asked me how billing support could help me today, and I explained the issue, at which point he looked up my account.

"I show your account as active!" he said, already certain that he was talking to just another in a long string of people too stupid to tie their own shoes. I assured him that it was not, to which Greg let out a vaguely superior chuckle, and pleasantly told me he would check again.

"See, Mr. Sands, it says here you opened the account in February."

"IÂ'm sorry, Charlie, but IÂ'm pretty sure I cancelled this account in January."

"I donÂ't show the account having been closed. Would you like me to close it?"

"No. IÂ'm trying open the account. Not close it. ItÂ's already closed. I need it opened with a new credit card."

We went around like that for a while, Timmy and I, until finally through a fully fleshed Abbott and Costello routine it came to light that Slim was looking at my Xbox Live account. His tone now significantly less superior, but still pleasant, and my faith in GeneÂ's competence slipping away, we got ourselves back on track, which was when we discovered the real problem. I had, in fact, once subscribed to AsheronÂ's Call 2, and I had let that account and credit card expire. Carl let out a sigh then that I knew was not good.

"Oh, that could be a problem."

"WhatÂ's that, Lester?"

"Well, the way our system is set up, when an account goes into default like that, we canÂ't enter a new card number."

I needed confirmation on that. "Are you saying, that when an accountÂ's card is no good any more, it becomes the only card you can possibly use, a card number that won't work?  That I canÂ't just give you my new card number to reactivate my account?"

"I donÂ't think so. Let me try." Long pause. "No, I canÂ't change it. Maybe if I just changed the expiration date."

"I donÂ't think thatÂ's gonna work, Clancy. I have a different card number, and that account has expir..."

"Yeah, doesnÂ't work," he said and managed to sound surprised.

IÂ'm actually a pleasant guy on the phone. I try to remember the caliber of people that customer support has to deal with, and I also remember that if I take a frustrated tone with support representatives then they might openly retaliate against my defenseless account (though, perhaps not so defenseless as I once supposed), so I remained cheerful and amicable with Justin. I joked with him, and tried helpfully to offer suggestions, though I began to realize I was the only one offering solutions, and none of them worked.

"Have you tried to create a new account entirely?" asked Jamias.

"Yeah, out of desperation, but, of course, that didnÂ't work because the CD-key is already registered."

"Oh, right!"

Eventually, the tone of the discussion changed from solving the problem - which he assured me was not his fault and theyÂ'd promised to fix this months ago, but you know how they can be - to finding a way to make me someone elseÂ's problem. I was starting to get phone numbers I could call which might be willing to help me get a new copy of the game or a new CD-key. Hector was still quite pleasant with me, but it was clear that in his mind, a problem like this could not solved by man alone, or at least not by his trusty script. I was off the phone with him a matter of moments later, and sent to MicrosoftÂ's Money Back Guarantee Hotline.

Sent deeper into the MS chain of Â"˜customer run-around numbersÂ' I at least did not have long to wait for Kelly who cheerfully took my call after a hold of only a dozen seconds. I began to explain to Jennifer my problem, though she politely stopped me halfway through, obviously not equipped to carry my emotional baggage, and asked if I wanted a refund or replacement. It was a bit like working the singleÂ's bar after midnight, finding someone whoÂ's clearly as desperate as you, but still going through all the unnecessary moves. Listen, she metaphorically says, itÂ's late and IÂ'll probably be unconscious before the hourÂ's out, so if weÂ're going to do this thing then letÂ's skip the getting to know each other part. I probably could have told Emily that I was sending her a package with several slivers of CD that had once been a copy of AC2 and I wanted a refund, and she would have acquiesced with a bored sigh. Instead, naively, I still held some ridiculous hope that I could solve the problem, that I was only ten minutes from an active account if we could just align the planets properly, even if they only could issue me a new CD-key, but that was the one thing that Sara could not or would not do. So she gave me a number that, she insisted, perhaps could.

Now, Michelle was polite, kind, and had a perfectly reasonable tone, but letÂ's make no mistake. She was happy to be rid of me. I know this because it turns out the number she gave me was for Microsoft hardware repair. I had now been sent so deep into the run-around underbelly, that the phone was answered by an actual human on the second ring, a jovial fellow named something like Silas or Scrum. I had fallen completely outside the loop now, as this was clearly an intelligent person I was dealing with, and as such not used to dealing with the traditional customer service mathod. He did not read from a script, or speak Customer Serivicese, or even usher me off to another equally pointless phone number. When I began to explain my plight, he even laughed, a genuine laugh that was both sympathetic to my problem, and indicated how far down the chain IÂ'd fallen. ItÂ's the kind of laugh the damned might give you when they see the expression on your face as you realize youÂ've died and gone to hell.

"IÂ'm sorry, but IÂ'm not even entirely sure what AsheronÂ's Call 2 is," he said. "This is the number youÂ'd call if you wanted to place a corporate order for replacement hardware."

"Then, why would they give me this number?" I asked as much to myself as to him.

"I canÂ't begin to imagine," he admitted.

"Well, Fargas, I appreciate your help." IÂ'd gotten so used to saying it, that I didnÂ't realize how ridiculous it sounded until he laughed. I laughed too, because letÂ's be honest, it was friggin hilarious. I mean, what had Phyllis from the Money Back Guarantee Hotline done, open the Big Book of Microsoft Phone Numbers and jabbed her pink Lee Press-On Nail randomly toward some unsuspecting department? Almost certainly.

I thought about calling her back, or someone just like her, and following the rules this time by keeping quiet and waiting patiently 10-12 weeks for my replacement copy, but I didnÂ't care anymore. Suddenly I was picturing my review, five or six pages long, and only tangentially related to the game. It would be some ridiculously long diatribe on the state of customer service, not retaliatory per se, but an irritated expression of futility. It wouldnÂ't even really be a review anymore, more like some delusional ramblings as if from a rickety soapbox.

Now, I donÂ't want to suggest that all customer service people are hapless buffoons, but I will suggest that the majority of them are. If youÂ're reading this, and youÂ're getting worked up over my maltreatment of the noble customer service profession, then relax and assume I must be talking about someone else entirely, that I just had a string of bad luck (over the past decade), and that itÂ's probably my fault. Heck, did you see what I was wearing ... I was practically asking for it! But it seems to me that competent customer service representatives are usually more valuable somewhere else, and donÂ't get stuck on the phones for all that long. Eventually a person whoÂ's well trained, enough so to tackle almost any technical problem, is better placed somewhere besides answering calls about Mountain Dew spilled on motherboards, and half-wits who jammed their new RAM into a PCI slot.

I guess, when itÂ's all said and done, I owe customer service my thanks. In the end they saved me from a project I wasnÂ't all that keen on in the first place, saved my credit card from ten or twenty dollars worth of charges I certainly would have regretted later, and left me time to play games I was far more interested in now. I think if IÂ'd have truly wanted to dig into AC2 again I would have been a lot more disappointed with the results of this fiasco, but instead I just felt vaguely used. Dumped unceremoniously off that customer service roller-coaster, I think the midnight singleÂ's bar analogy pans out to completion. On reflection you realize youÂ're probably no better off than when you began. You lay there exhausted and spent feeling dirty having suffered through the whole process. And somewhere along the line, you almost certainly got screwed.

- Elysium


I feel your pain.  I had something similar wiht Sony and Everquest.  I hadn't played for a while, but never canceled my account, thinking maybe I'd play again sometime.  Well,  there's no place to cancel your account outside of the game interface.  I rebuilt my PC since I last played, so I had to reinstall the damn game so I could cancel everything.  Of course, I couldn't remember my password, so I couldn't access my account to cancel it.  An email sent to customer service got me a fairly standardized form letter.  I don't remember how I eventually got it worked out, but I think I managed to do it all through email.

Most customer service people, even on an internal corporate help-desk, are what we call script-chimps.  Like Elysium said, the good ones get moved on to something else.  Or they quit because their job is boring and frustrating.

It could have been worse, I was once on hold for 7 hours while trying to get my video card with a 'lifetime' warranty replaced. I was at work and just let the hold music sit on speaker phone all day, it was great. Oh and they were pretty surprised when I told them how long I had been on hold.

Also handled by Tycho and Gabe in:

I've had the improbable pleasure of having Adelphia PowerLink as my only high-speed ISP choice.  I'm consistently astonished at how deep and perilous the labrynth of a bankrupt media company's service experience can be.  I could call with the same problem every day for a year, and be transferred to a different department every time.  Come to think of it, that's exactly what's happened...

Phone support is probable one of the most frustrating things to do, even worse when you are dealing with bad systems. Every once in a while I get suckered into helping my Mom's business out with some technical problem, ISP issue or some other crappy computer related thing that I don't have enough information or access to actual do anything about (they usually call me after they have had some n00b to help desk break down in communication). Every time I get done I thank the Gods that the support org that I run dose not have to do phone support as a rule.

Best customer service story ever:

My monitor broke so I called the customer help line.  The first thing he asked me to do was to turn it on.  Nothing happened, I said.  Next, he asked me to restart the computer.  Once again, no picture.  For some reason known only to him, he told me to UNPLUG the monitor and then try to turn it on.  I told him I had no picture and no power because he told me to unplug it.  He stopped, then said he was just going to send me a replacement monitor and prepaid shipping for the old one.  Sha-zam!

so i cant leave ac2 even if i wanted too?

or is that the key?  to leave while you wouldnt want to?

thats too bad, it woulda been nice to see you guys in AC2

I work doing tech support for a computer company. You basically talked to one of the 95% of the chumps they get working for us. My theory is the company I work at could save even more money by having chimps trained to hang up on customers as backup for when we get really busy. I mean a few bannana's is cheaper that paying all us humans.

It's a  job that trains us to intercept the idiot callers. Anything else is suppose to be dealt with by the engeneers. But it's so rare we get an intelligent person that it's hard to remeber where to take actual problems.