Ever get tired of waiting? I sure do. We wait in line for coffee, on highways and toll-booths, at airports, and on the phone or in chat rooms waiting for customer or technical support. It’s hard to avoid getting angry at slow service or slow drivers. Possessed of a certain sense of entitlement, it’s easy to feel like helpless victims in these encounters and believe that life “should” be easier. Perhaps we’re too impatient, addicted to the speed of the digital age and promise of instantaneous communication and gratification. Maybe we all have ADHD and are reacting to the normal frustrations of modern life like kids squirming in a boring classroom.
But I think that we’re also getting screwed by large institutions that put profit before people.
Let me give you an example: Recently, my wife and I called technical support at Quicken, (the company that sells the most popular personal finance software on the market), because it was not downloading our bank accounts as it is designed to do. We waited for 47 minutes and finally spoke with a perfectly nice woman who used desktop screen sharing to begin the process of working out what she acknowledged to be a kink in their software. In the beginning, however, she asked us for a number at which she could reach us were we to be disconnected. We were subsequently disconnected and didn’t hear from her or anyone else at Quicken. Because of the tech’s prior ministrations, nothing now worked. We were feeling somewhat desperate and so decided to give it another shot and called again. After a 52 minute wait, a rep answered and tried to help us. At some point we asked him why it was that the prior agent had bothered to ask for our phone number since we never received a return call. He paused and then said, in a perfectly reasonable tone, “I don’t know about the other technician you spoke with, but my phone doesn’t even have any buttons.” He promised to escalate the issue, but—as we expected—we never heard from anyone at Quicken again.
But think about it: His phone didn’t have buttons. This fact presumably explained why he could never, in his or our wildest dreams, ever call us back.
Why do customer service reps routinely ask for our numbers that they rarely ever use? Doesn’t anyone’s phone have buttons? Why were we on hold a total of 99 minutes in the first place? Or, let me expand the range of inquiry here: Why can airline representatives rarely solve travel problems on the phone but, instead, brush us off to someone at the airport? Why do delivery services have to have a full four-hour window for their deliveries, when the homes to which they’re delivering often have two adults working full-time? Why does the AT&T customer service office, located as it is in some place like Texas, have no ability to directly contact their installers in San Francisco in order to track – in real time – the status of an installation? Why do tech support workers have to tell me that they “understand and regret my frustration,” then try to help me by working entirely off of a script, but put up resistance when I try to escalate the call? Why does Comcast—well, don’t get me started about cable providers!
Yes, I know that when we rage against the machine of bureaucracy, we are scapegoating people who are underpaid and overworked, subject to surveillance and constraints that must make many call centers feel like prisons. The problem is systemic and not personal. People in the “customer service” business ought to be trained and paid well. There ought to be more of them and they ought to be given the freedom to express their best selves and take individual initiative to help a customer actually solve their problem. Research shows that, under such conditions, customers and workers are happier and good PR accrues to companies known for great customer service.
In other words, their phones should have buttons.
The reason they don’t is that companies figure that customers can’t or won’t bother to go elsewhere and that a certain percentage of disgruntled and frustrated customers is simply the cost of doing business. And they are in the business of, first and foremost, making money for their shareholders and management and not soothing the distress and frustrations caused by everyday life in a highly technological society.
But perhaps we should insist that they be in the people business as well as the profit business. Let’s, in other words, get them phones with buttons.