We’ve all encountered it at one point or another: poor customer support. And it seems to get worse on a weekly basis. “Poor” has many flavors:
- Not understanding what you want (well, this is actually the better case; the worse is wrongfully thinking they understand what you want)
Security breaches / social engineering
“I’m sorry that you feel that way” non-apology
Thinking that what the customer support reps see on their screen is The TruthTM
Knee-jerk copy/paste reply
The Amazon case
The most recent one that’s now flooding the Internetz is the Amazon customer support social engineering case. The TL;DR version: bad people managed to get an Amazon chat support rep to hand them someone else’s address and their latest order. These people only had their victim’s email address and the postal code of where they live, both widely available data you can easily get (It gets even more interesting if you’re willing to read the whole story, but I want to get to the point of this post). A reader of the original post tried it himself and it happened to him as well, so it’s not a one-time thing. Oh. and apparently it’s not new.
What’s interesting, besides the sadly successful social engineering attack, is Amazon rep’s answer, when directly confronted of their malpractice in real-time:
Me: You gave away my shipping address when I gave you a fake address in my area that I never used
why ask for the address if you are not going to actually check it against my history?
Well I don’t know what you are doing now as it seems to be a one way conversation. I hope you read that blog post in full and that you forward that blog post and this incident to someone higher up and have Amazon’s entire customer service team retrained to protect the privacy of your customers. I am disappointed that the blog author’s story is true.
Bikash: In order to access your account and I need to verify that you’re the account holder.
These things, by the way, happened even back in 2012, so basically nothing has changed in Amazon’s customer support with that regard.
Not bothering to read or comprehend what you’ve written, or: the copy+paste knee jerk reaction
Last month I attempted to access a minisite that belongs to a large Australian online ticket retailer. I hit an error that prevented me from using the site as a logged in user. I sent them this email:
Now, this is clearly an error on the site’s side. It’s a known output ASP.NET produces when it encounters a problem or some other unhandled bug. Knowing that the email will be read by a non-developer, I mentioned it’s a server error exception.
Despite this very specific email (often people just say “it doesn’t work” where the support rep needs to figure out what exactly doesn’t work) I received this unbelievable reply:
We can confirm that there is currently no problems with the Fan Market Place website. We advise you check a few things on your system that may be causing the problem.
1. If you have anti-popup software installed on your system or in your browser, this may cause some problems listing the tickets or cause website display issues. We recommend that you allow pop-ups when using our site.
2. In order to use the website website, you must have your system set to accept all cookies. Adjust this browser setting by going to Internet Options in the Tools menu. Click on the Privacy tab and ensure that slider is set to Medium or lower.
If none of these solutions assist, try making the booking using a different web browser of if possible another computer.
A few things to note here:
- “We can confirm that there is currently no problems” – not true, that was a lingering bug that lasted several hours, including after receiving this reply. The rep probably just browsed the homepage anonymously, whereas the bug is immediately seen (and can’t be bypassed) after logging in. Had she followed my link (which is the main portal page for logged-in users) she would’ve seen it. But no, she just browsed to the home page and concluded there is no problem without really paying attention to what I wrote.
This was obviously a copy+paste answer, she didn’t sit and write all of this just for me. And it was a too-quick paste. I specifically wrote it was a server error. It had nothing to do with my browser, ad-blocker, cookies etc. Furthermore: I fucking gave her a technical stack trace screenshot! For tech support / developers this is a dream, it’s the ultimate information they could wish to receive when a customer complains. But no, she completely ignored it, and instead of forwarding it to their developers or more technical guys, she just said: “Uh, a customer can’t browse the site, let’s send him our standard answer about issues he may have in his browser”.
In the global world that we live in, it’s very easy to collaborate, work and transact internationally. There is a huge cheap workforce available, mainly in certain Asian countries. Companies offshore their customer support departments to cut costs; they often won’t do it for their Sales department but for customer support, every minute they spend talking to a customer is lost money. Better direct these calls to low-wage centers.
The problem with offshoring is, well… the quality. Or lack thereof. These employees, due to many reasons, mainly cultural and lingual, just don’t deliver the same quality as local support or even close to it. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the very same people, delivering customer support to domestic clients in their own countries, will be much better. The root problem with offshoring is the deep cultural and lingual differences between these people and the customers who call for support from another country.
I have a fair bit of experience working with remote software development teams and I’ve seen it repeating almost every time. In some of these cultures, not being able to solve a problem and escalating it is considered failure; that’s why you might talk to a rep, realize they don’t have any clue how to solve your issue, but refuse to escalate it to Level 2 support or other senior staff. They’d reply with “I’m sorry you feel that way”, they’d offer you silly things that will clearly not help, but that’s it. If you insist they might dismiss you with a “I’ll get someone to call you back” which will probably never happen. Just today, a colleague at work told me that he called his mobile phone provider, inquiring about an irregular high bill he received. Their reply was “I don’t know what this charge is for” and… that’s it. He didn’t offer any help, he didn’t try to escalate it or just ask other guys at his support department. My colleague actually had to actively push to create an “action item” for that rep, something he can follow-up.
With being remote, I recently had an issue with my cellular phone provider, where outbound calls to 1-3 numbers (special Australian shorthand numbers for government offices and commercial companies) would disconnect after exactly 21 minutes. Being remote, they didn’t have an idea what 1-3 numbers are and suggested that they are special numbers that are treated differently by the system. This was utterly nonsense, as these numbers are merely “cosmetic” and of course there was nothing special in them that would make sense to disconnect these calls after 21 minutes. Then this customer support guy proceeded with suggesting all sorts of illogical “solutions”, all to avoid escalating the issue. It’s an issue that its path to solving should have been very clear: either it’s known to support reps (such as a system limitation, etc.) or it needs Engineering to come in and investigate. Instead, he suggested that I’ll try doing the same call from another mobile (couldn’t) or a landline (couldn’t as I needed to do it in daytime where I didn’t have access to a landline) and anyway that would not solve the issue of my personal phone not being able to execute longer calls. I also didn’t want to spend another 21 minutes on other lines just to figure out if the problem persists or not – it was already too much that it happened 3 times before I called my provider’s support (until I figured out it’s not a random cellular phone line break but rather a consistent issue). It took me 3 calls to different support reps until I convinced them to escalate the issue, and eventually – how predictable – it was indeed a fault on their end which they then fixed. It all starts when no one acknowledges there is a problem on their end. It’s always treated as one-customer’s problem rather than a wide one, and usually as a problem that originates on the customer’s side and not the company’s one.
With regards to offshoring, it seems like at some point United Kingdom’s BT customers have had enough, where BT decided to return their call centers back to the UK. It’s a big company, but only one. I live in Australia and it seems that customers are still too passive – they complain and everyone knows about the problem, but not enough pressure is applied on the big corporations to re-shore their customer support. With wages rising in Australia, it seems to not happen anywhere soon.
But it’s important to remember that it’s not just about offshoring. Other aspects can be addressed by better training, regardless of location. For example, often customer support reps consider what they see on their screens as The Truth. They can’t even think of a reality where what they see on the screen does not reflect the reality, due to a bug or due to previous staff member not accurately typing in the right things when they logged their conversation with the customer. When this happens, again – the call is “stuck”, as the customer knows one thing, the rep sees another, and the rep cannot even seem to comprehend that what they see might be wrong.
What can companies do?
For companies that insist on keeping their customer support offshore, there are definitely things they can do to improve it. It’s a matter of will. As mentioned, some of the things do not relate to being off-shore but rather lack of training for the support reps, often young, inexperienced folks that don’t usually stay too long at the same role and gain experience.
- Improve your customer support software’s user interface, so that it will better convey that what the rep sees might not be the absolute truth;
Automatically add every call to the customer’s file, even if the rep didn’t write anything. The bare minimum that can, and should be, automatically added is: date and time, the customer rep who handled the call (or multiple of), the call’s length. With that info, the next reps to address the same customer issue will be more knowledgeable about the history of the support call/incident. It will also push reps to not leave records empty, as everyone will be able to see that a certain rep has talked with the customer for say, 15 minutes, and obviously something should have been documented as a result;
Instruct reps that if a call disconnects they should return a call to the customer. Otherwise not just that the customer needs to call and wait again (might be a long time wait due to poor IVRs, but that’s another story) but they will also land on another rep and will have to explain the whole story again;
Nurture culture where reps can escalate cases without being afraid to be perceived as a failure on their part. Teach them to identify tech-savvy customers (or just customers who know what they talk about, depends on the segment) and not waste everyone’s time by giving unhelpful advice. On that note, as an anecdote, I’ve heard this several times: software developers and other tech-savvy people wish they had a secret menu option like “I’m tech-savvy, I know what I’m saying” option that will jump them to Level 2 Support automatically, as Level 1 is mainly common sense advice you can know by yourself or via the company’s web site;
Train your reps to read emails thoroughly and not just copy-paste answers. An irrelevant copy-paste answer is a waste of everyone’s time, and will lead to an angry customer;
Don’t say “I’m sorry” when you’re not. Just don’t. First because I don’t want you to lie to me, you’re not really sorry and I don’t see this as empathetic. You are not sorry and a millionth of a second after this talk is finished you will forget that it ever happened. Second, because it means that you are not seeking a solution. You are stuck, and you present me with a glass wall. You, as the one with the power to solve the issue – either yourself or by escalating – chooses not to.
Customer support, across the board, is poor. Good customer support is the exception and not the norm. It varies from a handful of reasons which, I believe, can be quite easily addressed if only companies will treat that as a priority; if they don’t, we should just hope the market forces will affect and favor companies with better support.
Picture of customer support representatives by Sumasoft