A Tale of Two Calls

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineAmong other things, my son Dan is a hockey player. We’ll never know if there was any connection, but this past summer he began experiencing lower back pain. The common advice to “take it easy and rest” was not helping, so we embarked on a more intentional course of action, pursuing every nonsurgical recommendation provided. In the end, surgery was mandated as the only remaining option to provide relief. The procedure went as planned, and he was up and walking, albeit gingerly, the next day. It won’t be long before he is back on the ice, playing the game he loves.

For me, the difficult part about dealing with medical issues is not all the appointments, the treatments, or even the side effects of the medications – it’s dealing with all the bills and insurance payments. I’m still receiving Dan’s paperwork from six months ago. In addition, a seemingly simply procedure can generate three or four bills, while the same procedure on different days can be charged different amounts or be reimbursed at different levels. Understanding all this is nigh unto impossible. That’s likely a key reason why I shun visiting my doctor.

My philosophy about health insurance is apparently an anomaly as well. I believe that I should budget for and cover the smaller and manageable expenses, relegating any catastrophic fees to the rightful realm of my insurance company. Towards that end, I have a high deductible health plan and a Health Savings Account (HSA) to cover the deductible with tax-free money that I set aside. Of course, there is paperwork for that, too.

Each month, my HSA statement is several pages – just to document the monthly service fee and inform me of my interest income. That alone is presented in a confusing enough manner, but when actual medical charges began to appear, it became a convoluted mess. After spending over an hour vainly attempting to match less than helpful invoices and insurance forms with dollar amounts on my statement, I resorted to calling “customer service” for help. I was braced for a painful ordeal with an overseas rep for whom effective English communication was a challenge and source of confusion. It is sad that I have been conditioned to accept that conclusion as an inevitable outcome, but that’s what unbridled and ill-executed offshore call center outsourcing has done to U.S. consumers: It has prepared us to expect mediocre phone support. Happily, I have a different outcome to report.

My call was quickly answered, there was no queue, and no queue announcements. I don’t even recall being subjected to an IVR on the front end of my call. The agent was cheerful and pleasant – dare I say perky – while communicating in my language with ease and aplomb; I never once had to ask her to repeat herself. I explained my dilemma, and she agreed that their statements were hard to understand, assuring me that she would help me to understand mine.

Telling me that supplemental information was online, I logged in and she walked me through the options to get to the page that would provide the additional detail. Amazingly, she went through this information with me line by line, explaining what each item meant and informing me that I could click on any entry to obtain more detail. Upon doing so, it was easy to see that transactions occurring on the same day were added together on my statement. Armed with this additional clarity, I was quickly able to match up the statement amounts with my paperwork.

She then said something surprising, “The website is confusing to use, so feel free to call back next month when you receive your statement, and I can go over this again.” It was as though she was paid on commission and wanted me to call again. Wow, that’s customer service that I’ve not experienced in a long time.

So for this call, call center technology was not used to restrict me from talking with someone, my call was answered quickly by a personable, knowledgeable, and trained person who spoke English clearly, my frustrations were acknowledged and validated, I was not treated as though I was ignorant or incompetent, and I was asked to call again.

My second call was to the firm who was filing my trademark application for an e-publication that I recently launched, TAS Trader. Although I could have paid my attorney to do so, I sought a lower-cost solution, searching online for a company that specialized in filing trademark applications. I found one whose website was compelling and looked professional. Although the entire transaction could have been handled online, I called them anyway. I wanted see how they responded to my call and to confirm (or refute) my conclusion that they were a viable and professional organization. Having received the answer to my question and being satisfactorily impressed, I entered my information on their website and clicked submit.

This set in motion a series of email communiqués with their “trademark team” that became increasingly frustrating and lacking in substantive communication. Once it became apparent that we were at a communication impasse, I called them again. To my dismay, “customers” are routed to a different group than “prospects.” My customer service contact was not nearly as impressive as my sales contact.

It seemed that no matter what I said, she responded in one of two ways: “We cannot guarantee that your application will be accepted…” or “We do not provide legal advice, as was stated…” The frustrating thing was that neither response was appropriate to what I was saying. Each time the wording was the same, and her tone was mechanical and even-paced. It was as though I was talking to a robot that possessed limited response options.

No matter how I phrased my concern, I received one of these two responses. “You’re not listening to me,” I implored, only to hear yet again the same monotone verbiage. I suppose that when one is not being heard, it is common to talk louder. Anyway, that is what I began doing. It didn’t alter her response. I wasn’t quite yelling, but I was getting emotional. Even so, she maintained a calm aloofness.

“I can appreciate you have to read this disclaimer to me, but…”

This evoked the only bit of emotion from her, “I’m not reading a script,” she exclaimed passionately with raised voice. “I’ve worked here for five years and know what I’m saying; I don’t need to read it.” Soon, she regained her composure and reverted to her tired verbiage, punctuated with, “Shall I place your order or not?” Eventually I acquiesced, albeit with grave reservation; my filing is now winding its way through the bureaucracy at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

To recap this call, the rep answered quickly, after minimal IVR interdiction, but her efforts were dispassionate and distant. Her responses were polished to the point of boredom, while her rebuttals were few and likely limited by a legal department intent on minimizing the chances of being successfully sued. Although she earned a tic mark for an account salvaged, the interaction was not successful, and my satisfaction as a customer barely hit the tolerance level. The rep may have won the proverbial battle, but she lost the war; my account was salvaged, but my future patronage has been lost.

That’s my tale of two calls; which one best exemplifies your call center?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine May 2009]