Call Center Anecdotes

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Over the past few months I have been amassing call center anecdotes. Here is my compilation.

First up is Netflix. Netflix is one of my favorite organizations, mailing me DVDs to watch on my TV and providing downloads to watch on my computer. In my January 2007 article, The Netflix Advantage, I noted that Netflix’s business strategy of a self-serve website (no phone or email support) was a stellar example of Internet self-service done right. Although they did provide a phone number for media inquiries and offered call center support for prospects, members were to find out what they needed online. I was quite happy with that arrangement, especially given that lower overhead would result in lower subscription rates.

Although I generally dislike self-service business models, it worked admirably for Netflix. However, despite my affirmation of their self-service business model, they have since altered their stance, now offering customer service via the telephone. Their online “help” section displays “Instant Answers” and “Answers by Phone.” The phone number is answered 24/7, with the website conveniently displaying the current hold time. A call center is an incredible service addition, especially given that during this same period they lowered their subscription price and added free downloads. The encouraging lesson is that good business models can provide phone support.

Next, I recently placed an online order for self-inking stamps from a company that also pushes the self-service business model. Throughout the order process, their website kept presenting upsell offers, but never displayed the cost until after the option had been selected. This then required editing the shopping cart to maintain the deal I wanted. Finally, I double-checked my shopping cart and clicked on the button to place the order. To my dismay, the order conformation page provided a total three times what I anticipated. Upon inspection, it had upped the quantity of one of the stamps to two, with the second stamp at full price, plus shipping.

I immediately called their toll-free number, asking the rep to cancel the second stamp. He was calm and polite, but unable to change my order. He apologized, offering to issue a credit on my next order. I doubted there would be a next order, so I declined. After more unsuccessful conversation, he offered the credit option again – and then a third time. This time I insisted on a credit to my charge card, to which he readily agreed. He then told me to keep the extra stamp. What was perplexing was that he was able to credit my charge card and view my order, but he was unable to change it.

I am convinced that their website was intentionally designed to mask upsell costs.  This serves to inflate the order amount and therefore generate unnecessary customer service calls. Then the reps are not able to correct order errors and are trained to steer customers towards future credits (most of which will never be used). With business policies like this, it must be challenging for them to retain agents.

Next up is another favorite company, Dell. I am a huge fan of Dell computers, but not their tech support. In the past, I would buy the extended support feature for my primary business computer. However, when attempts to use it resulted in talking to a person for whom effective English communication was a challenge, I realized that buying extended support plans was not a wise investment.

With its slide into the number two position for PC manufacturers, Dell has made several changes, the call center reportedly being one of them. I remember hearing that Dell would be moving their support call centers back to the U.S., but I have subsequently heard user comments that this has not occurred. If I am able to receive tech support from a person I can understand – and who can understand me – then I am willing to try it again. Although I plan to continue buying computers from Dell, I will still decline the extended tech support. The lesson to be learned is that the reputation of bad customer service is hard to overcome.

Speaking of tech support, I have contracted with a company to provide phone support for my computers. Ironically, it is an India-based firm. Their annual support rate is minimal and their staff, knowledgeable. However, explaining my computer issues to them is a major challenge, so much so that I find myself weighing the severity of the problem before deciding to invest the time to call. The length of some services calls stretch into hours, largely because of miscommunication. Even though I judge their service to be a good value, I would gladly pay more for technicians I could readily understand and would likely cover more computers as well. Low-cost call center locations may be cost-effective, but if they limit business, they are a false economy.

I don’t want to exclude outbound call centers from this discussion. Last week I received three phone calls on three different days from the same yellow page company. For each call I would say, “I’m not interested; do not list me; and please don’t call again.” Although I am in their book’s distribution area, they are not my local phone company, and I have never advertised with them. Since they are calling my business line, EBR (existing business relationship) regulations are a moot point, and they have no obligation to comply with DNC (do not call) requests. Still, why would a company subject their reps to the ire of someone who expressly asked not to be called? By not respecting their prospects’ requests, they are causing their staff more work, lowering closing rates, increasing telephony costs, and irritating businesses that could at the very least be using their directories.

Lastly is a perplexing postcard that I received. In exchange for taking a two-minute survey, they promised some substantial rewards. I called the number on the card and entered my twelve-digit code into their automated system. The system looked up my name and spelled it to me – and then prompted me for my account number again. I was stuck in an endless loop and was never able to take the survey or talk with anyone. Out of curiosity, I called for five consecutive days, obtaining the same results.

Doing a Google search on their phone number uncovered some unflattering feedback and frequent use of the word “scam.” Even so, after mailing out postcards, you’d think they would make sure their equipment was working. Not only did they waste money on printing and mailing, but they are also incurring toll-free charges for each person who attempts to contact them.

In summary:

  • Well-run businesses provide phone support.
  • Partially integrated systems and shortsighted policies frustrate reps.
  • A tarnished reputation is hard to salvage.
  • Reps who can’t effectively communicate limit results.
  • Listening to prospects increases effectiveness and decreases costs.
  • Make sure your equipment is working.

Peter Lyle DeHaan 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. Learn about his books and read more of his articles at  Peter Lyle DeHaan.

[From Connection Magazine September 2008]