Customer Service Advice

Having worked in customer service for much longer than I care to admit, I've learned that some people don't have the slightest clue how customer service works or how to present a complaint. After suffering through a lot of idiocy, I've decided to put together a little primer of some of the top do's and don'ts for people contacting customer service. This will make the world a better place, and get a cheap article for the site here.

I'm a bit vague in places because the company I currently work for is specifically a customer service company that accepts contracts from larger companies, and for some reason we are forbidden to reveal who these clients are, according to various stacks of legalese-intense papers everyone is forced to sign when they're hired for reasons that make sense to lawyers and probably no one else on earth. I've had other customer service jobs for companies who don't have such a need for secrecy (likely because they didn't have a parent company that's always being dragged into court for knowingly and willfully killing people), but I've decided just to remain vague across the board. This setup is also why I sometimes refer to "the client" as though they're not the company I work for, because technically, they're not. It also explains why (well, okay, not explains per se, but it is the reason why) the terms "customer" and "consumer" appear to be used somewhat interchangeably. Don't dwell on it too much. It's not that important a distinction (except to the client, which considers everything Very Important [tm]). Where I work we do phone, paper mail, and email service, so my comments are aimed for toward that, though they are largely applicable to face-to-face customer service as well.

That in mind, here are some of the top things to keep in mind, presented in an order of no particularness.

Get to the point, preferably in fifteen seconds or less.

Suppose you just bought a microwave. You get it home, you plug it in, you carefully set the clock and the timer and so on, and finally you put some food in it and set the timer for an appropriate length of time, and when it's finished and you take the food out, you find it's still just as cold as when you put it in. You run through the troubleshooting options in the manual but they don't help, and when you try to take the thing back where you bought it, the store says "caveat emptor" and adds that they've already deposited your check. Then you decide to call the company to complain. Here's the correct way to explain the situation:

"I bought this microwave earlier today, model number ABC123, and when I used it it didn't heat the food. I went through the manual and did everything it suggests. Everything else about the microwave seems to work fine, but the food doesn't warm up."

Simple and to the point. You've clarified exactly what the product is, explained the problem, and established that you're smart enough to cover the obvious solutions (such as "RTFM") before calling in. The person you're talking to can now get right to work solving your problem, or directing you to someone who can.

Now, let's look at the incorrect (or "moronic") way to explain this situation:

"Hi, this is Norman McCay of Star City. I'm calling today because, I guess... See, I have I guess a sort of a complaint. I'm getting a bit older, and I'm not real comfortable with a lot of these new devices people have in their homes. My VCR is still flashing twelve o'clock! Ha ha! Plus I don't like to shop for things. The traffic is bad, and my eyesight isn't what it used to be ever since the incident with the neighbor's kid, so I get nervous about being on the road. I've also had five surgeries on my left ankle, so I don't get around like I used to. No more dancing until the wee hours of the morning for me! Ha ha! I'm sure you don't have that problem, god bless you. My neighbor, Edward, he's been telling me to get a microwave for three or four years now, because he didn't care for the spaghetti I reheated in a pan, because I added some ketchup to keep it from burning. He said spaghetti shouldn't taste like ketchup, and he always said a microwave would be quicker and the food would taste better. I resisted and resisted, but last week I was trying to warm up some meatloaf and I got distracted when the phone rang, because I don't have a cordless, and I had to help Laura because she was all broken up because her dog had to go to the vet again because the infection in its foot is flaring up again, god bless the poor thing, and when I got back to the kitchen I'd blackened the meatloaf and there was black smoke filling up the kitchen, and I ended up setting off the smoke alarm. Edward gave me grief over that, let me tell you! I got more grief than Charlie Brown! Ha ha! So that's why I decided to get a microwave..."

See the problem? This person has been talking for six times as long as the first one, and so far all they've established is that their problem probably involves a microwave in some capacity. Customer Service is not a department for chatting. Odds are the person you're talking to is also being timed on every call, and has to keep their call handle time down. Not only does this second explanation waste everyone's time, it also could end up hurting the employee's standing at work, which is NOT going to endear you to him or her. Plus no one cares about your life story except you. Plus you're boring the living hell out of the person you expect to help you. That never bodes well.

The fact is, most problems don't require much context to understand them. A simple explanation is all that is needed, and anything more is extraneous and unnecessary. Cut to the chase.

Never threaten to take your business to a competitor.

Most people feel that this threat is a good one, and on the surface it certainly seems to be, even if you don't mean it (and most people who make this threat don't mean it at all, so the threat lacks credibility anyway). No company likes to lose business, so the threat of taking your money elsewhere seems to hit right where it hurts the company most. The problem with this approach is, you're not dealing with a company. You're dealing with an individual.

It helps if you take the time to think about what exactly how the business has set up its customer service department. People tend to think of companies, no matter how large, as monoliths, where everything is in the same building, and everyone is utterly devoted to the company, and everyone is equally responsible for any given problem. This is as laughable a concept as the suggestion that you are utterly devoted to the company you work for. It is true that the bottom line in dollars and cents is the god that most companies' upper management executives worship. To this end, they do everything as cheaply as possible, and this typically involves outsourcing customer relations to some other company.

There are several reasons why this is cheaper. Most large companies have offices in major cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and so on. The cost of living in these regions is extremely high, and pay rates are high as a result. To avoid paying these rates, companies outsource customer relations to call centers in economically depressed regions where they can offer the lowest possible salary that can (semi-)reasonably be considered "competitive." Near where I live, one company started doing customer service and offered new hires twelve dollars an hour. Then they did some more research, found at what the pay scale in the region was, and offered the next round of hires eight bucks hourly. That's four bucks, times forty hours weekly, times the number of employees hired, of straight-up cash that is kept within the company to help pay those seven and eight figure bonuses that company execs are always being given for some reason. And consider that outsourcing at the original twelve dollars an hour was still a cost-cutting maneuver.

Outsourcing also provides an additional corporate layer between the company and the customer, which is invaluable in spreading about responsibility, and therefore liability, in the inevitable event of litigation. If customer service is done in-house, and somebody tells ten customers that they won the grand prize of $100,000 in a promotion, when in fact they have won the first prize of a two dollar coupon that they can get only if they mail a SASE to the company, the company is potentially liable for a million dollars of payouts on what should have been an expense of ten coupons totaling twenty bucks. If that same mistake is made by an intermediary company, the main company gets to make it clear that they are not the ones who made the mistakes, and half a million dollars becomes the other guy's fault.

Also important on the litigation front is that some states, Pennsylvania and Texas for example, have laws intended to aid law enforcement which allow the recording of calls if one party agrees to it. This is why Gallup Poll has offices in Texas. Anyone who is going to go on the phones has to sign a stack of papers roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower, stating among other things that they agree that all their phone conversations in the building can be taped, and boom, every word that is said in customer relations is recorded and forever archived, and if there's any legal problem, they can just pull the recording out and use it to defend themselves in court (unless the recording shows they screwed up, in which case the recording probably will somehow end up "lost." Just like Watergate!)

It also spares the time and expense of training. You set out demands in a contract, you get the other guy to sign it, then all you have to do is a cut a check now and then, and afterwards if the terms of the contract aren't met, you get to pass the buck. It also means that the terms and conditions come from a source other than the reps' actual employers, probably from some moron in a suit who learned everything he knows about customer service out of a textbook in a classroom somewhere, who will never actually have to experience firsthand what his decisions are subjecting other people to. I once called somewhere and was greeted with "Thank you for calling [company]. My name is Ellen. How may I offer you excellent customer service today?" No real human being would ask something like that if they had any choice. I guarantee you that line came straight out a textbook.

It also protects the company from unions. If the customer service representatives form a union to demand better pay and increased benefits, or at the very least a stronger effort by the client to provide them with the information they need to do their jobs and answer the customers' questions (which, amazingly, is always a problem), the client will wait until the contract expires and then run off to some other company, leaving the union and all its demands behind.

And of course, there's a good chance that any contact not done face-to-face is being done internationally. Why even pay someone eight dollars an hour when you can pay people seventy cents an hour in India, where you don't have to deal with issues like unions or worker safety regulations or benefits or any of those other pesky expenses that could instead be used to line some exec's pockets?

It's a beautiful system, isn't it? All of this is done to save every last dollar possible for the parent company, but it has the interesting effect of taking the people who are representing the company to the public and making them the most-stressed, most-criticized, worst-paid, least-informed, utterly disenfranchised individuals in the entire hierarchy. This isn't to say that they're not willing and capable of assisting you, just that they aren't capable of moving heaven and earth for you, and even if they were willing, they won't have the authority.

So when you call up a company, odds are you are dealing with someone who doesn't have a lot of loyalty to the company, because they know that, financially, in the grand scheme of things, they are getting totally screwed. Remember, no matter how good the customer service, no matter how good the representative makes the company look, no matter how much business is saved through their efforts, they will never see a penny of it. There's a contract, they have an hourly rate, and that's the end of it. The quality of the customer service is irrelevant on that front. And they have been dealing with a parade of complaints all day. When they get to you, and you threaten to take your business elsewhere, they are not worried in any way about that loss. They are not thinking, "If this person takes their business to another company, I am not doing my job properly, which will cost us money." Instead, they are thinking, "If this person takes their business to another company, that's one less self-important whining loser I'll have to deal with!" One person pulled the "take my business elsewhere" card on a nothing complaint over a product worth less then two dollars, and my response was "Okay." Dead silence. They couldn't believe it. Bear in mind this was after six minutes of arguing that he deserved at least fifty dollars for his trouble and inconvenience and the effort to bring the problem to our attention. Some people have no shame whatsoever.

The best part of this threat is that, in this day of mega-companies and endless mergers, there's almost no way to be sure who owns what anymore. Several times, people who have stated they will never buy a certain brand again have declared which brand they're going to switch to, and it's another brand we do customer service for, because the brand is owned by the same company. I never clue them in. It's funnier that way.


You're not funny.

Seriously. You're really not. Don't try to be.

Have information about your problem at your fingertips.

You would be amazed how often this happens: Consumer calls up and says they had a problem with the product. "Okay," I say, "I'm sorry to hear that [which is total bullshit, except in the sense that I'm sorry I'm in a job where I have to hear about it and pretend to care], I'll be happy to help you with that [which is total bullshit in every sense], may I have the code number off the item, please?" Consumer says, "Oh, I didn't realize you'd need that. It's downstairs. Let me go get it," and they put the phone down, and I can actually hear them slowly shuffle off and descend the stairs.

What amazes me about this is not just that it happens, but that every coworker I mention it to immediately rolls their eyes and says, "Oh, I hate that!" This happens all the time. I guess there are some people who think that customer service personnel have been trained to read minds over the phone and can simply intuit all the pertinent information, such as the product, and the problem, and the cost.

Another good one is people who want to know "who won the promotion," but don't happen to remember details such as the actual name of the promotion, which really is a useful bit of information to have, when you stop and think about it. To make a sports analogy, it's like asking "Who won the football game last weekend?" As it turns out—you may have heard something about this—on most weekends, more than one football game is played.

"I didn't realize you'd need that," they say. If you ever feel like the customer service representative is treating you like an idiot, it's because they've been dealing with people like that all day.

Remember that the person you are talking to in not personally responsible for the problem you are experiencing.

All the customer service representative does is represent the company. They have nothing to do with design, manufacturing, production, distribution, or anything else. They did not cause any problems anywhere along the line. Often, they wonder why the departments that did create the problems are allowed to do such a shitty job on such a regular basis for such preposterously large salaries, while they lose points on their job performance for failing to pair each "please" with a "thank you." In many cases, they agree with you and your complaint whole-heartedly and want to see it resolved just as much as you do and are just as frustrated with the person responsible as you are. Often, they wish the people responsible would just get stabbed and die already. Taking your frustrations out on the person you're talking to is akin to expressing your frustration over a sports team's performance by cursing out the guy serving beer at the concession stand.

A corollary of this is that, when the person tells you that they can't answer your question and cannot direct you to someone who can, they're usually not lying. The people who feed them information in dribs and drabs haven't seen fit to provide customer service with the answer to your question. Someone knows the answer, but they are keeping it in-house and have no intention of sharing it gutter scum such as yourself, or their own reps. Cope.

Don't ever insist "The customer is always right."

The customer is, in fact, frequently wrong. And generally the ones who insist otherwise are also phenomenally obnoxious.

No one is impressed with your form letter.

This is huge. This is quite likely the worst mistake you can make. If you have enough passion about an issue or a policy that a company has that you feel a need to express your opinion to that company, at least have the passion to sit down and write your own letter. Form letters are lazy, and they look silly when they start pouring in at the receiving end.

Seriously, take a moment to picture this from the point of view of the people who are receiving these letters. Greenpeace, whose hearts are generally in the right place, often include postcards in certain mailings which have a complaint and a request for action quite succinctly and professionally written on them, along with the address to send it to. All you have to do is write your name on it and affix a stamp, and off it goes. At the address you're sending to, the postcards start to back up. The company puts them all in a stack and puts them in a single batch to be taken care of all at once. I've seen stacks like this. Over one thousand postcards, word for word identical, all sent in by people who felt so strongly about the issue that they took the time to write their name on a complaint written by someone else. I can tell you from personal experience that we just laugh at things like that. They get recorded, catalogued, and utterly forgotten about. It's not a thousand different complaints; it's a single complaint, received a thousand times.

I've got a better one than that. These days on the internet, people set up pages for complaints against companies. They provide a few fields for you to put in your name and email address and whatever other personal information you wish to provide, and a large field with the text of the complaint already provided, though you can customize it if you feel so inspired. Just type in your info and click send, and the email is sent off to the company.

We got a bunch of these some time back, when Michael Savage still had a show on the air where he ranted against liberals and homosexuals and spewed his venom at anyone and everyone he didn't like and likewise demonstrated all the characteristics that make Compassionate Conservatism everything that it is today. Our company somehow got on the list of sponsors that needed to be threatened with boycott for sponsoring the show. (One, I cover the whole boycott threat issue elsewhere in this essay, and two, the company's official statement is that we never sponsored the show, though some of our commercials did air during his show in some local markets. For what that's worth.) These emails came in by the thousands. The same complaints. The same phrasings. Even—and this is what absolutely cracks me up—the same typos. Yes. Not only did the person who set up a "Bombard this company with email" site not bother to proofread the letter he was having sent to us by the thousands, but neither did the vast majority of the thousands of people who decided to click on "Send." Does anyone seriously expect a complaint to be taken seriously when it contains the same typos as a thousand other identical complaints?

Our company takes a very nice step for dealing with these. When the same letter becomes too prevalent, we set up an autopopulation script in the system, so you just type in a keyword in the right field and just that fast the case is done. They even put the form script in the system; I once saw a stack of several hundred complaints about genetically modified ingredients in foods with different names and addresses, but every other word exactly the same, as though thousands of people independently came up with the same way to express their feelings, just waiting to be entered en masse and swept under the rug. Which is all they deserved.

One other detail: If you're sending an email to, say, seventy sponsors of some god-awful media network, use the bcc function. I personally found myself somewhat unimpressed with thirty individual complaints all sent to identical twenty-line-long lists of corporate email addresses. The same letter sent to seventy companies makes it a sort of form letter, even if it was only written and sent once.

You want to make a point with a company? Write your own letter specifically to that company. Otherwise, expect the company to put as much effort into taking your form letter seriously as you took in writing it.

Never curse at the person who you want to solve your problem for you.

So there are numerous teams where I work, each one dedicated to a specific group of products the company produces, and one of them was holding a contest for the team mascot. Three different groups had dreamed up ideas for the mascot, and there was going to be a vote to decide which one to go with. The vote on their team pretty obviously would have been split three ways, so the vote was open to the entire call floor, which meant that there was some campaigning to do. And some of them took the campaigning very seriously.

Now, I've been involved in things like this, a few times in this same workplace, so even though I felt it was a bit out of hand when the one group had T-shirts of their mascot made, I didn't say anything negative. I didn't even think anything negative. People are having fun with this. I've got no issue with that.

This particular group had a marshmallow, J. P. Marsh, as their mascot. He was in the running against a vampire, Count Calorie, and a cookie called Golden Boy, with a cookie as the head and upper body of a boxer. I hope he never ends up in a ring with Mike Tyson.

One team, the marshmallow team, had an idea that works pretty well: bribery. Not only were they the only group that came around and campaigned to our team (however briefly, since this IS a workplace, after all), they handed out marshmallows as snacks to get us to vote for J. P. (Didn't work in my case. About 85% of the vote from our team went to J. P., but I cast a write-in vote for Janeen, my team's supervisor. It's not a brown-nosing tactic. It's just the first screwball thing that came to mind (and might I add that when the results of the vote were published, my write-in vote for Janeen was not counted, which is unfair, not only to me but also to Janeen, who would make a great mascot, and I mean that in absolutely the nicest of ways, thank you for asking).) Some people were not only taking this seriously, they were taking it passionately.

I did think they were getting a little aggressive when they came around a second time the next day to hand out another small paper asking for our vote. I had drawn a person on the back of mine, just a sketch of a random guy. After declining a second paper, I thought about it for a while, then drew a talk bubble over my little sketch guy that read "It's just a freakin' marshmallow!!!"

I had it at my desk for about an hour, and then I decided to hang it up. I put it at my desk, and almost immediately decided that I could do much better. I took it over to the main wall where things were hanging up extolling all three mascots, and I hung it there. Just a funny sketch that maybe puts things in a little perspective, right? A little harmless fun, right? An utterly innocuous addition to the wall, right?

Don't be an idiot. Of course not. Apparently, someone complained about it. I don't know who. I don't want to know. Whatever the case, Jillian, one of my team's supervisors, called me aside. I got the impression she thought the complaint was kind of dumb as well, considering the first thing she did was emphasize that I was in no actual trouble whatsoever. Rather, it was more of a head's-up; someone complained, so it had to be brought to my attention. In her hand she had the sketch, which had been folded over so that the talk bubble was not visible.

Officially, the complaint wasn't that I was anti-marshmallow. It seems someone didn't like the language I used. Yes! Whether they were personally offended by it, or, like so many other busybodies, took it upon themselves to be offended on the behalf of a group of hypothetical people who may not actually exist, the official word was that the use of the word "freakin'" was unacceptable. Who knew?

Jillian told me she said to the person that she assumed "friggin'" was out, too. This was confirmed. Then she asked what would be an acceptable substitute. She was informed that—get this—something like "dumb" or "stupid" would be fine.

As this was being explained to me, I just crumbled the paper up and threw it out, because it just wasn't worth the hassle. If I'd held onto it, I'd have scanned it in and put it here, despite the fact that I'd be running the very real risk that someone might be so bothered and/or offended by it that they'd complain to this site's webhost and have them take my entire site down. It's a risk I'd be willing to take. But, I shitcanned the freakin' thing instead. Your loss.

I had the idea later that I should have used White-Out to erase "freakin'" and replaced it with "$&#*@!!!" and then have Jillian take it back to the person who complained in the first place and see if that was more acceptable. It was a fun thought, though I know Jillian would never have gone for it.

I thought of some other things that I might have been able to wedge into the quote in some way to replace the deeply offensive "freakin' marshmallow". I ended up rejecting all of them, because they didn't seem to fit. I also figured that if they had issues with "freakin'," they would likely also have issues with my substitutes. I detected a subtle theme running through them. I kept coming up with things like:

None of this is directly related to this item, which seems rather self-explanatory (unless you—apparently like some hypersensitive twits—feel that the word freakin' is an expletive). It's just that the whole sequence of events recounted above has been bugging me, and I wanted to vent a bit. Seriously, if you get snotty with customer service and start spouting off with things like, "What is your goddamn problem? What do you make, five fucking dollars an hour? You stupid cunt," you should fully expect to have that person do everything they can to make the problem worse, just as you deserve. Suffice it to say that when you're talking to a customer service representative, never blurt out at them, "You're just a freakin' marshmallow!!!" You never know if the person you're talking to will take offense. Odds are they'll just laugh at you, like any rational human being would in response to such a ridiculous phrase. But why take chances?

I'm told, however, that where I work, "dumb" and "stupid" are considered perfectly acceptable.

Don't drag god into it.

Jesus is a busy guy. He's certainly not going to take revenge on your behalf against a service rep who doesn't have the authority to undo an account service charge you feel you shouldn't have had to pay. Lucifer introduced the concept of "fine print" while god was busy trying to figure out what the hell he had been drinking the night before he created the duckbilled platypus, and it's your freakin' responsibility to read it. It's not right. It simply is. So mentioning with righteous indignation that you're a Christian, or revealing that you feel god would send you a check, or telling the person on duty in the complaints department that they're going straight to hell for refusing to do anything about the washing machine designed by someone with an utterly unsatisfactory opinion of what temperature water constitutes a "warm" wash cycle that the store sold you, or anything like that is going to accomplish nothing at all except to give the person you're dealing with a great story to tell on their next break. No company has any sort of rule that suggests that you can be extra helpful for a customer who drops god's name. Don't even bother.

Be careful how you ask for your money back.

I put a good deal of thought into this one but couldn't quite figure out how to sum this one up in a single sentence. There's a lot of ways you can go about this, and a lot of different policies companies have for it.

In the something for nothing department, contacting a company and asking for coupons or vouchers generally doesn't work, especially if you're bold as brass about it ("I love your products. Send me coupons."). Some companies will send something as a goodwill gesture if you contact them with praise, but some won't, and some have a policy where they will send something unless you request to be sent something, in which case it becomes a solicitation contact instead of a praise contact, and the goodwill gesture no longer applies.

More commonly, companies get contacted because there's a complaint, and someone feels they haven't gotten their money's worth. I've seen thousands of these, and I must say, while I understand the logic of stating what you want done about the problem, for some reason there's something deeply annoying about the person who states that they expect "compensation" (or even more egregious, "reparations," as though it's a war and I'm the enemy or something) for the problem they experienced. It's understandable to make your expectations clear, but I find it distasteful somehow to see the desire for monetary returns so openly displayed.

I think some of this comes from the policies where I work. If one person says she's a mother of three, her husband is getting shot at in Iraq, she's unemployed because her job has been sent overseas, and she's just asking for a couple product coupons to help ends meet, we have to say "No." Company policy. If the next person says they bought a case of a product at a club store for $28 and comment vaguely that "I didn't really care for it," we have to cut them a check for $28 whether they ask for it or not—and when they're being that petty, they usually do. I once had to send someone nearly twelve bucks because they bought a product in bulk and one of the packages in it was missing a single cookie. Twelve freakin' dollars for one cookie! Absolutely no one on the call floor likes this policy, but our client chooses to reward greed, so there's not much we can do about it. Personally, I try to make them work for things like that. I actually asked this person "You actually want us to send you twelve dollars over a single missing cookie?" The person hemmed and hawed, embarrassed, but wouldn't say no, so I had to send it. And let me tell you, I resented having to do it.

So stating you want reimbursement can be seen as an expression of greed. At the same time, there are certainly some complaints that won't get you anything unless you state what you want. That's why I can't sum this up as a general rule. It's a grey area. Your best bet is to explain your complaint clearly so that your request for reimbursement seems justified and logical. Don't get righteous about it, as though it's a given that the company has a legal and/or moral obligation to do whatever it takes to satisfy you.

My favorite violation of this one came in the form of an email written in total lawyer talk, with "hereunder"s and "aforementioned"s and references to "the undersigned" all over the place, explaining a problem with a three dollar product and demanding $25,000 for restitution and damages, another $25,000 for their personal suffering from the experience, and a written letter formally acknowledging guilt and liability and providing a formal apology for the problem. The email was sent from the web domain I can't state for certain the wisdom of demanding reimbursement in any given situation, but I can state for certain that receiving aid from is not the way to go about it.

Honking the car horn is not an acceptable substitute for "hello."

It doesn't matter if you're the carpool driver this week, picking up kids to take to school, or just happen to see someone you know walking down the sidewalk. Blasting the horn instead of walking up to the front door and knocking is simply wrong. The person walking along the road is not going to be thrilled that you scared the living bejeezus out of him or her, and odds are they're not going to know who you are anyway, as you'll pass them right about the time they turn around to see what's going on, and by the time they look forward again you'll be too far away for them to identify. In all the other cases, you should either exit your car, walk up to the door, and knock like a regular human being. If this is impractical, for example because you're taking a group of elementary school kids to the bus stop and feel leaving four kids ages six through ten unattended in your car is a bad idea (which is likely correct), make arrangements so that the other person knows when you plan to show up and is keeping an eye open for you. Then they can simply acknowledge they've seen you and send the kid out. There is no reason to announce your arrival to everyone in the entire neighborhood, including people who are trying to sleep, people who are trying to enjoy peace and quiet in the privacy of their own homes, and irritable anti-social individuals walking the knife edge of sanity who just got a great new unnecessarily powerful firearm via Soldier of Fortune magazine and can't wait to find someone to try it out on. Seriously, people, have some basic courtesy for everyone else in the world and save the freakin' horn for situations where the other driver or pedestrian isn't paying attention and needs to be brought back to reality immediately That's what the thing is meant for, after all.

With the possible exception of people who work the drive-thru, this technically has absolutely nothing to do with getting good customer service. It just pisses me off, is all.

Don't get mad when they start asking for all sorts of information they have no right to expect you to provide.

First of all, realize that most call centers use the same technology that 911 does, where any call that comes in promptly kicks up on the computer screen the caller's number, name, and address. They never admit this, because most people would react badly. In fact, I've worked in more than one call center, and in the event that a caller asks us if we have such a system, they unanimously instructed us to handle it by lying through our teeth. This may be the only place where we are actively, consistently, and absolutely ordered to lie. (So remember, you didn't hear it from me.) So right off the bat, they have information about you, whether you like it or not. I now understand why, for as far back as I can remember, my parents have always called 800 numbers from work instead of home.

Next, remember that your personal information is valuable to companies. Names and addresses are nice, but anyone can get those. What's more valuable is the buying habits associated with those names and addresses. What demographics are represented in the household, what kinds of things are bought, and so on. This information allows advertising to be aimed more effectively. Nintendo doesn't want to spend money spreading information about their products to the AARP, for example. Knowledge of what people are likely to buy is as valuable as gold to these people.

One company I've represented started sending out a magazine. Some of the names and addresses were from earlier contacts, including ones where the consumer never provided it, because again, all the info pops up automatically. A company representative also told us somewhat proudly that other addresses came from "companies that sell consumers' syndicated data."

Let's think about that phrase for a moment, shall we? Somewhere out there, there are people who are profiting by collecting information about people like you and me without our permission, or even our knowledge. This information is compiled and then sold for profit to anyone willing to pony up the dough. These people can then merge it with whatever other information they already had, and sell it off again to someone who will do the same thing, and so on. Your personal information is now "syndicated data." Some years back, a credit card company, I forget which one or I would mention them by name, openly admitted the only reason they didn't sell their records of what their cardholders had purchased was that no one was willing to pay their asking price. Their clients maintained some semblance of privacy only because being sold out without their permission wasn't profitable enough.

Somewhere along the line the company putting out the magazine bought a long list of names and addresses which, according to the data, consisted of members of the likely target audience for the magazine. Now, the magazine is going out to people who, according to someone's data, is a certain age, income level, family size, whatever the criteria they chose may have been—I don't know what they were.

Mind you, no one is keeping up with the information's accuracy. Much of the data is flat-out wrong. Even the info that pops up automatically isn't guaranteed to be correct. And as the data ages, it gets worse. The magazine has been sent to many, many dead people. We've gotten numerous calls from angry people upset that the magazine was sent to their address in the name of their spouse's ex who never lived at that address. It's a joy taking calls like that. Every time I get some eighty-year-old nearly in tears because the magazine arrived in the name of a spouse who died over ten years earlier after a prolonged fight with cancer, I think of that woman at the front of the room trumpeting the purchase of information from "companies that sell consumers' syndicated data," and I hope she's off somewhere suffering horribly from a painful terminal disease. And that years after she's dead, the people who care for her are still receiving unsolicited mail in her name and being hassled by telemarketers wanting to sell her aluminum siding.

Anyway, to get this information, companies simply require their customer service department ask for it. It's tied in with job performance evaluations and pay raises, so the people who have the class to mind their own business get bounced out pretty quick. I think that's a reason why companies have such confusing instructions and incomprehensible information and convoluted websites. You know, when you buy a box of food, and instead of something sensible like:

Use by: December 10 2005

it instead has a code that looks more like:

7657LBCR 4--18722~DDT(F16)CHN320 6*9=42

Nobody can possibly figure out what that gibberish means. I strongly suspect that's the idea. You have to call to find out how old the thing is, and then they get to play twenty questions with you. The only reason the company I represent simplified their dates, we were told strictly off the record to be told to the customer under no circumstances whatsoever under penalty of, I dunno, vivisection or something (so remember, you didn't hear this from me either), was that one of the other great evil corporations in the world, Wal-Mart, had started applying pressure on the company to simplify things. When we get a call about something as simple as a code date, we are required to ask for a name and an address and a phone number and an email address as well as whether or not they want to be on the mailing list to get the magazine that we send to dead people. We also used to have to ask their age, number of people in the household, and how many of those people are under eighteen, though that's been lumped into the questions specific to the magazine.

(A fun sidebar about the profile: We were told that asking the profile questions is Very Important [tm], which is what the client say about everything. One former employee took that very much to heart. The questions that we ask over the phone are the same as on the paper profile in the magazine, so somewhere around question six the profile asks "Are you male or female?" This employee loved to ask that question, which came up several minutes into the call, after we've already confirmed the caller's name. A supervisor overheard him one time and told him after the call "You really don't have to ask their gender." He responded, correctly, that we were instructed to ask all the questions in the profile exactly as they were written because the profile questions were Very Important [tm]. What a smart ass. I miss that guy.)

(A second, shorter sidebar about the profile: One of the questions asks if people prefer full, detailed information about something or other, or if they prefer short cuts and tips. One phone call, a coworker momentarily channeled Reverend Spooner and asked the lady on the other end of the line if she preferred short cups and tits.)

Now, I don't like asking for all this information about the consumer. No one does. If you want to know if a product is still good to use, you shouldn't have to give your freakin' email address. But this is how the company collects information so they can more accurately (read: obtrusively) aim their advertising. Don't fall for it. Give a name so that the person on the other end has something to refer to you by. Make it a false name if you're just making an inquiry. If you expect something to be sent to you, give a real name and a real address, and a phone number if necessary. Never give an email address or how many kids are in your house. That's no one's business but your own. Be polite. The person you're talking to has to ask. If they don't ask, they get fired. They're just doing their job. (I had someone say to me, "What do you need a name for? Oh, okay, here: Jane Doe. There. How's that for a name?" Please, even if you are lying about your name, have more class than that. Looking back on it now, I think I shoulda responded by asking her if she preferred short cups and tits.) Don't take it personally. Don't give in, though. The safest thing to do is give the minimum information possible.

For the record, the company I work for assures us up and down that all information is for company use only and will not be sold. However, as mentioned above, so many companies and brands can fall under a single corporate umbrella that this doesn't really mean anything. You can ask if child's pudding is expired and have every bit of the information you provide end up in the hands of a tobacco company which flags you, your address, and your kid as a potential replacement smoker. And one day, discussing the privacy policy, someone much further up the food chain than me commented, "I think they sell the information anyway." Just one inside opinion. Make of it what you will.

Accept the answer you receive.

If you are told that the product is expired, or that the appliance can't be repaired without a warranty, or that you won't be getting your electricity back until you pay your delinquent bill, the answer is not going to change no matter how cleverly you phrase the question.

The rule applies double if you are told that you have contacted the wrong company. Perhaps you think no one could possibly be dumb enough to insist that the person responding to them doesn't understand what company they work for. Perhaps you have never had a job where you had to deal with the general public.

This rule also has a corollary: If you have no intention of accepting any answer you receive except for the one you've already decided you want, then don't bother contacting the freakin' company in the first place. People who don't grasp this concept end up sounding like this: "This product expired on October 8, 1996. Can I still eat it? ... But it wasn't opened yet. ... But I kept it refrigerated. ... But it still looks okay! ... I think I'll eat it anyway." Yeah, and I hope you get food poisoning and die.

If you made a dumb mistake, it's not the company's problem.

One time I refused to send someone a refund for an item. There was nothing wrong with the item. They didn't bother to read the packaging, bought something that wasn't what they thought it was, and decided they deserved their money back for being too lazy to read. I declined. The person said to me, and I quote, "That's because you suck and you're a horrible person," and hung up. Though she never identified herself, her information had popped up automatically. I wrote down her name and address, and someday she is going to receive a large box full of live spiders. And a subscription to Hustler.

If you send correspondence by paper mail, never, ever, ever demand to be reimbursed for the cost of the freakin' stamp.

You cheap motherfucker.

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