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Customer Services (UK)

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Service with a smile - a friendly lady

Almost any medium-to-large business has or has need of a customer services department. They are there, often in the form of call centres, to help customers with queries, problems and warranty claims for goods or services that the business provides, although they frequently appear to exist purely to prevent customers acquiring any help or support whatsoever.

Customer service departments differ from helpdesks1 and helplines2 in that they frequently provide the services and support required by the laws of the land rather than those the business would really like to provide.

Having said that, many customer service departments are set up with the higher goals in mind and do strive to live up to those ideals. Unfortunately, budgets and occasional poor management mean that they can all too easily fall short, in the UK at least. For example, the business exists to make as much profit as it can and customer services does not produce any directly measurable revenue, in the same way that the sales department does, so is often viewed simply as an overhead. Many large, medium and small US companies have realised that a positive customer service experience will generate further sales, whereas many UK companies have not; not yet, at least.

Additional constraints are placed on UK customer service departments by a poorly-managed goal structure. What customer services really want to do is solve each problem to the customer's satisfaction and do that for as many customers as possible. In reality it is difficult to measure how satisfied the customer is with the solution, if they get one, as that is subjective. It is very easy, however, to count how many customers you have dealt with, so this goal is frequently reduced simply to 'speak to as many customers as possible'. Often the people who work in the department are also measured on how long they spend in between calls, leading to a scenario where they do not have time to deal with anything arising from the call, such as arranging a courier, for example.

Added to this the staff are often underpaid, poorly trained and as a result of the poor pay, extremely badly managed. Surveys by the TUC, or Trade Union Council, have revealed cases where staff have to put their hands up if they want to go to the toilet and force the person taking the most frequent breaks to wear a nappy.

For anyone wishing to read a little more about the TUC hotline, try this 'Hotline flooded with call centre complaints' article.

It is imperative, therefore, that if you do encounter a good customer services department you should recognise them and praise them for this, as this feedback is noted and often acted upon.

Methods Used by Customer Services Departments to Get Rid of Customers

  • The Telephone System

    This is used in one of the following ways:

    • You are greeted with a message stating that they are 'very busy' right now, in fact they are 'too busy' to talk to you at the moment, but your call is 'very important to us' and you should 'call back later' when they are less busy. Then they hang up.

    • The phone rings forever without being answered. This approach is designed to make you think that you must have the wrong number, prompting you to hang up and try to find the right number.

    • The call is answered just at the point you think that they are about to use the previous method to get rid of you, but you are not yet talking to anyone... Instead you have the chance to listen to a strangely familiar message telling you that they are 'very busy' and your call is 'very important to us' and you are being held in a queue or possibly an endless loop and you should 'please hold the line'. This last part of the statement is a form of self-preservation because the phone system will show you as a 'lost call' if you hang up and too many lost calls in a day (or week or month, whatever period they use internally) will result in censure for the services department from management 'trolls'.

  • It is possible for these type of telephone systems to tell you what position you are in the queue and even give you an estimate of how long it will be before you call is answered, but most companies will not pay for this function to be enabled. This should indicate to you exactly how 'important' your call actually is to them. Rather strangely, the companies who seem least likely to have this kind of telephone system are the telecom providers, who presumably could install these systems for minimal cost.

  • The Telephone Maze

    This is an interactive menu system which you navigate using the keypad on your phone, the intention of which is to direct you to someone who can help you. Frequently the system is confusing, eg, 'Press 0482 for help at any stage, or dial 830 to speak to an operator', has several options which may be the one you want, eg, 'Press 1 if your query is about product a or b, press 2 if your query is about product b or c' or may not even mention the product you have at all. It is highly likely that no matter which selections you make you will end up talking to the same person.

  • The 'Fob-Off'

    If you make it through the phone test you may even manage to talk to a real person, or at least a very good mock up of one, whose job it is to place you back at square one. The precise methods involved will depend on the product or service involved, but essentially they fall into one of five camps:

    • They tell you that you have called the wrong department to deal with your problem, then give you the name and sometimes the phone number of the department you should speak to. In actual fact you probably are already talking to the right department, but they won't admit it until you talk to the other department first, thus making sure you have to start from the beginning at least two more times.

    • They arrange to have the product collected or someone to come and fix the problem. You will most likely never see anyone.

    • They tell you that the person you need to speak to is on their lunch break and that they will 'have them call you straight back'; this would appear to be reasonable between 11.30am and 2.30pm, but not at 4pm or 9am. Needless to say, you will most likely never hear from them.

    • They explain to you, in person, that they are 'very busy' in case you hadn't grasped this fact already and they would like to take your number to call you back, or would you like to call back yourself a bit later when they are less busy? They will, however, most likely never call you back.

    • In a variation of the previous ruse, you are told that the person you are speaking to cannot fix your problem, but will refer it to a senior fixer of some description, who will call you back 'within the hour'. Approximately two days later you will realise you have been duped and start again from square one.

  • The Fix Which Isn't

    A popular tack with technology companies, this method involves taking you through a number of 'fixes', limited to one per call, until either you give up, go away and find the solution yourself or they accidentally fix your problem. In many cases the person you are talking to has never used the product you are having trouble with and may, in fact, never even have seen it. Their knowledge will be written on a piece of paper or contained in a document they are viewing on a computer screen.

  • Deny All Knowledge of the Product

    This method is often used when you are calling about an older product and frequently comes about as a result of talking to someone who has only been working with the company for a short period. This is not a commonly encountered response.

Dealing with Customer Services

It really is best not to, if you can avoid it, but if you get to the point when you have no alternative, then the following advice may be of some help, but only if you can make it past the telephone system:

  • If you are told you have the wrong department you could try bluffing and say 'You told me that last time, but when I called they said that I had to speak to you'. If they insist, then they are probably telling the truth, which is unusual, and you can at least be reasonably sure you are talking to the right people.

  • If they want you to send back whatever it is, then you should use a registered delivery type of postal service, so you know that they got it back. If they offer to pick it up, make sure you have a time and a place for the pick up and make sure you are there. If they miss it, and they probably will, send the product back yourself, then call them after it has been delivered.

  • If they want to send someone round to fix the problem, then you may as well give up hope of ever seeing anyone. They will quite probably never turn up, and you will be left marvelling at the number of reasons which can be dreamt up for the failure to show, everything from 'he/she was sick that day' to 'he/she left the company' and even 'we don't deal with your location from here anymore'. Apparently they are unable to either write or phone to say that they will not be turning up. People who work during the day have long since suspected that the real reason for not turning up is to make you use up all of your annual leave entitlement, thus removing you from the running until the following year, or until your warranty expires.

  • If the person you need to speak to is not there, then you can try asking to be put on hold, but all that's likely to happen is you will listen to Vivaldi's 'The One Season' - This is in fact The Four Seasons, but most companies only play 'Spring' for half an hour before being cut off, so this may not be worth chancing unless it's a free-phone number. It is possible that the company is using this hold time as a revenue stream if it is not a free-phone number, however.

  • Alternatively, if the person is not there, ask when the person is likely to be back, then call about 15-20 minutes after that; if they are still on their lunch after three hours you should probably try to get a job there instead.

  • If they ask if they can call you back, you may wish to point out that you are still waiting for call backs from 12, 6, 3 and 2 weeks ago, so you are willing to wait; this may get you immediate attention, but you should only use this method if you have called previously; once will do.

  • Make a note of when you call, the name of the person you talk to and what they promised. Every time you call, go though the list as it will mark you as a 'professional complainer'. Professional complainers either have worked in customer services before and know all of the tricks or will phone so regularly that everyone in the service centre, including the cleaner, will groan when they call. If you are a polite and a reasonable professional complainer you may be lucky enough to actually have your problem dealt with.

  • Never mention another company's product in relation to the one you are having difficulty with. The person you are talking to will immediately latch onto that as being the cause of the problem and you will progress no further during the call. This is especially true in the case of computer hardware or software, eg:

    'I have a new monitor.'
    'That'll be why your floppy drive burst into flames, then'.
  • Ask to speak to a supervisor after you have called for the third time, then always speak to them after that. Supervisors hate having to do any real work and will make sure that their underlings do your bidding in order to get rid of you. Beware, some companies have started calling the underlings 'supervisors' while leaving them on the phones. If you encounter one of these, then you will not make any progress using this method, as they don't have any real underlings.

Finally, always be polite but firm. It is of no benefit to you to lose your temper, shout, scream or swear and many customer services departments will allow their staff to terminate the call if you do. Remember that these people did not build the product or sell it to you; they are only trying to clean up the mess and really are trying to help you to the best of their ability. If you don't like the service, talk or write to the complaints department and if you do, then try to be constructive and tell them how you would have liked them to treat you.

1Helpdesks provide support for goods or services for an additional fee, which the customer pays in advance.2Helplines are usually free-phone or toll-free numbers to aid the customer in installing the product.

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