I’ve discovered the answer to world peace, and it doesn’t lie in religious tolerance, political discourse, or party affiliation. Nope, the solution to world peace is so incredibly simple that it is has been right under our noses since the beginning of time, and can be boiled down into three ordinary little words; mandatory customer service.
These three small words hold the answer to every conflict on the face of the earth, because once you have been on the receiving end of a bitter tirade over an order that was never canceled or one that has gone missing, an oversight for which you are not personally responsible, and for which you get paid less than a living wage to endure with as much grace as you can muster, you will come to appreciate and perhaps even embrace the need to be kind to your fellow man or woman regardless of race, creed, or color.
When I was a customer, I always thought of myself as one of the “good ones”. Meaning I was sure to apologize to the person on the other end of the phone for what I was about to say, carefully assuring them that I wasn’t angry at THEM, I was just angry, and since they were the ones who picked up the phone, they were the ones I was about to unleash on. I honestly believed that the person on the other end of the phone would appreciate my sensitivity and my willingness to accept responsibility for my emotions as a prelude to using the most colorful combination of language and sarcasm at my disposal. After all, I told myself, its their job to listen to this crap.
Eighteen months ago, I was forced to take a position as an inbound sales agent at a nationally known telemarketing company. Up until that point I had been a very successful handbag designer specializing in one of a kind and limited edition handbags that generally sold for thousands of dollars. When the economy tanked, women were still buying expensive handbags, but not from start up companies like mine. Nothing says “I survived the recession” like sweeping into a cocktail party with a $150,000 Birkin bag slung over your shoulder, and even though my handbags are show stoppers, they were small potatoes compared to corporate behemoths like Prada and Gucci. So my bags went back into their matching storage bags and plastic tubs in the basement for safe keeping, and I went to work selling skin care and exercise equipment over the phone.
I hate talking on the phone. Actually, I loathe it, so naturally the only job I could get was talking on the phone for a living. I learned two things about myself as a result of that job however. One is that I am a much more convincing salesperson than I ever would have imagined. The other was how to be a better customer. I know customer service is a job, but I also assumed there were no specific guidelines as to how that job was done. I didn’t realize that when the operator said “this call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes” that meant the person answering my phone call was held to a strict and extremely limited set of options established by corporate wonks who probably never had to answer a sales call or customer service call in their entire lives. Every phone call is recorded, not just a few, and several are randomly selected each week by call center monitors to make sure the person answering the phone is sticking to the scripts they are provided with. Any deviations, and I do mean ANY, are cause for reprimand, and while I know part of the purpose in recording and monitoring inbound calls is to make sure no one is saying or doing anything that could compromise the company legally or ethically, most people who call assume the person answering the phone is making this up as they go along, that we have both the power and the ability to make changes if we want to, we just don’t want to.
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am not allowed unscheduled trip to the bathroom without fear of reprisal, so weighing in on corporate policy is way outside my job description or pay grade. I tried telling a focus group for the company a few months ago that the “client” we are always hearing so much about, the ones whose products we sell as if our lives depended on it, aren’t the ones who really matter at the end of the day, it’s the people who call in, the ones with credit cards on the other end of the phone who pay our bills and our salaries. I was never invited to another focus group again. So much for influencing corporate policy. Or bathroom breaks for that matter.
In fact, the company I work for has such an outrageously insane approach to sales that I often feel like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz: I am advised to go this way and that way, both at the same. I am not allowed to give personal testimony during the course of a sales pitch, even though the entire infomercial is based on personal testimony. We are provided with products to use so we can speak accurately about their level of effectiveness, then discouraged from telling you what we think of these products, because its all about you and what you want from these products…or, more accurately, about getting information from you that we can use against you to make you buy more than you called in for. If we fail to do as instructed by the company, we get yelled at by them, and if we try to shove something you don’t want down your throats, we get yelled at again by you.
So here is a behind the scenes look at what you need to do to be a better customer, and it all starts with one little word: you.
1. If you call a company to place an order for anything that comes with auto shipments, and you don’t want auto shipments, make a decision. Hang up the phone, accept the offer and cancel later, accept the offer and don’t cancel later, but don’t argue with me about how you don’t want auto shipments because there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Someone with a corner office and a vacation wine cellar worth more than my entire life combined made that decision. If you don’t like it, you have a choice to make. Trying to convince me to do things your way isn’t one of them. You can try, of course, and after a few minutes I may “accidentally” disconnect you, but hey, give it your best shot. I haven’t seen it work in the year and a half I have been here, but you just never know when things will change.
2. If you don’t agree with the way products are advertised on television, write a letter to corporate headquarters, don’t bitch at me about how the advertising is misleading. I didn’t create the ad campaign, where it was advertised or the hidden costs associated with making a purchase. I know the ads are misleading. The company knows the ads are misleading. That’s how they have stayed in business for 25 years.
3. If I persist in trying to sell you a bigger package that costs more money than the one you called in about, it’s my job. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but I do like having a roof over my head, and I am required to give you the upsells whether you like it or not. As a matter of fact, we are held to such exacting and arcane standards regarding the process of how we expected to sell, corporate profits aren’t what they could be, so the sales division is being moved to the Phillipines where they can pay half of what they pay us, which isn’t much to begin with, because no one at the company is willing to concede that their sales methods don’t work. They seem to think that since the sales process USED to work, it will ALWAYS work. But they would rather lose a sale than deviate from the sales process, so when I got a call a few weeks ago from a man who wanted to buy the exercise equipment we sell, with both upgrades, and pay for his purchase in full, I had a decision to make. Did I let a $650 sale go for the sake of a “free” trial offer, or did I circumvent the system to sell the man what he wanted, and make myself a tidy commission in the process? I took his order, and called my supervisor for permission to process the sale, and I was told that in the future, I was to stick to the script, even if it cost the company hundreds of dollars.
4. If there is a problem with your order once you get it, don’t assume the customer service agent taking your call is out to get you. I have heard customers screaming at an agent who was trying to help them, because they wouldn’t shut up long enough to listen. If I had one piece of advice giving anyone about to make a customer service call it would be to listen. Eighty percent of the people who call inbound sales and customer service do not listen. Either they are so busy trying to take command of the call that they barrel over the agent to start asking questions before they even know what is going on, or they are telling the agent what is going to happen next, like either they or the agent in question has any real say in the matter.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This job has its lighter moments too. Like the junior high school teacher who called for a teeth whitening system we have that comes as a 90 day auto shipment, unless you call to cancel. She just could NOT wrap her head around how long 90 days was. I tried everything I could think of to explain it to her. I tried telling her it came as a three month shipment; “Oh”, she says, “So I get a thirty day shipment AND a ninety day shipment every three months?”. Um, no. ”Oh, so I get a thirty day shipment and then I don’t get another shipment for another ninety days?” she says. Again, no. In desperation, I said, “let me explain it this way. I go out into the warehouse and I get three one month supplies. I put all those boxes in one BIG box – which isn’t what happens, but for the sake of argument lets say that it does– and I send THAT box off to you. THAT is how much stuff comes in a ninety day supply”. She was quiet for a moment, then said (in all seriousness), “yeah, I don’t think I have enough room for all those boxes”…..
Yep, I am convinced that mandatory customer service is the answer to world peace. Because once you realize that could be YOU on the other end of the phone, listening to your own crap and how you are treating the total stranger who is trying to help you, maybe you would be kinder to the people in general. I have become a much better customer over the last eighteen months because I know what its like from the other side of the telephone now. I realize that when I call a customer service agent, they are not making this up as they go along, that they are people too, that, like me, they had dreams and aspirations that got sidelined in the recession, and I owe them the respect of letting them do their job, and to listen to what they have to say before jumping in, or over them, and the interesting thing is…I get much better customer service now as a result. Funny how that happens…..