Customer service – what’s so hard about that?

As all avid readers (well, readers, anyway) will know, I’ve recently moved to Manchester. Inevitably that has meant that I’ve been exposed much more frequently than usual to the vagaries of a range of customer service experiences, as that ghastly jargon has it. From the lettings agent through to the builder’s site management team via BT, The Post Office, Orange, Eon, the Council tax department and a seemingly unending series of multiple choice telephone calls, I’ve been through the gamut of people called Sean and Amy, who have all assured me that they are my customer service advisor, and that they’re there to help me, my every trivial wish being their command. Sean and Amy have sometimes answered the phone brightly and quickly: sometimes they’ve hidden themselves behind a robotic and infuriating young lady who for a criminal percentage of the time I’ve got left on this earth has repeatedly insisted that the service is experiencing an unusually high number of calls, but that nevertheless my call is of the utmost importance. The remarkable steeplechase that is set between me and actually talking to someone reasonably qualified to deal with my desires is only the very beginning of the strenuous activity required actually to get something done. But there is a very wide divergence between the light workout required by the best and most responsive services, and the full-blown Alpe d’Huez needed, along with suitable performance-enhancing drugs, for tackling the worst. The main object of these latter vast outpourings of nervous energy has simply been that of trying to control my temper.

Let me share the experience of my 24 heures du Man (sorry to mix my French endurance sporting metaphors) in battle with the lettings agent. The flat I have moved into is a new-build property. In other words it is brand new, and no-one before me has soiled its walls and carpets, or fiddled with the knobs of its appliances. Notwithstanding this pristine start, I arrived in temperatures of -9 degrees to discover that there was no hot water. Not to worry, all I needed to do, surely, was to contact the agency that has assured me of its wish to be marked out by the excellence of its customer service “because they know I have a choice”, and to whom I have just paid £1,500 for the privilege of receiving their assiduous ministrations.

“Hi, I’ve just taken a lease on a new property, and I find I have no hot water.”

“Oh, you’ll need to talk to Zoe in maintenance. I’ll put you through.”

Zoe has decided to field the second XI who tell me via an answer-phone message that, since they are either not at their desk, or else possibly that they are actually speaking to someone, I might like to leave them a message, and they will get back to me. I tell the robot about my hot water, or lack thereof. Zoe seems to have a very accurate knowledge of my movements, since I am only about a minute into my motions when she calls back and, finding that I can’t get off the loo in time to answer my phone, I in turn receive a voice-mail message. Zoe tells me that my flat is a new-build one and that therefore I must ring the manufacturer of the water heater, which is under warranty. I immediately ring back, only to find that once more, either because the desk is yet again vacant, or maybe another call has been taken in the 10 seconds it’s taken me to dial, I’m invited to leave another message. I do.

“It may be that my flat is a new-build one, and indeed I’m sure the water heater is under warranty. Neither is any concern of mine. My contract is with you, and it is you to whom I have handed over my £1,500. I shall not therefore be ringing the manufacturer, but you most certainly will. Please do so, and let me know what arrangements you have made to have this matter resolved.”

I hear nothing, and when I have returned to London, I try ringing again. Zoe has still not returned to her desk, or is still talking animatedly to someone else. The status quo has not moved on measurably when I call back 15 minutes later. I leave a short, possibly even a sharp, message:

“It is now 3 days since I told you of the bone-chilling temperature of my water. I am returning to Manchester tomorrow. I should be most grateful if I returned to water that is at least tepid. Thank you.”

When I got back, Manchester was still in the icy grip of the recent weather arranged for us by the Daily Express so that they could run fatuous headlines about the myth of global warming. In turn, my water was still more suitable for topping up a G&T than it was for bathing. I phoned Zoe, who remarkably was still either not at her desk, or perhaps on another call. As indeed she was when I called again 20 minutes later. Suddenly, I had an inspiration. I telephoned, not Zoe’s direct maintenance hot-line (nice that something was hot), but the main office number.

“May I speak to Zoe?”

“Of course, I’ll put you through. Who shall I say is calling?”

I tell her.

“Hi, it’s Zoe here, what seems to be the trouble?”

As if she didn’t know. I tell her through gritted teeth that as a direct result of her indolence people are beginning to move away from me on crowded trams, and that hot water is becoming the key to my future  social success.

“Oh, well I didn’t know it hadn’t been fixed till you told me just now. I’ll call the manufacturer.”

“Please do. I’ll be in until 6pm. Could you ensure that you have called me to tell me what is happening before then?”

“Oh, of course I will!”

At this point, the site manager comes in to introduce himself as Mark, to welcome me to Manchester, and to ask if everything’s all right. I say that Manchester is lovely, with the exception of Zoe from maintenance. Mark is incredulous. He expostulates that this is intolerable. I must leave it with him. He phones me the next day, to say that in my absence he’s let himself in along with the electrician, and that everything is fixed. I almost burst into tears. If I weren’t married, I’d happily enter a civil partnership with Mark, for whom nothing is too much trouble. I also feel as someone would feel who has trained unnecessarily for mountain-top glory, or for the rigours of non-stop motor-racing, only to find out that all that was required was a casual walk down to the shops. Fucking pissed off.

And Zoe never phoned back, by the way.

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6 thoughts on “Customer service – what’s so hard about that?

  1. Good old moving house, highlights for me were:

    1. The BT marathon where I ping-ponged between two departments, each convinced that the other would deal with my problem. At one point one department told me to lie to the other in order to not get transferred back. Unfortunately I’m a poor liar and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say, I was trapped for about an hour…

    2. Some power company whose wacky call handling system managed to successfully voice-recognise my 10-digit customer number several times before dumping me to a dead line, when I finally got to a real person there first question: “Can you give me your 10-digit customer number”?

    3. Dee Valley Water – they were flippin’ fantastic, you rang the number, a person answered immediately and solved your problem! I was tempted to ring them up to fix my other problems…

  2. Who was it who said, “These are the times that try men’s souls?” Sigh. Zoe may be hopelessly inept, but she made good blog fodder. Glad you at last have hot water; hope that’s the last of your apartment woes!

    As for customer service, we’ve been waiting two years for the building mgmt. to fix the second bathroom’s ceiling, crumbling and peeling and damp due to a leak from the upstairs neighbour. Several times they’ve sent inspectors around, mumbling about how it’s all “tres dangereux,” yet doing nothing. And we have insurance, so it’s a case not of coverage, but of French bureaucracy and its maddeningly slow pace. Sigh. Next year we’ll find out if Amsterdam bureaucracy is an improvement. My bet is the ceiling won’t be fixed by 2011.

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  4. Oh God therein lies my story, though mine lies with the folk at the UK Border Agency who never gave you a phone number to call that actually reached a human being. They were very efficient at sending letters threatening deportation however.

    Glad you’re finally settled.

  5. Pingback: Aspiring to the private sector’s standards « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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