Plausible Deniability in Customer Service

There’s nothing revelatory in this post, and certainly nothing you won’t be seeing a lot more of at Nick Denton’s latest Web site, Consumerist, but sometimes one just has to vent: few things have consistently angered me more in life than the enterprise-level flavor of plausible deniability suffusing larger companies’ customer service operations.

I’m talking about the infuriating phenomenon of encountering a bewildering and apparently ridiculous oversight or mistake in a company’s services or offerings, and being told by a customer service representative that it’s a matter to be dealt with by another department entirely, that the person to whom you’re talking accepts no responsibility for the gap in spite of the fact that it’s all the same company, and that you need to go talk to that other department. Oftentimes, the representative won’t even do you the courtesy of transferring your call!

On the Phone with My Phone Company

Here’s an example: last weekend I realized that, for whatever reason, I haven’t been receiving my monthly bills from my mobile phone carrier in the mail. (I won’t mention this carrier by name, but if you read all the way to the end, you may get a good hint as to which of the major U.S. carriers it is.) When I telephoned them to inquire, they said that the bill issued from 08 November was now thirty days past due, and that the bill from 08 December was just issued.

I figured I could make a single payment to cover both months, but I was told that the balance for the December bill was not yet available to the operator. I tried to argue that, if the bill had been issued, surely it was possible for someone to determine the balance on it, right? Not so, because that was “another department” altogether. The operator didn’t know exactly when the information would become available to her, but as far as she was concerned, the conversation had reached an inescapable conclusion: I’d have to hang up without an answer.

Wired That Way

Telecom providers, in particular, seem especially prone to plausible deniability, no doubt due to the fact that their convoluted corporate DNA structures almost inevitably give rise to this tendency — if not by intent, then as a natural byproduct of their twisted org charts. But any large organization is prone to it, and in my experience they all seem willing to live with it, even while proclaiming their dedication to customer experience design in other arenas.

After all, a conversation with a service representative is a kind of user interface in itself: like a Web site, an 800 number is a resource for accomplishing tasks. But you’d never have a Web site designed for customer account management in which it’s possible to learn that a bill has been issued but not what its details are — well, you might, and plenty of companies would, but such an offering would seem archaic and deeply embarrassing, I think. Not so much with a customer service line where the same is true. Somehow, that’s forgivable.

Help Is Available at 311

This phenomenon is so common and endemic in customer service that it has an air of hopelessness to it; it seems to be the kind of problem that can’t be easily fixed without seismic changes in a company’s organization, in its very composition. But I’m not so sure how true that is.

Here in New York, we have one of the most robust examples of public information available from any telephone by dialing 311. Callers are immediately connected to a personable operator of no remarkable intelligence who’s nevertheless been trained to hunt down information on city services and provide it in a timely and friendly manner.

I’ve used 311 to check on everything from holiday-specific parking regulations to filing complaints with the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any information that a New Yorker could want is available through this service, but by and large all of the information that an average citizen would need seems to be. But what really counts is that there’s very little to no plausible denial; when you reach an operator on 311, he or she goes to great lengths to help you find the information that you need. They may ultimately need to route you elsewhere, but they make an effort to provide all the help they can before they do so. That counts.

My almost uniformly positive experiences with the service have turned me into a huge 311 advocate — I have a limited amount of enthusiasm for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but without question, he deserves a laudatory hand for making 311 a reality. I’ll admit, too, that the context for 311 is one of severely diminished expectations — you can’t set your sights lower than improving the availability of public services information. But the point is that it’s possible to make human beings an excellent interface for disparate sources of organizational information. If a city government can do it, why can’t a corporation with many times the revenue and many times the resources? Can you hear me now?

  1. Last week, when my phone mysteriously went dead, I rang my service provider to get them to sort it out. I was on my mobile, and after being on hold for 15 minutes, I eventually got through to somebody who was basically unable to help. After some wrangling (“have you tried turning it off and on again?”), she gave me a case number and said I should call back to check the progress on the problem sometime over the weekend.

    Our conversation then went:
    ME: Can I have a direct number, so that I don’t spend $30 of mobile credit on hold?
    HER: There is no direct number
    ME: Sure there is.
    HER: No, there’s not.
    ME: So when your boyfriend rings you to find out what he should pick up for dinner, he has to wait on hold for twenty minutes?
    HER: Er.
    ME: So, what’s the number?
    HER (whispered): I can’t tell you. I’ll get fired.

  2. Cellular companies seem to be the absolute worst. I’ve waited well over an hour on hold before, just to be told that they can’t fix a problem. Customer service, from what I’ve heard, is lousy at all of them. Honestly, somebody should start a mobile service that has decent customer service and attractive-looking phones.

  3. New York City has revenues of roughly $52 billion per year. How many companies do you know that generate that much? Only the top 20 out of the Fortune 500 can make that claim.

    In comparison, the budget of Paris is about 5.5 billion euros, about the same order of magnitude as San Francisco.

    Don’t underestimate the financial weight of your city, and don’t settle when it comes to what you are getting back for your money.

  4. Fazal: you make a good point, but in fairness, Verizon’s revenues are roughly $72 billion per year. It’s not “many times the revenue and many times the resources” as I said, but my point still stands: it should be easier for an enterprise to be efficient in this regard than a municipality. To make the argument that the reverse is true based simply on revenue, which is what I think you’re saying, doesn’t seem to make sense to me, exactly.

  5. That’s interesting Khoi. (And quite lame.) Did you ever get it sorted out?

    I have Verizon too, and it often occurs to me that they’re a bit of a mixed blessing: my experience with their phone support has always been fantastic, but the company makes so many mistakes that I wind up dealing with them at least once a month. So.

    For instance, I tried to change plans recently; they dropped the ball, and my plan didn’t get changed, though they did see fit to bill me for another month at my old rate. So I called back to clarify, and the woman took care of things then — I think : — and removed the late fee from my account. That was nice.

    I bet you could get your late fee removed too, if it was worth your time, which it probably isn’t.

    But have you ever tried to use their site? It’s kinda like you describe their phone support: the parts don’t always communicate like they should.

  6. I’ve had that experience with Verizon in the past, too. In fact, they’ve given me ‘free months,’ which seems all well and good, but to me if they can give those away so easily it really emphasizes to me how much they’re making off of each month or service. Anyway, I’d rather pay the monthly fee than have to be on the phone with them at all.

    As for their site, yes, it’s a mess. I followed the link from and tried to sign into my account for 20 mins., before I was told by an operator that my credentials only work at The operator also told me that she had no idea what I was talking about when I asked her why the link from the first site didn’t go to the second; she was almost trying to deny its existence altogether. No one ever said they lacked for gall.

  7. I’ve been with a few but prefer Sprint for the most part. The only other service provider who my friends seem to like is T-Mobile. I considered switching over but the fact that calling sprint-to-sprint phones is free was worthwhile since the other half of my friends use Sprint.

    That said, I’ve yet to deal with customer service since my bills get paid online and are taken directly out of my bank account. Though, my needs are modest so I generally review my calls online and as long as they’re no more than the usual monthly charge, I never look into the details.

  8. Khoi, have you heard of Working Assets? I’ve been with them for four years and I LOVE them. Their customer service lines are staffed by helpful, intelligent 20-somethings who sound like they live in Boulder and are havin’ a great day. Not only that, but they donate a percentage of their profits to progressive causes. They offer books on topics of current political and environmental interest at a 10% discount and alert you to heinous legislation proposed in Congress, complete with the name and number of the sponsoring senator in case you want to call and complain. Check it out:

  9. i have had so many problems with the phone and cable companies that i’ve become a master at weilding the government paperwork like a samurai sword. have you heard of the public service commission? it’s a brilliant move in the customer service cat and mouse game.

    when it all seems bleak and they are giving you the runaround, you can tell them that if you aren’t helped then you’ll file a complaint with the public service commission.. and NO ONE wants that. it means moutains of paperwork to them. it means hours of wasted time filling out documents. it’s worked for me on every occasion!


  10. While I, of course, agree with the frustration as an end-user, I am also a CSR and understand the problem from the other side.

    I think the problem also has to be considered from a supply/demand side perspective. Employers hire technical people, generally without the specific experience in the particulars they will be addressing. As employees become more experienced with solving problems generally and more knowledgable about the errors commonly faced, they become more valuable for difficult problems. The time of these employees, in more limited supply, is better spent on difficult problems rather than having everyone field problems of all degrees of difficulty.

    Let’s return to the customer’s perspective. It is wasteful to have more experienced engineers spend their time handling mind-numbingly obvious problems while being paid twice what a newby is paid. That waste translates into higher costs for you, the consumer.

    You would not expect a M*A*S*H unit to have their heart specialists putting splints on broken arms while heart-attack victims are waiting, nor should you expect a CSR provider to put senior engineers answering the phones.

    Now, the idea of considering a front-line CSR like a nurse assigned to your case, able to call on a specialist as needed, has merit, though it may not be any better than a hierarchical system that uses good customer feedback and quality controls.

  11. Bill, thanks for that very thoughtful comment. I agree that looking at it from a cost-management perspective, there’s an argument to be made for keeping less experienced customer service representatives as the ‘front line’ contacts.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that what I’m talking about necessarily translates into higher consumer costs, or if it does, that there wouldn’t be a considerable return on investment.

    I don’t expect a representative to know everything or to be fully skilled and experienced in handling all manner of problems. But I do think it’s reasonable to expect a representative to know how to find the answers to problems that are outside his or her immediate domain, and to make the process of finding those answers generally more pleasant for consumers than simply saying, “That’s not my department.”

    Okay, I admit that revamping a CSR staff so that they take on this new attitude and have this new training would cost money, but again I think the R.O.I. would be considerable in terms of brand-building and improved customer experience. It’s the same motivation that spurs companies to spend lots of money redesigning their Web sites or redesigning their retail stores; it should also apply to their call centers.

  12. Working at a manufacturing site we typically do not get customer service requests. However, when we do we resond with everything we have at our disposal. Up to and including the R&D department. Because of this we have become very involved with our customers. They are continually surprised by our ability to help them. We certainly get brand loyalty from our customers after they have been with us long enough to sample our “customer service”. So, I agree that the ROI is well worth the cost. We we can fix problems at our level (manufacturing) it helps everyone.

  13. Dion: that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s that kind of thinking that large companies like telecoms should be following. In fairness, though, translating that kind of can-do spirit from an SME to a huge enterprise has always been difficult, so it shouldn’t be surprising that larger companies struggle with this. Still, it’s frustrating and it shouldn’t be the case.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.