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?