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Customer Service is a Thankless Job – Sorry

I have the greatest respect and admiration for folks who do customer support.  I couldn’t do it.  My personality just wouldn’t allow me to walk folks through plugging in the proverbial power cord every day of the world.  I am sure that I’d become the first ever documented case of spontaneous human combustion.  Because of this I’ve contemplated whether I should write this blog post for quite a while.  However, I ultimately realized that although I had my issues with individual customer service folks who had helped me, I am substantially more frustrated with the systems that allow this to continue – and in fact encourage it.

So I need to provide a little bit of background.  Around the first of this year I tried getting to http://technet.microsoft.com for whatever reason it didn’t respond.  I didn’t think much about it, I was just going to register for something so it wasn’t a big deal.  A week or two later I tried again and it still didn’t work.  At this point I got a little more curious.  So I logged into a server at Bluelock.  I could get to TechNet from Bluelock.  That meant it was a local problem.  So I put on my debugging hat and dug in.

A quick check of nslookup reviled that the IP address resolved for both locations were the same.  OK, it’s not a DNS problem.  Good to know.  I then started digging in and ran a packet trace from my firewalls (a SonicWall Pro2040 @ Bluelock and a SonicWall TZ170 here).  I saw something very odd.  At Bluelock I got the SYN and SYN ACK packets I’d expect to form up the TCP connection.  Here I got SYN, SYN ACK, SYN, SYN ACK.  Hmmm, that means the TCP stack locally didn’t like the ACK designed to form up the TCP connection.  I try a few other machines on the network including Windows Server, XP, Vista, etc.  They’re all having the same issue.  I tried with the local PC firewall on and without it on.  Still the same result.  I decided to eliminate more variables.  I instructed Telnet to make a connection to TechNet on port 80.  Although Telnet is a lousy web browsing client <grin>, it is one of the most basic ways to test whether a TCP connection can form.  When it didn’t work I had eliminated a ton of stuff.

So, in preparation for my call to support, I went in with a laptop and bypassed my TZ170.  I MAC cloned its external address so Brighthouse/Road Runner, my cable provider, wouldn’t lock out either the TZ170 or the laptop – so far as they were concerned it should have looked like the same computer.  When I did the test I observed the same thing.  No connections to technet.microsoft.com but arguably every other web site seemed to work.  (I’d later find out that there were a handful of other sites that were affected by this problem, but that wasn’t until later.)

So I hook everything back up and pick up the phone to call the Road Runner national help desk.  A pleasant sounding lady named Brandy answered the phone.  I briefly described that there was one web site, technet.microsoft.com, that I couldn’t get to.  She asked me “Did you put www in front of that?”  I politely explained that this web site didn’t have a www in front of its address.  I further explained that I had done a substantial amount of troubleshooting and had isolated the problem to the fact that TCP connections weren’t being formed up to the web site – although it was transmitting packets.  I offered to send her the packet capture and described the telnet procedure I had used to eliminate a ton of the variables that can happen in a typical system.  After a brief pause she asked “Did you try clearing your browser cache and cookies?”  I politely responded that it was clear that I wasn’t communicating effectively with her and that I’d appreciate the opportunity to speak with her manager.  To be clear, I expected this sort of an interaction, as I said before, most folks that customer support speaks with aren’t able to find the on/off switch.  I don’t expect them to be reading packet traces with me (as a point of fact I couldn’t tell you what IN the packets was wrong.)  I look at this interaction as an important and unfortunate necessity.  However, what happened next would start me down the process of changing my TV and Internet service.

A supervisor answered the phone that would only identify himself as Mike.  I explained the situation to Mike.  After a brief interaction Mike told me that this was a problem caused by the equipment or configuration on my end and wasn’t their responsibility.  When I asked him how he reached this conclusion he told me that I could get to every other web site and he could get to technet.microsoft.com therefore it must be my problem.  I presume Mike was in Reston, VA and I’m in Indianapolis, IN – there are a few different pieces of equipment between him and I.  I’ve seen all sorts of weird issues for clients caused by routers that are overloaded, overheated, or damp (don’t ask).  I certainly didn’t agree that because he didn’t see the problem that it didn’t exist.  I’ve never met God personally but that doesn’t shake my belief that he does exist.  I’ve never seen an electrical fire but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they don’t exist.

So I asked Mike to escalate the case and he refused.  When I asked to speak with his manager is when the story got sad and entertaining at the same time.  Mike responded that he didn’t have a manager.  I said, well, supervisor, director, boss — whomever did his reviews…  He responded he didn’t have any of those.  I had to pause.  I knew that the manager of the call center who’s working at 11PM on a Monday night isn’t the CEO of the organization, so I was being lied to.  I strongly dislike being lied to.  I dislike it even more when it’s so obvious.

So I asked, Mike if he signed his own paychecks.  He said no but wondered why I cared about an accounting function.  I responded that I didn’t – but that if he didn’t sign his own paychecks he had a boss.  So I continued the only person in an organization that doesn’t have a direct boss, that I know of, is the CEO.  I asked him if he was the CEO and when he responded no I asked him if he worked for the CEO.  He said yes, and I asked if he worked for the CEO directly.  He responded that he did.

So at this point, I’ve demonstrated that Mike’s a liar.  He clearly communicated he didn’t have a boss, manager, etc., but then later indicated that he worked for the CEO.  However, I’ve still got a problem.  I don’t believe that Mike actually works for the CEO.  I decided to give up for the evening and talk to someone during the day shift.

At this point I think I need to make a personal statement, if I ever have an employee so boldly lie to a client they will be fired – on the spot.  I don’t see how any organization can stand to have its employees boldly lying to customers like this.  It’s this clarity of conviction that makes the rest of the story so troubling.

I called back during the day and got Mona.  I politely told Mona I needed to speak with a supervisor and when asked what for, I said that I needed to register a complaint about a supervisor from last evening and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing that complaint with her.  She transferred me to Martha.

I explained the customer service situation to Martha and asked that she do whatever was appropriate to deal with the concern.  I considered the issue disheartening but had written it off.

Dealing with the customer service issue meant I didn’t have time to deal with the actual problem so I had to wait to call back – in the evening.  (Taking care of my customers is a priority.)  When I called back in I got Kelly.  Kelly transferred me to Mike.  My conversation with Mike was only slightly better in that he said that he would look into the issue.  He didn’t offer to allow me to talk to the next level of support, provide me with a NOC ticket number, etc.  He simply said he’d look into it.

When I asked when I could expect to hear something from him, he said he couldn’t make a commitment on when the problem would be resolved.  When I clarified that I was just looking to know when I’d hear from him on this issue again he indicated that he couldn’t make a commitment – not even for a status call.  I shared with him that I felt this was bad customer service.  He told me I was wrong that you never make a commitment you can’t keep.  To me, follow up calls should be something you have control of.

So without any timeframe guidelines since Mike wouldn’t provide them – I called back in 4 hours later to request a status update.  To be clear, I didn’t expect that the problem would be resolved, I just thought I might be able to get the NOC ticket number.  The technician answering the phone told me that Mike had tried to call me and that I didn’t answer.  I logged into Vonage and verified that I hadn’t missed any calls.  I asked the technician for the status update and he indicated that the notes didn’t indicate what the update was.  So after informing him that there was no call I asked to be transferred to Mike again.

Mike was noticeably frustrated.  When I asked what the status update was he indicated that he didn’t call.  (Apparently the technician was mistaken)  When I asked for a status update I was told that he couldn’t work on the issue because I had called in.  For this to be truth this would presume that he was personally troubleshooting the issue, something I wasn’t ready to accept.  I asked him when I should call in again he told me that he’d call me when he had something to report – and more disturbingly he said “You need to stop calling in.”  I was shocked.  I called in a few minutes after four hours of delay from originally reporting the problem after he wouldn’t communicate an expectation to me – it wasn’t like I was calling in every 10 minutes.  However, the whole point of customer service is to talk to customers who are having problems.  It would seem that if no one calls in then there wouldn’t be any jobs.

Mike also threatened to close the case that he ultimately admitted he had opened with the NOC.  My response was something along the lines of “If you think I’m upset now…”  I apparently convinced him to leave the case open as I hung up because at 2AM I got a call from a technician (that I let go to voice mail).  The technician indicated that he had a few questions but he thought he knew what the problem was.

By the time I woke up TechNet worked.  I called in to close the case and asked to speak with a manager again about the customer service issues.  I again got Martha.  Martha indicated that their boss (Mike’s and hers) wouldn’t be in until 10AM (it was like 8:30).  I asked for a call back and she assured me she’d give him the message.

By this time some of the corporate sales and support guys had returned my calls that I made.  I know a few people in the area who use Brighthouse for their corporate Internet connectivity.  So I managed to get a call.  The corporate service manager acknowledged some issues on the network due to some IP addresses they acquired from Japan and indicated they were are of the issue.  Since my problem was resolved I thanked him and moved on.

Two weeks later I was clearing off my desk found my note and called back in.  This time when I spoke with Martha she indicated that Mike’s boss wouldn’t be calling me back.  No reason was given.  I was nearly ready to change services, but I needed one more push.

That push came a week later when TechNet stopped working again.  I called back in and after initially having a technician walk through it with me and get assigned a NOC ticket… I was told I’d get a follow upcall.  The next day, I tried to follow up and being told that I had never done any troubleshooting steps and that I had been told repeatedly this was my issue and not an issue on the Road Runner network.

The end.  I’m done.  I decided that I there were too many customer service issues.

I switched to AT&T’s U-Verse service.  I’ve called in a few times with some questions – and I can’t tell you the customer service difference.  The folks I’m talking to are polite, respectful, willing to help… all things that I never got out of the Roadrunner National Helpdesk.

So back to the starting point, why does this bug me so much?  Well, I have a set of unanswerable questions:

  1. How can you have such poor customer service skills in a manager and not realize it?
  2. How can anyone in a customer service position refuse to call a customer back?
  3. Organizationally, how do you fail to recognize such a systemic problem?

I wonder if I’ll get a call back now that it is too late.