Dept. Of Totally Lame: Starring Fedex

Okay so I’ll just tell you up front this is basically a brief rant about my annoyance with FedEx — a self-indulgent post, but that would seem to be the point of having a site like this, to indulge, no?

So early last week my main computer died, or rather was killed by me, and I badly needed a new one, very quickly. I ordered one up online, and went ahead and sprung for the fastest and of course most expensive shipment option — Fedex Priority. This meant I’d get my machine by 10:30 the next morning. Read more

Change the image, or change the business?

The other day, Time writer Justin Fox (a colleague of mine at Fortune, once upon a time) had a piece titled “How To Succeed? Make Employees Happy.” It focuses on Whole Foods and The Container Store, which “pay better than most retailers, offer good benefits and entrust workers at all levels with sensitive financial data. The idea is that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers.” (Somewhat related note: July 30, 2006 Consumed on Wawa, the convenience store chain whose success is partly attributed to treating employees well.)

Maybe these companies are exceptions, but I think there’s some value in at least considering the idea that Fox is writing about. And also about the broader idea underneath it, which is one I’ve thought about a lot lately as I’ve been out and about talking to some manager-and-executive-type people about Buying In. That broader issue is that I think a lot of companies that sense the need for a change are way more focused on changing their image (via marketing) than in changing their business practices.

Recently I answered questions from readers of The Alpha Consumer, a blog associated with U.S. News & World Report, in connection with Buying In (which was picked as the first selection of the Alpha Consumer Book Club). Part one is here, and part two is here.

In relation to the above, I wanted to bring up one of the questions (and answers) here. The answer is a little long so I’ll leave it up to you if you want to follow on after the jump.

From Meg Marco of the As you point out in your book, consumers often join their identities and even sense of self with brands (such as with Apple). When consumers reach out with complaints to companies whose brands they’ve incorporated into their sense of self, they’re operating in a state of emotional pain. When a brand fails them, they seem to feel as if they’ve failed, too. What effect do you think this level of emotional participation has on a company’s customer service responsibilities? If companies are adept at selling “ideas about products,” do they need to work hard to maintain that special feeling once the honeymoon is over? Or has all the hard work been done?

This is a great question—and one I wish I would get more often from, say, marketers and business owners. Read more

Your stereotype is ready

Ever wonder how other people see you? What quick shorthand mental category they put you into? Here’s how the server at Jerry’s on Division in Chicago, IL, apparently summed up one customer yesterday, on what I assume was the order ticket for the kitchen, which ended up being given to the customer with his check. That’s my guess anyway. I mean, was the customer actually supposed to see that he’d been reduced to “hippie guy”? I kind of doubt it. (Though hippie guy was chagrined to learn that he was evidently not projecting as contemporary an image as he’d thought, he was also amused, and didn’t let the incident affect his tip.)

Coincidentally, I’m in Chicago for the next day or two and as they say, “posting will be light.”

The other side of your angry rants at overseas service reps

A little while ago I highlighted a Wall Street Journal piece that looked at the experience of call-center workers in India — how they’re trained, how they’re perceived locally, and so on. A piece on Marketplace yesterday looked at another side of the equation — and how it’s entering Indian pop culture:

The way the Indian call center worker has been the source of ridicule in the U.S., the angry American caller has become legend in India.

Call centers employ around 600,000 people here. Because the industry has propelled India into the global marketplace, the phenomenon has an outsize impact on middle-class culture. It’s spawned a couple TV shows and a best-selling novel called “One Night at the Call Center,” in which demanding customers make the workers’ lives miserable. It’ll be released as a Bollywood film later this year.

Training for empathy

WSJ “Cubicle Culture” Jared Sandberg traveled to New Delhi for his most recent dispatch (published yesterday and available to all right here), a visit to Wipro, one of the outfits that some American companies outsource their customer-service to. It’s pretty interesting stuff. There are bits on the way the firm is managed (sounds fairly progressive) and the role that these jobs are playing in boosting India’s own consumer class. But of course it’s the how-to-deal-with-service-rage stuff that I wanted to read the most:

While most calls sent overseas to India are innocuous information exchanges, there’s only so much that can prepare someone for the hair-pulling frustration that confronts Wipro’s escalation desk, where frustrated callers end up when demanding to talk to a supervisor. Only employees with a proven track record of patience get promoted to the desk.

To prepare for that assignment, they role-play angry callers. Much is scripted, like leaving a follow-up voicemail to see if a technician’s visit resolved a problem. But agents aren’t trained to respond to rage with anything specific. Listen and solve the problem, they say, and the customer will mellow. Amid entreaties to reboot, one can hear the language of sympathy: “I know how you feel.”

But only experience can prepare employees for consumer rage, managers say. Before Wipro’s Mr. Banerjee managed the escalation team, he was an agent. One of his first calls involved an American who ran over his briefcase with his car. His pen survived but his laptop didn’t. The man said he’d write a letter of commendation to the pen manufacturer but would write to newspapers to complain about the computer maker, where he had friends in high places, Mr. Banerjee recalls. “Nothing trains you for that,” he says. No matter how unreasonable or stupid, he adds, “You have to be empathetic.”

Verizon, FYI

A quick follow-up about my adventures with phone service. You may recall I complained about (or rather to) Vonage, but then later admitted that I decided to stick with them anyway. (I’ll still waiting, by the way, for some hard evidence of bad customer service resulting in negative word of mouth that a serious material impact on a company or brand. Anybody?)

Anyway, here’s the end of my relationship with Verizon:

Dear Verizon, I thought someone there might be interested in knowing why I recently terminated my account.

Read more

Rage Against the (Customer-Service) Machine

I guess most people with sites like this apologize for the silence when they haven’t posted lately. In my case I should probably just say: You’re welcome.

Anyway, I’ve been finishing a longish story that I hope will come out in July, so it’s been rather hectic. But I think I’m in the home stretch, so now I’m getting caught up and giving some thought to what’s next. Two broad topics have been on my mind. One is customer service. Two service-rage incidents got a surprising amount of attention recently. There was the guy who videotaped a Comcast tech who fell asleep on his couch. And there was the guy who recorded a frustrating experience with AOL customer service, put it on his Web site, and ended up on the Today show.

The messages or theme that most observers have taken away from these incidents have been grindingly predictable: The Internet changes everything, consumers have the power and big companies are running scared, etc.

I don’t know. Presumably people have had bad customer service expriences for many years. Seems like that wouldn’t have gotten you on the Today show a few years ago. Now it can. So what? Does that actually mean anything?

Has customer service gotten significantly worse? If so, why?

Does the problem underlying bad customer service have anything to do with consumers’ ability or inability to complain extremely loudly?

I had my own little service rage moment the other day, with Vonage. The whole reason I decided to switch to Vonage is that I was enraged with my Verizon service. And in the end, I’ve decided to stay with Vonage, even though I was unhappy (to put it mildly) with my customer-service experience. Earlier this year I had a service-rage blowout with Comcast, and when the dust settled, I was still unhappy, and still paying Comcast for cable service. It’s not like there are 50 other cable and phone companies I can choose from, and these companies know it.

According to the current Ad Age, Vonage spent $413 million on advertising spending last year. Comcast spect $425 million. Verizon (counting its wireless unit and other businesses) spent almost $2.5 billion. That’s astonishing.

One line of thought is: Well, these companies are going to figure out that all the advertising in the world won’t help if their service stinks, and redeploy their spending accordingly.

That makes sense, and it makes for a good Powerpoint presentation and all that. But what if it’s wrong? I got a pitch the other day from somebody about the power of negative word of mouth, and how it can really metastasize, people take it more seriously and act on it, etc. On the other hand, if you really extrapolated out the data they were pushing, then big companies that get complained about a lot would be going out of business right and left, or at least showing revenue declines. Is that happening? I’m ready for the real-world examples on this, because I’m really interested in the question.

I’m also interested in the service business itself. It’s easy to say: They should spend the money to give better service, but is it easy to execute? What’s it like to be the person on the phone listening to angry consumers all day? Consumers can be irrational, too. I suspect it’s an awful job. I suspect the turnover is high, and recruiting good people is difficult. I suspect most people doing that job hate it.

So what would it really take to fix the problem of annoying customer service? How much power does the typical customer-service rep even have in any given service-rage incident? I know that I’ve yelled at coustomer service reps who were really in absolutely no position — for reasons having to do with the structure of the company they worked for — to truly solve my problem.

Anyway, this is one of the things I’ve been thinking about. The other one is religion. More on that later.

Just Asking…

Subject: The Philosophy of Cancelling an Extra Line
Date: June 12, 2006 8:41:23 PM EDT

Hey, what’s up?

I have a question for you. This is sort of just a curiosity thing. I’m curious about Vonage’s thinking on customer service. I often write about consumer issues, so, that’s why I’m curious.

I signed up for your service the other day, and I’m really happy with it so far. The sound is good, the install was super-easy, etc. I’m really pleased.

But when I was signing up they asked me if I wanted a free trial of an additional phone line. My understanding was, you know, I could check it out for a month or whatever, and if I wanted to keep it, I would have to pay for it. Maybe my wife could use that line for her business, or I could use it for a fax machine, etc. etc.

But once I got set up, I realized right away: I don’t need or want that other line. And it’s another $25 a month, so, I may as well just get rid of that, just opt out now, before I forget.

I feel like I more or less know what I’m doing when it comes to navigating a web site, but after about 15 minutes I reazlied that there was no quick and easy way — actually, there simply was NO way — to get rid of that number through your site.

I was pretty surprised!

You guys seem pretty, you know, tech-focused and all.

Anyway, after searching through your help center, I found a couple of entries (“How do I remove a line from my account?” and “How do I cancel/remove a line or account?”) both of which said I had to call a phone number.

I called the number, and the voice mail tree said unless I was ordering more services, there was actually this different number I needed to call. I finally got to the right number, I guess — and I got put on hold for “an estimated 25 minute” wait!

The robot operator thingy kept coming on with basic instructions like, “Hey if you’re having a a problem, maybe you should restart your modem,” or whatever — so I guess in general this is the line for every stupid problem in the world. Odd that this would be the number I’d have to call to get this “free trial” brought to a swift conclusion.

So here’s my question.

Is the idea that you’re COUNTING ON people just giving up, and saying, “Okay, I’ll pay for the extra line”? Or that you’re counting on people being so stupid that they won’t notice the extra $25 being charged to their credit card?

Because that seems like a bad strategy to me. You’re kind of going out of your way, as a brand, to court the “savvy” consumer who is sick of “the phone company,” and the phone company’s bad costumer service and so on. So, given that fact, why would you not just make it easy for me to cancel this additional line with a few clicks.

People would SO respect you for doing that. You have no idea.

Take me for example. Mere hours ago, I was all jazzed up to tell everybody, “Hey, yeah, I really stuck it to my phone company, I got Vonage! It rocks!” Blah blah blah. But now, you know, forget it. Who wants to talk about their phone service anyway? I mean who cares? Yeah, yeah, Vonage is better than the company I was using — but not THAT much better.

Maybe I’m wrong though, in the sense that Vonage makes more money squeezing the slothful and confused out of that extra $25, than they would by making it easy for everybody to cancel an unwanted line. Which is really worth more, the “positive word of mouth,” or $25 a month cash dollars?

I honestly don’t know. A lot of people say the positive word of mouth would be better in the long run. But I think the truth is perhaps more ambiguous than that. After all, I’ve pretty much made up my mind that I’m going to post this entire email, which makes your company look bad, on the Web. On other other hand, once I get this extra line removed, I’m not going to cancel my service, I’m going to stick with Vonage for my main phone line, because basically my previous “traditional” phone service provider was even worse.

So on the one hand I’m annoyed with you. On the other hand, I’m going to keep giving you money. So, maybe you’re doing the right thing after all, for your business, I mean.

What do you think?

I wrote this up while on hold, waiting to cancel this line that I don’t want.

Do you know how long I”ve been on hold?


I got an immediate reply to the above. It went like this:

Thank you for contacting Customer Care,

Many of your questions can be answered quickly and easily by checking out the Frequently Asked Questions and Learning Center sections on the Vonage website at


Oh well. I was asking an honest question. I’d love to know the answer.