customer service

Phone Monkey: Fish Hoofs and Other Observations

PhoneMonkeyPNGHello, my name is this. I’m calling about that. Please. Thank you. Goodbye. That’s pretty good phone etiquette, at least in the 21st century, so I’m not going to press my luck. Mostly–and by mostly, I mean over fifty percent–people are at least halfway decent over the phone. Not good. Not bad. Somewhere around a C or C+, if I had to give a grade. Of course, there are the A+ people, to whom we almost don’t like talking, because they ruin the curve. And there are the maniacs who curse, threaten, belittle, or harass us–you know, the F- crowd, the yang to the yin.

And then there are the calls that just take your breath away.

Fish Hoofs

Um, yeah. I ordered and the guy, I don’t know what’s wrong with him, y’know what I’m sayin’, I couldn’t even enjoy my meal because I’m like, well, “Am I really eatin’ chicken?” ’cause he’s tryin’ to say that… that fish ‘n’ chips… I–I never had no–I don’t eat certain certain types of fish. I eat cod and haddock, and he said that’s haddock, and that’s a lie. That fish is not haddock. It’s… it’s… I don’t know what it is. It tastes just like some fish I tasted for the first time from Deli Max, I remember, and I was like, ‘Oh! What is this! It’s like a tunafish or somethin’ or maybe it could be tilapia. I don’t know. It’s not haddock. And he’s tryin’ to tell me, “Come and see. I’ll tell you on the package it says haddock.” That is not haddock. You know, I mean, like just be up front and say, “No, it’s not haddock. It’s some other fish.” And, you know, I could deal with that, but he’s sayin’ it’s haddock. I’ve tasted haddock. That’s all I eat, is haddock and cod. But when you say it’s haddock when it’s not haddock, you know, you kinda question, like, is the chicken chicken, or are you eatin’ rabbit’s feet or somethin’ like that. It just, you know, makes you not really wanna eat, you know, appreciate the meal. You know, you question everything. He shouldn’t be lyin’ like that, and, um, just be truthful and say it’s not haddock. And I asked him if I could get the money back for the haddock, he was like, “No.” I mean for the plate. Because… it was just ridiculous, I mean, I don’t know what type of fish that is. It’s just… it’s like a tunafish or somethin’. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t like to eat stuff that I don’t what it is, because some fishes have fins on it–or whatever–hoofs, or whatever, and I don’t eat fish like that.

[Finally given an breath to interject, the phone monkey begins speaking, but–]

Like red snapper… I don’t eat… like red snapper? Not red snapper… like catfish or somethin’. I don’t eat fish like that ’cause they have… catfish have… whaddo they have, fins on ’em or somethin’? Or they have somethin’ on them that there’s fishes I don’t eat. I only eat fish that don’t have any things like, um, you know, certain… I think it’s a fin or somethin’. But I know I don’t eat–I don’t like that–him tellin’ me that it’s haddock and it’s not haddock. I know what haddock is. He said I could come and look at–and, and he’d show me the package. You don’t have to show me no package. I know what type of fish. If you’ve eaten cod and haddock all your life, you know–this fish tastes like a mackerel, and it tastes like this fish that I did not like, was from Deli Max, and he said it was tilapia so I told him I would try tilapia, and I tried tilapia, and I tried it and I didn’t like it. Ok, I didn’t like it. But, um, I… you know. But he’s sayin’ it’s haddock, and it’s not haddock, and he’s sayin’ that, um, I can’t return it. I wanted to return it because it’s not whatever fish it is, it’s just not, like, fish like edible fish for me, ’cause it was dried up and it was–I don’t know what it is, and he’s not bein’ honest about it. If you’re gonna sell somethin’, be truthful and tell people what it is.

[The rest is pretty much standard customer service stuff. The phone monkey assures her it’s haddock, reiterates that the guy at the restaurant says she can come look at the bag of fish, that she is not getting a refund, and then she gets in the last word and hangs up.]

I impart to you that bizarre tale in order to point out something important about the customer service people you will speak with as a customer.

Despite our daydreams and fantasies of a better life, we are not omniscient.

Remember the good phone etiquette I mentioned earlier? Always start with some version of hello. Caller ID is an amazingly useful tool, but it’s still a limited technology. We’re a small internet-based company, not the NSA, and we generally only know who you are and what the hell you’re carrying on about if you tell us first. Like Bruce Willis said, “Not yaddayaddayaddayaddayayoo. Short. Korbin. Korbin Dallas.” Brevity may be the key to wit, but it’s also the key to getting anything done.

I haven’t yet been able to pin point whether it’s our position as the complaint department, a product of being based on the internet, or just the way we speak to each other in 21st-century America, but people’s inability to speak with each other like humans is appalling. Not only is directionless ranting a normal occurrence, but hang-ups are commonplace. I don’t have any direct line to old-school complaint department people, but I would guess that before e-commerce, hanging up on someone was once considered rude. Now, a pretty regular call proceeds much like the following: please give me this, got it, done, click. Acting like a cold, consuming robot is a pretty cynical way to go through life.

But this is all touchy feely stuff, anyway. After a few years, a good phone monkey feels nothing at all. The real lesson to take away from this is that the person on the other end of whatever problem you have is quite likely the lowest person on the ladder. The reason you are ranting and jabbering at this person in particular is because no one else will put up with it. The more responsibility we get, the greater the gap between us and the public. After you start earning a certain sum, the unspoken rule is that you don’t earn that money just so people can treat you like garbage for eight hours a day. It’s pretty much the equivalent of paying one’s dues, except that some people keep paying and paying and paying.

On the bright side…

oh.

Okay

PhoneMonkeyPNGHere I am, taking your requests. It’s a busy day, but I have a moment. Can I help you?

Okay.

That’s good to hear. Your request seems simple. Would you like to give me the details, so I can put them into the system?

Okay.

Great. It seems there’s a considerable sum of money involved here. Would you like a copy of the transaction details, for your records?

That’s okay.

It’s okay?

Okay.

Yes?

It’s okay.

So yes, then, or no?

That’s okay.

No?

Okay.

Okay. Will that be all?

Yes, thank you.

 

Darmok

PhoneMonkeyPNGThe last thing I want to do is belittle someone for not speaking English well. I don’t speak it well, and my roots go back to the American Revolution, or so I just learned. But there are times in this job that make one feel under appreciated. All our orders go through as text. This is precisely so restaurant staff, who may or may not speak English, can at least see what they need to make. Occasionally, however, there are issues, and a we will need to speak with someone. We have people on staff who can speak Spanish, and I can get by with minimal broken Mandarin, but that leaves a lot of languages out, and so we have conversations like the following.

“A customer from last night ordered the seafood udon, and asked for no calamari.”

“Yes. No calamari. We no calamari. Japanese restaurant. Seafood only, no only vegetable combination.”

“This udon was served with only calamari.”

“No. No calamari. Restaurant only seafood combination. Calamari tomorrow. Tonight, calamari. No send order today.”

“I’m sorry. I meant they received their dish incorrectly.”

“Oh!”

“Ok, so the customer ordered the seafood udon.”

“Ok.”

“And they asked for no calamari–“

“Yes. No. Calamari Japanese restaurant. Today. Tomorrow. Send calamari, no vegetable combination. Seafood combination calamari.”

[fast forward 10 minutes]

“Do you understand?”

“Calamari. No calamari. Yesterday.”

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

So, when you ask your customer service rep to help you with something you haven’t tried doing already, this is likely the kind of interaction they’re having while you drum your fingers on the table and think of how the Better Business Bureau should hear of this terrible customer service.

Phone Monkey: All By Itself

PhoneMonkeyPNGAs I have explored before, customer service folk tend to have very warped fight-or-flight responses, and there are two main ways that we deal with this. One is to detach and try to become as objective as possible about the whole scene. The other is to become a balled-up fist of rage. Both have their pros and cons.

There is, however, a slightly better Third Way, which is a lot like Bruce Lee’s style in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. “When the opponent expands, I contract; when he contracts, I expand; and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” Among other things, Bruce had an expert knowledge of semicolon usage.

But how do you tell when your customer is expanding or contracting on the phone, or even via email? You have to draw from emotional memory. You watch the storm clouds gathering or clearing, and you listen to the wind rustling the grass.

Sentences that begin with “You…” are expanding. Sometimes, this is a misunderstanding of our service, and the customer comes out swinging because they’re hungry and upset. Still, in general (relationships, marriages, friendships, business partnerships, etc), beginning with “you” is generally taken as an aggressive act because whatever comes after is unloaded upon the other person. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding, and one person feels hurt. Maybe there is fault. Coming out aggressively immediately puts the other person on the defensive, which significantly lowers the chances of a satisfactory resolution. Even if the intent is just to unload baggage and vent anger, the likelihood of the other person actually listening to the complaint and noting the important parts for future reference is pretty close to nil. They’re probably just waiting for it to be over so they can think about just about anything else. “You” is a tornado warning. Typically, it goes the direction of, “You need to fix x right now, or I’m going to file a complaint with the BBB.” Occasionally, phone monkeys will occasionally get, “You are awesome! I love you guys!” It’s rare, though, and it throws us off our game.

A more neutral stance begins with “I…” and continues on about the things that affected the customer. It seems counter intuitive–that a more objective approach would be a more contracted stance–but “I” is self-indulgent, and as such, can go either way. Much like a cloudy day, if you take an umbrella out with you, it’s probably not going to rain, but the one time you forget, you’re guaranteed to get soaked to the bone. Think about this fairly typical complaint: “I found something wrong with my order.” Ominous, but not a threat. No fight or flight.

But follow from that… “It arrived without the crispy chicken, making me very sad.” They contract, and we expand, immediately reaching out to the right people to right the wrong.

But the alternative… “[T]he whole order was wrong. [N]ot impressed, very disappointed.” It’s subtle, but see the difference? Specificity and a shrugging off of a sense of entitlement really do go a long way. A little sense of humor helps, too. Can you guess whose issue was resolved first?

Customers rarely use the contracted stance. I attribute this, so far, to a misconception that asking for help is equivalent to begging. While we don’t want customers coming to us with axes and pitchforks, we don’t want them groveling, either. It’s embarrassing for us and for them. We’re in a relationship of trust. There’s something deeply wrong if either party has to worry about being rejected. Far from being a form of weakness, the contracted stance is open, like a clear sky, and allows us in to investigate and troubleshoot. “Here’s what happened…” it might begin. And like many once-upon-a-time stories, it’s more than likely to have a happy ending.

When the solution to the problem is clear to all involved, we won’t need to fix it. It’ll fix itself.

(For Day 12)

Phone Monkey: A Brief Note

PhoneMonkeyPNGFor Day Five: “Be Brief”

Customer Service Rule #1

You may have to eject crazy customers, but send them away knowing you listened to their concerns.

photo 1

Even if your boss calls you a time-wasting swine and throws your “while you were away” memo back at you, it’s best to take a note.

photo 2

If someone has a business card, always accept it. You never know if it’ll be important later on.

Phone Monkey: The Horse You Rode In On

“Well, I’ll just take my business elsewhere!”

We’re supposed to be afraid of that line because we’re losing business and sending it to our competitors, right? I assure you: we’re quaking in our bunny slippers. Our testicles crawl up into our bodies and our ovaries shrivel up like raisins at the very mention of the possibility of losing such a reasonable, flexible and understanding customer.

We get this line a lot, as does pretty much anyone who has ever had to work directly with the public. And maybe it would work in a meat-space business in an industry not as heavily flooded with demand. In our line of business, our primary customers are college students, many from countries where this type of service doesn’t exist. Taking their business elsewhere, where they’re from, might be significant, but as someone who’s around for four years, summers excluded, and then gone forever, they are replaceable. This even applies to the domestic students. After their four years, many of them are going to move away to areas where we don’t have service, or will simply stop ordering in so much when they join the Real World. And every year, we get a new crop of customers. If that seems jaded and cynical, you’re definitely on to something. I try desperately not to let that happen, but it’s a creeping eventuality in customer service work.

Why do we get this line, anyway? Can’t people just take their business elsewhere without faking a fuss? Why do they need to tell us?

The short answer is they don’t need to. Like a girlfriend or boyfriend listing all the things you did wrong (in their eyes) before dumping you, it’s catharsis pure and simple. They need the emotional release, and want to hear the fear of loss and grief of failure in our voice as we try to salvage an unsalvageable situation. But most times, the customer is one who’s been a problem since day one, and all we needed was an excuse to say goodbye. If we said that we were sorry to see them go, we’d be lying. We say it anyway.

Who could be such a pain in the ass that you’d let them go so easily? Isn’t that mentality antithetical to the ideas of customer support and customer service?

Last things first. No. We are support and service professionals. Our job, like a bra, is to support. It’s the customer’s responsibility to make sure that they ask for a 28B when they have a 28B problem, not to ask for a 28B and then blame us and storm out when their 42DDDs don’t fit into it. You might be surprised how often that happens. But we’re professionals, so we mostly just go in the back and get a bigger size, and then everyone’s happy.

The customers that end up being a bigger pain in the ass than they’re worth are the ones who demand more than we can or will give them. We offer credit toward future purchases, as many online retailers do. Today, for example, after much bad noise, I was able to get a refund for a customer, who had claimed on the phone that a refund was all he was after. Great. That sounded reasonable, and if I had to take an earful from someone at the restaurant to do it, well, that’s my job. Not so long afterward, the customer emailed in, saying that the refund was “not enough.” Obviously, he was angling for credit.

Let’s pause for a moment and pretend we’re back in that lingerie store. Mmmmm … frilly things. A customer walks in and says, “Oh dear! It seems that when I got home, I realized I’m a 34C, not a 34B, can I return these for a refund?” Sure. Definitely. Why not? Here’s your money back. Have a great day! “Oh, sweetie,” they say, “you misunderstand. It is your fault for giving me the wrong size. So why don’t you either give me my bra for free or reach into that cash drawer and offer me something good?”

To this, the obvious response is, “Hey, why don’t you go jump off a bridge?”

While phone monkeys are generally punching bags, we’re also gatekeepers. Beggars, thieves, and trolls will be turned away. Take your business elsewhere. Please.

And, of course, have a great day!

Phone Monkey: Why We Drink (NSFL)

Today is a short post because I need a day to myself. But here are some direct quotes from email or phone conversations I’ve had with customers and restaurant staff. Sprinkled in are quotes from other phone monkeys. I’ll let you guess whose are whose. Also, be aware that even though these exchanges happened in the workplace, they are 100% NSFW, not child safe, and demoralizingly NSFL.

Yeah, that cheese steak was my only guarantee to get laid. I’d like to see you fix that!

[slurring] You need to come down here and serve me. You took an oath and you have to serve me. Because you’re a public servant. You need to come down here and be my bitch.

He was drunk and on the drugs.

You’re so nice, I love you. *hiccup*

How fucking stupid can you guys be? […] A bunch of fucking monkeys!

I’ll fucking kill everyone at [_______] if you guys close me tomorrow!

Thundercunts.

I haven’t fucking gotten my food yet! Fuck!

i hate people […] bastards

We don’t read the whole order! You send it, we make it!

Reinstate my account but I don’t want that bitch [_____] to have any contact with me

Fuck you and fuck the driver you hire .
Bunch of idiots 

I love [______]/your service too! You guys really provide great customer service and I want to thank you because I’m guessing you aren’t getting paid much. And, I want to thank you before I sober up. Good job!

They should be BANNED from your site. They are shady and probally ILLEGAL ALIENS
THESE people… they are scum…

I ordered the grilled chicken Caesar wrap and it came with no Caesar which felt dry as it traveled through my esophagus […] Yea compensation would be great as I am very poor and enjoy moist sandwiches.

ALL CAPS!!!1

see you guys tomorrow. i’m gonna get out the whiskey.

Phone Monkey: Trifecta

Before I begin this post in earnest, I should probably make it clear that the vast majority of customers are decent and generally know what they’re doing. Online ordering can be tricky, but most people understand the general requirements of doing business on the Internet.

The Holy Trinity of Online Ordering:

  1. Read: Read all of the instructions, and if you’re going to use a coupon, read the fine print. Terms and conditions always apply. The safety and comfort of your home does not excuse laziness.
  2. Double Check: Always, always, always look through your order to make sure you have put down the correct contact information, billing information, and that you’ve ordered what you think you ordered. You wouldn’t rush through booking an airplane flight. Why would you rush through an order for something that you’re going to put in your body.
  3. Be Cool: If something does go wrong, start at #1 and work your way back. If there is still something wrong, your Phone Monkey will be there to help. Accidents happen, and it’s our job to pick up the pieces. Very, very rarely, does anything blatantly malicious ever happen (a fry cook spitting in food, a driver calling a customer a whore, etc), but when it does, we actually have genetically engineered weasels that we can set upon unscrupulous restaurants.

Of course, we rarely hear from people who are satisfied with the service–after all, we’re the complaints department. Still, most people are reasonable, or at least not belligerent. There are people, of course, who are always impossible to deal with, and generally make our workdays a living hell. Almost all of them are unable to grasp #3 in the Trinity. As I mentioned in a previous Phone Monkey post, I attribute most of this to the anonymity of the Internet allowing people to remove the barrier of decency between their brain and their fingers or mouth (email/phone).

The Unholy Trifecta of Customer Service
1. Lawyers, Law Students, and Pedants

We are definitely not ones to holler, “Kill all the lawyers!” from the bell towers. As I mentioned in a pervious post, they keep us safe from you, and the other way around. As a rule, we’re not opposed to dealing with anyone because they come from any specific social group. But when we see an email addressed To Whom It May Concern, there is much muttering and sighing. One time out of a thousand, we’re surprised, and what follows is courteous. All of the other times, the email is a terse demand, usually for “restitution” and almost always employing the words “rendered,” “pursuant,” and “forthwith.” All they’re missing is the “Good day, sir!” at the end.

Why is this not OK? I understand where this comes from. You’re dealing with someone you’ve never met and probably will never meet, and doing so over the Internet, so the temptation is to come in hard and no-nonsense–make known your intentions. But what it actually turns out to be is bullying. In a meat-space service environment, the people who cause the most stress are the ones who can come into the store or office and physically intimidate. When we’re in the realm of black-on-white, we’re like Neo in the Matrix–muscles don’t mean a damn. As a result, those with command of language are at a huge advantage, which is why your phone monkey is likely to be someone who thought they could make a living as a writer, got a master’s degree, and then fell into a deep dark hole of debt, failure, and regret. And while we wind our way through complaints with tact and grace, the cynics come and present the black-on-white version of a gun. Loaded or not, we have to treat it like one, which means that instead of having a cordial service experience, you’re going to be treated like a menace, and we’re going to hate you for it. Working under duress sucks, especially when it’s the calculated threat of legal action. Be cool, not cold.

2. The Atom Bomb

Some of you may know what a chargeback is. For those who don’t, a chargeback is the result of a financial institution reversing a charge made to a credit card. This can be a great thing for the consumer, as anyone who’s ever had their cards or card numbers stolen can tell you. I can attest that our company would never want to keep a charge from someone whose identity was stolen. Unfortunately, this tool, like any tool, can be and is regularly used for evil. On a daily basis, customers use the threat of a chargeback to get their way from us or our vendors. Sometimes, it’s for major things, like food not delivered, but some days, like today, we have people tell us that they will be asking their bank to reverse the charge on the whole order because nachos and guacamole had clearly been fraternizing. But shouldn’t they? Tsk tsk … come now.

Why is this not OK? It should be obvious. As with the legalese, this is again us working under duress and treating the customer like a threat. But it goes a little deeper than that. Even if the bank denies the chargeback, it’s a pain in the neck for us, labor wise. It can also be hard on some of the small businesses we work with, as frivolous and opportunistic chargebacks can put undue strain on an already uncertain financial situation. By letting customers file chargebacks as freely as they do, we’ve essentially given the keys to a financial atom bomb to people (mostly college students) already in debt to their necks.

3. The Righteous Clueless

You’re home late from work, and all you want to do is sit, relax and order some delivery. Maybe you’ll crochet a sweater with cats on it for your friend. You get on the computer and pop in an order for some Chinese food from the best place in town. The thought of dumplings and roasted meats makes your mouth water. Forty-five minutes later, the doorbell rings and you pay and tip your driver, because you’re happy as a clam. As you unpack the bag, the steam fills your nostrils and you tear open the lid to your dumplings and chomp into one. And that’s when it hits you: you’re kosher/halal/vegetarian/vegan/pescetarian/breathairian! How dare the Chinese restaurant give you pork! Get thee to the Better Business Bureau!

Why is this not OK? This mistake happens far more often than it has any right to. After living abroad for some time now, I’ve come to realize that Americans generally don’t have any clue what other people around the world eat. There’s the old dismissal that Chinese food in the States isn’t really Chinese, and to the extent that it’s been molded to an American palate, that’s valid. (You might be surprised, though.) The real concern here is an ignorance of what kinds of things people eat. The quick-and-dirty explanation we got when we came to Malaysia about party etiquette was, “The Muslims don’t eat pork and don’t drink alcohol, so don’t offer them. The Hindus don’t eat beef, so don’t offer it. And the Chinese eat pretty much anything, so go hog wild.” In the States, more people need that kind of brief education before leaving home. That’s not to say that my education in this matter is finished. In Taipei I learned that pork is a vegetable. True fact. So if you’re ordering from the pretty-much-anything restaurant, expect the unexpected.

Above all, be cool.

Phone Monkey: A Liar’s Dilemma

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve touched on part of what follows in a previous post, so rather than rehash much of what was said there, let’s just pretend that this is a continuation of that thought. If you haven’t read it, and want to, feel free to pause now. I’ll put some white space here.

The Internet, as a means of doing business is a Devil’s Bargain. You can reach farther than you might otherwise, but with the extra coverage you dredge up more scum. This “scum” isn’t people, necessarily, but the kind of human interaction that takes place. As anyone who has ever browsed reviews of Yelp!, skimmed through YouTube comments, or read a random cross-section of tweets will know, anonymity on the Internet allows people to forego the social contract and sink into a weird Hobbesian “state of nature.” When it comes to business, I have seen kind, rational people lose their sense of perspective at the slightest inconvenience.

Below are three complaints that have completely lost their meaning to me:

  1. “Unacceptable” adj.: a bummer; not what was expected; arrived later than expected. Generally, if you give the verbal equivalent of a hug, these issues become acceptable.
  2. “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had!”/”I’ve never been treated so poorly!”: No it isn’t. Yes you have. If it is or if you haven’t, you’ve been a very sheltered person. Did you even go to high school? Maybe take the bus occasionally, or stand in a TSA line at the airport.
  3. “Ice cold”: It’s July. Knock it off.

Why? Maybe it’s the hyperbole, but the wizard behind that particular curtain is the pathos. I’ve worked a dozen different jobs, some customer service, some not, and each had its own set of lies and liars. Apologies, as discussed in an earlier post, are one kind of lie, designed to smooth ruffled feathers. Hyperbole, on the other hand, cranks the energy level up, and it works; drill sergeants use it to motivate recruits, and pundits use it to churn up outrage. But there are diminishing returns. Like any other drug (probably because of a chemical reaction in the brain), with frequent use it has less effect over time. After a while, the response to even a serious complaint like, “The delivery driver called me a whore!” (an actual complaint and a legitimate use of “unacceptable”) is a resounding shrug. Yes, we will do what we can to get that business to reprimand/fire that person, and we will try and get your money back. But it all just starts to feel a little too automated.

As your lowly phone monkey, it’s my job to try and make sure you are happy, and failing that, that you don’t go away angry, and failing even that, that you don’t go on a crusade. We don’t get paid a lot, and we don’t get sick days, vacation days, or health coverage. Like working in the food service industry, if you want a shift off because you’re getting married, or because you’re sick and throwing up, you have to find someone to cover for you. The point is, we spend a lot of time interacting with a diverse, multicultural, multilingual customer base, and yet, the homogeneity of not just complaints, but the wording of them and the level of hostility behind them becomes numbing after a while. In a way, the Customer becomes an interchangeable part. Some are more durable than others, but viewed in the same unfiltered light of the Internet, they begin to look pretty much the same at their core. Disturbing is the moment when I’ve found myself being an interchangeable Customer.

The real trouble comes when we have to deal with the real liars. Far from the angry customers spewing righteous hyperbole, these are the seasoned professionals who have spent a lifetime making an art out of lying. As Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski might say, these people are a “worthy fucking adversary.” Typically, they’re the people committing credit card fraud, or just trying to weasel a free meal out of us, and just as typically, they’re super obvious about it. Threats of lawsuits, never using our service again, and Twitter campaigns are generally met with an eye roll and a “meh.” Lawsuits are never filed, they place an order the very next day, and Twitter action is met with a tidal wave of derision. But we occasionally get someone special.

Recently, I was contacted by a pair of guys, who after losing a battle with a restaurant’s management over a refund, decided to try and pull rank with me, claiming they work in their state’s Attorney General’s office. This is hyperbole of a different sort. It says that I am the pawn and they are queens, and that what they do to earn money gives them power over me. What a lot of people forget when entering into a customer service situation is that, for a moment, there is no social rank. I am obligated to do what I can to help you, and to go above an beyond when I can, but one of the liberating parts (well, maybe the only liberating part) of being a pawn is limited liability. My hands are tied by company policy, contracts, and my job description. This is essentially like having bulletproof glass between you and a gun-toting psychopath. If you continue doing your job and following the guidelines set out for you, the scary monster on the other side of the glass can’t hurt you. The instant you engage, though, and come out from behind that glass–madness.

So that’s where we seem to be in the world of customer service now. Everyone’s lawyered-up and looking at each other through that bulletproof glass. We expect to give and receive lies all day long, and that makes us immune to the ones that keep our personal lives running. In real life, at a party or some other social gathering, holding down a real conversation with another person is a monumental feat. You have to accept the lie (assumed or real) that the person you’re chitchatting with is actually interested in what you’re saying, and you have to not let on that when they’re talking, all you’re trying to do is figure out what they want from you and how to give it to them with the least amount of conflict, because that’s what you do for eight hours a day.

Phone Monkey: An Introduction

PhoneMonkeyPNGFar too often, I hear a variation of the complaint, “Whatever happened to good customer service?” To answer that question, we often look at it from the customer’s perspective. Why does the customer service rep seem so rude? Don’t they want my money? Why do I often get less than stellar service? Isn’t the customer always right?

In my new ongoing segment, Phone Monkey, I want to answer these questions and more, but from the perspective of someone who works in the online customer service racket. I’ll be using my own experience and observations, as well as those of others in similar situations.

I’m never going to be specific about the company I work for, and I’m going to change any names to protect the innocent and guilty alike, but here are the basics. I work for an online company with which people place orders online for food, which then gets delivered to their homes or businesses. Our job is to make sure that the orders get where they’re going and to field questions, comments, and complaints from restaurants and customers alike. Often, we serve as mediators during disputes between hungry customers and tired restaurant workers who’ve been on their feet for eighteen hours. Sometimes we screw with drunks.

If you’ve seen the movie Clerks, you may expect that I secretly wanted to title this “Why Customers Suck” and then give a rundown of all the nuttiest, over-entitled, nit-picky jerk-bags I’ve had the misfortune of handling. There’s definitely part of me that aches to do that, but the truth of the job is much more mundane than a running verbal battle with psychopaths and fiends–though that is part of the job.

Sadly, not part of the job.

It’s easy to get negative in this job. Much like writing or performing, you can get a hundred people telling you that you’re doing well, but one overly negative, creepy, or opportunistic person can send you to the bottle. The goal I’m setting for myself here is to be as fair as I can and show the truth of the job as I see it. So, being fair to you, I’m going to tell you now that I don’t in any way intend to be objective, because I don’t particularly think that it’s possible to write objectively about a thing while still elbow-deep in it.

Think about that metaphor. And now think about pizza. Still hungry?