phone monkey

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…


I’m So Tense

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve been tempted over the last few weeks to post about the horrible things customers do and say. I’ve also wanted to air out grievances regarding terrible and (borderline) criminal management practices, and the terrible toll that customer service takes on one’s physical and mental health. In short, I want to whine. But why whine when there are so many beautiful things out there, just waiting for someone to notice?

Take, for example, the following line from an email I received today:

“It always has been happened.”

Whaaaaa? you say. Or perhaps I’m being an ass for making fun of someone’s ESL issues. Oh, here goes the jaded know-it-all, right? Perish the thought! As a verb tense, this is a thing of beauty, so let’s cut it open and see how it ticks.

It happened. Once. At some point in time, possibly never again.

It always happened. Routine instances. Points on a line, most often in conjunction with another event. Here. Here. Here. Here and here and here. Up until now, at which point, for narrative reference, it may be happening.

It has happened. At least once, though possible more than once. It may also be “it happened” with “has” as an emphasis, though this would be less formal, more colloquial.

It has been happening. From some point in the past up until and including the present moment. Sometimes incidental, sometimes continual. Typically, set in motion by an outside actor.

It is. Exists now. It was. Before now. It has been. Before–could be again–might even still be.

It has been happening. Continually, from some past point through the present moment.

It has been happened. Before. Passive voice. The connotation is that an outside, unnamed force made the past event or identical events happen.

It always has been happened. In conjunction with other events in the past, the above outside force made it happen over and over again, the most recent instance terminating just before the present moment. Probably, it will have happened again in the near future.

Additionally, it is a permanent affixing of the past tense on a moveable event. The event will never happen. In fact, it never seems to happen. It has always been and will always be finished before it begins. Time, in most other tenses, is the reason for the tense’s existence. We unravel time into a string, and place on its length an object or objectified chunk of time. In this tense, we drop objects like marbles into the malleable mass of jelly that is time. They may move with the internal currents to new locations in time, but inside they always have been what they were.

Hey, at least it is not always having been happening. Unless it’s Groundhog Day.


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


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?


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?



It’s okay.

So yes, then, or no?

That’s okay.



Okay. Will that be all?

Yes, thank you.



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.”


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


“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: Tumbling

For lack of inspiration today, I’m drawing from the Daily Post’s prompt from a few days ago: Verbal Ticks.

PhoneMonkeyPNGI have a lot of verbal ticks for someone who speaks to people on the phone for money. I’m sure that there are professionals who offer weekend classes that promise to get rid of your bad habits and make you an aurally desirable person, but there’s some sick part of me that must enjoy inflicting my monotone drone and weird pauses upon an unsuspecting populace.

I speak a lot like I write. As of this sentence, I’m tick-tick-ticking along on my keyboard, making a serious go of not trying to find the right word and just get the message out. But before this particular sentence began, I paused, trying to find the right thing to say after such a good run. The same thing happens in real life. Here’s a sample of what talking to me might be like:

Hi, this is Phone Monkey how can I help you?

Ok. Uhh… [one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand] I see what you’re [one one-thousand] talking about. So you ordered a pepperoni and bacon pizza, but you’re a, uh, vegetarian?

I see. No, umm… I understand. [one one-thousand] Mistakes happen. Let’s, uh, fix that for you.

Oh, man, that is so me! It’s like I was channeling me right there! Crazy! I had one restaurant owner call me an “uh, uh, uh, stuttering dumbass,” but I, in turn, thought that he was a mean cocksucker, so karmically I think it all evened out. I probably could work on having more inflection in my voice. Think of the following two examples.

“Will you marry me.”

“Will you marry me?”

One of them sounds like a joyous inquiry, the other like an admission that one has gonorrhea. Can you guess which one was me (inflection added)?!

I’m great with the black-and-white, or so I’m told, but not so good with the la-la-la. (I was wiggling my tongue in my mouth and trying to figure out a good idiom for spoken words.) I’m hardly complaining, though. There’s a weird kind of thing–I’m not sure I’d call it satisfaction–that happens when you resign yourself to not being very successful when talking to people. They may never understand you or what important message you’re desperately trying to make clear, but you can be sure that you will never be misunderstood in writing. You can be so crystal clear that all your secrets are laid bare between the lines. Or you can be cryptic as hell.

And failing that, after the yelling is done and the all-caps have been joyously converted to Zapf Dingbats, you can always bring your own fantasies to life on the page.

Live the life you were never meant to live.

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: Porn Brain

PhoneMonkeyPNGI recently wrote about the negative neurological effects of exposure to constant complaining and negativity, and one of the comments on that article mentioned that porn could inflict the same damage. Always amused by our human tendency to overdose on everything, I looked into the issue a bit more.

The JAMA study, referenced both in a Time article and an IFL Science post, is actually wildly incomplete, given the titles of these two articles. At least the title of the Medical Xpress article, which cites the study, is more honest with the reader. I understand the temptation to slap a juicy title onto an article that is inconclusive at best, just because sex is involved. Sex, and porn in particular, are taboo topics, and people love taboo, despite their protestations, and page hits mean ad revenue.

But I’m not here to White Knight porn. It’s a drug, and like anything else done explicitly for self gratification, is best done in moderation. The participants in the JAMA study who watched the most porn were also found to have the least grey matter, but that doesn’t mean anything. Correlation is not causation. Brains with less grey matter might be more prone to porn addiction, or any other addiction, for example. Or it could be a crazy coincidence. The sample size was very small and only included men.

But that’s all work for the scientists. The reason I’m writing this as a Phone Monkey article, is because it relates to complaining. Porn–or at least the flavor of porn we choose–depicts the things we can’t or don’t have, and the reward we get is sweet chemical release. Complaining works pretty much the same way: there’s a hole that needs to be filled [insert rimshot here], and a little tension-and-release  later, the consumer’s reward is compensation and maybe a little extra, resulting in the same release of chemicals in the brain.

Another parallel is the dehumanization involved on both sides. As phone monkeys, we’re unknown and invisible to the consumer, but we’re still expected to perform, often unrealistically. On the flip side, customer emails are often terse itemized lists of what was wrong and what needs to be done in order for the customer to achieve service-gasm. But by doing this, they make themselves into just one more visitor, in to get off and get out. Like Johnny Rivers sang, we’re “givin’ you a number, and takin’ ‘way your name.” Porn works the same way. Objects are used for pleasure by people who have come to view themselves as sexual objects. Parts and counterparts of a machine that grinds out orgasms.

There are enough porn-like service situations that, as with constant complaints, you feel yourself getting dumber and more prejudiced with each one. But obviously, not all customer service experiences are like this, nor is all porn. Some remind you of a sweet kiss, while others remind you of the weird sex you had with that person you met at the Phish concert and will never speak of again, but which you secretly pine for on rainy days.
Or it may remind you of that undergraduate philosophy class.

So, while your customer service rep may be suffering from chronic negative thinking and depression, he or she may also be racked with a form of porn brain from the constant tension and release. When I said in a previous post that I was having trouble talking to people at parties without going into a fix-it mode, this is pretty much what I was talking about. When one’s primary human interaction is dehumanized and confrontational, that experience starts to bleed through to one’s personal life, and after a while, even the most pleasant human experience starts to feel muted and robotic.

If we were all in the same physical location, our bosses would probably have us do trust falls and play seven minutes in heaven interoffice volleyball games, but we’re not, so generally we keep to ourselves and occasionally rickroll each other.

Phone Monkey: Bad Brains

PhoneMonkeyPNGHave you ever been on the phone with customer service and found yourself irritated that after every bit of information you give them, you hear a lengthy clickity-click of typing? The information you’re giving them isn’t that hard to remember for the ten seconds they’re going to need it, right?

Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that the brain of the person on the other end of the phone may be as pockmarked and scarred as the surface of Mars, if not physically, then at least mentally. Neuroscientists like Rick Hanson and Robert Sapolsky claim that constant exposure to complaining and negativity is not just psychologically detrimental, but is actually harmful to the brain on a chemical level. But really, this is just science confirming what everyone already knows.

Hanson notes in the article linked above that we are evolutionarily predisposed toward negativity. It’s what makes fight-or-flight responses work correctly, and is what has allowed us to survive as a species for so long. But, like old washing machines, our brains simply can’t handle large loads of dirty laundry. Constructive criticism is one thing, but long hours of listening to complaints and then voicing them to responsible parties overtaxes our brains. According to these neuroscientists, the damage done doesn’t just make us over jumpy, depressed, and overly negative–it affects our memory and attention span. If you take this kind of thing and crank it up to 11, putting the body in physical danger, you get the kind of damage that results in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a complaint department, not exposed to explosions, war or sexual abuse, we mostly field tiny issues that require minor fixes, but we also deal with shockingly cruel and lewd language and behavior. This is why you will hear us typing, seemingly for ages, as you talk to us. We’re writing everything down, not just so we remember everything, but so we can get it right the first time avoid further negativity.

That leads me toward the fix-it stage. One of the small blessings of customer service is that all of that unpleasantness is channeled into a constructive process. It’s not (always) customers complaining just to complain. But that only helps so much. Self-help writer Trevor Blake’s book Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life not only identifies the damage caused by constant complaining, but proposes ways to mitigate the damage and alleviate the symptoms of it. Obviously, one of the suggestions, asking the complainer to fix the problem, is dicey. The majority of problems we deal with could be resolved between the customer and the offending restaurant without our intervention–and more efficiently,too–but many people choose to take the path of most resistance. Telling them to deal with the problem on their own is generally cause for more and more intense negativity, so we just handle it to make it go away.

One of the other fixes for constant negativity is to raise your shields. As I mentioned in a previous post, most of us already do this. And it works, but not without a cost, because what ends up happening is we look at the customer as a problem to be solved so we can move on to the next one. As full of anger and all-caps as you are, you have ceased to become a person with actual feelings. It also makes us feel a bit numbed and robotic, and our personal and romantic lives can suffer as a result. Many of us (and every phone monkey at my place of work) have other, highly creative interests outside of work, which help combat this. In my group of phone monkeys, there are a few writers, a DIY enthusiast, musicians, festival organizers, and photographers. During the slow periods, we work on our blogs, edit photos, tune mandolins and ukuleles, listen to podcasts and watch movies, among other things, because it engages other parts of our brains and takes energy away from the onslaught of negativity.

But every once in a while, we still might forget your name and call you Mom. Just roll with it.

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: Anachronism

The  Internet is a great place, and, despite my gripes about people losing their sense of empathy and becoming awful monsters, has made a lot of things easier. One might ask why our business even exists. We don’t make food, nor do we actually deliver it–we employ no drivers, and only about half of our workforce lives in a place where it’s necessary to have a car. So how do we make any money? Convenience, pure and simple. Rather than have you, the customer, call a restaurant where spoken English may be at a minimum, we do that for you. It’s essentially the same thing as going to a foreign country and pointing at a piece of  food or a pictorial menu. Your order is then sent in text format to the restaurant, reducing the chances of error to almost zero. Really: almost zero. If we average ten orders per minute over the course of twenty hours, that’s 12,000 orders per day. And honestly, that seems low; I just wanted the math to be easy. If we get 50 legitimate complaints, that’s a recorded error rate well under one percent.

So how do we get the orders out? This gets back to what I was saying about the Internet being a great place–or rather that I called it a place. The known web (as opposed to the deep web and other areas, labeled “Here There Be Dragons”) is, in the minds of many a place. There are forums and bookstores and what amount to dens of iniquity. Just like the real world, only the dens of iniquity are much easier to find online. Because it’s convenient! So be honest: when was the last time you thought of that forum or bookstore or den of iniquity as just a box of wires in an air-conditioned building somewhere? If you always do, congratulations, you adorable dweeb you! Also, I’m going to bury the lead a little more, so get out your shovel.

Some time ago, I can’t remember in which article or in which magazine, I read a single sentence about video games and science fiction that forever changed my perception of the genre. It was basically that science fiction works best when it is inherently anachronistic. Most of the best science fiction books, movies and games always leave bits of the past in the future. Sometimes leaving an evolutionary trail of old and obsolete tech is just for atmosphere, but mostly it’s so stuff makes sense, and occasionally it’s there so the characters have to struggle. In the real world, it’s definitely the latter.

The fax machine is a one-hundred-year-old piece of technology. Theoretically, they are great. You put one document in one end, and it shoots out the other, thousands of miles away, moments later. But even in the best of circumstances, they are still kind of a joke. That transmission technology still relies on physical, meat-space objects to interact correctly. Paper jams and ink leaks are the bane of the fax. Still, that’s easy enough to mitigate if you eliminate the physicality on one end. You can just digitize a PDF and shoot it out through a fax line, which is easy enough to automate. Then all you have to worry about is the machines on the restaurants’ end, which shouldn’t be a problem because the restaurants rely on them for orders. Their staff would always keep such devices clean and well-stocked with ink and paper, and would never think of kicking them, burning them, ripping them from the wall in anger, or dropping hot pizza grease into their sensitive innards. They’re professionals.