Blog: Steve Pierce

Ypsilanti resident Steve Pierce was launching Internet service companies before anyone ever heard the word website (since 1987). In January of this year, he and his partner Brian Robb launched Wireless Ypsi . Since then they've helped several Michigan communities deploy similar networks. Steve will be writing about bringing free wireless to the masses, living in Ypsilanti and his ideas for Michigan's future.

Does Your Customer Service Suck?

Several years ago I was in a meeting with an executive from a large computer company trying to resolve problems with a soon to be released software product. My job was final testing of the software and training their support staff. The release was not going well. In fact, it stunk.

The software was way behind schedule. Hardware that was supposed to be available wasn't and early adopters were up in arms threatening to withdraw contracts if we didn't get things fixed and fast.

I kept trying to explain to the head of tech support his staff wasn't ready. He kept saying he was and said it was my fault the software was late. That part was true, we were late. I wasn't helping things; every time we ran through our test suite, we kept finding bugs. Yet, I knew we would soon be ready with the software, and I also knew if we had crappy support, no matter how much better this new version, customers would revolt.

I was getting nowhere with the manager and was finally brought into the CEO's office for some talking to about my attitude and lack of team playing. Furious, I sat there as they ripped into me. After a while, realizing I wasn't saying anything, the CEO turned to me and asked me if I had anything to say.

I reached over to the conference phone on the table and called the 800 number for tech support for his company. The call was immediately put on hold. Two minutes passed; five minutes; then eight minutes. The tech support manager sat there glaring at me. At 10 minutes, the CEO said, "Alright enough, I get it."

I would love to say the company saw the light and fixed their problems. They didn't. They were bought out several years later by another large company that spectacularly went into bankruptcy this past year. Was their tech support problem part of the problem? Yeah, it was. They knew their support sucked, but never could figure out how to get it fixed.

What too many companies fail to understand is what happens when a customer calls for help.
Comcast, a company most people love to hate, has one of the worst phone systems in the world. As a business customer with multiple accounts, I dread having to call them because I know it is going to suck.

One of the problems is having to enter your 16-digit account code. Get it wrong, and you start all over. Then you have to enter it time and time again as your call gets routed without ever talking to a human.

One well known secret to calling tech support is to not enter any account numbers or phone number when you call. That way your call isn't ‘directed' by the interactive voice response system, or IVR. Instead you get to a human, describe the problem, and they transfer your call to the right department.

Comcast doesn't work this way. If you don't enter in a number, you are stuck in an endless loop. The system will never hang up, nor will it transfer the call to a human. However, while I work in the 734 area code in Michigan, when I need to call about one of my accounts in another state, the IVR just pukes. The computer looks at my area code and determines the call is coming from Michigan but I am calling about an account in New Mexico; therefore, that account can't be right. The IVR doesn't transfer me to Michigan or New Mexico; it transfers me to their New England call center which can't look up my account info. They then transfer me back to Michigan and the first thing it asks is, please enter your 16 digit account number.


Worse, after 5pm, my business call is not transferred to New England; it is transferred to residential tech support. They can't help either.

What I wouldn't give for just five minutes to show the head of Comcast tech support their IVR sucks.

Yet Comcast residential service has a very cool service, one where the IVR will call you back while still keeping your place in line. The process is simple. Instead of leaving you on hold for minutes or hours, the IVR system will record your name and number and then when your place in line is nearing the front, the IVR will call you back and after a minute or two, you are talking to a live person.  Problem is this system isn't used for business customers because too many business customers have an internal phone system with extension numbers and the IVR has no way to direct dial extensions.

We all have these sorts of stories about other companies and bad support. From Sears to Bank of America, we can all tell you horror stories of calls left on hold for hours. My favorite is when the office is about to close and you are still on hold. You know the office has closed when suddenly your call is automatically disconnected.

Call back and the after-hours prompt says the office is closed, please call during regular business hours. I did call during business hours, your stupid #^)#%^)@ hung up on me. Grrrr.

OK, so we know other companies' support center sucks, but wait, have you ever called your own company's service department or help desk? If you haven't, reach over and call right now. I will wait for you. OK I am waiting … more waiting … still waiting …

OK, good, now you are back. While you are on hold, I will finish the story. Comcast's problem could be fixed if someone from their company would simply test their own phone system to see the hell their customers go through to reach a support technician.

The solution is simple: it is called Secret Shopping. You need to secret shop your own company. And not just once; it needs to be a regular part of your business. Executives and managers should regularly call into their customer service center or help desk. If you need an account number to get service, have them set up an account for you and fire anyone that flags the account for special treatment.

I am convinced if the CEO of Verizon had to call into tech support instead of handing his phone to his assistant and saying, "Here, fix this." Verizon tech support wouldn't suck.

Oh, by the way, this goes for internal help or services desks inside your company as well. You need to find out what happens when your own employees call for help. And don't call them from your office phone, they know your extension number. Call them from the front desk, the bullpen, and see how your employees are treated by your own support staff. You will be shocked.

We see some of this in the TV show, Undercover Boss, where the CEO of the company goes undercover in their own company, usually in a disguise. While fun to watch, you would think some junior guy just starting out probably doesn't rate a full-blown TV crew following them around. If you are one of the other employees, you have to sort of wonder if something is up. But the concept is good. If your company is in the burger business, taking off your tie and flipping some burgers is probably a very good idea. Tom Peters used to call this Management by Wandering Around, though some claim Abe Lincoln did this by informally inspecting the troops during the Civil War.

I think aimlessly wondering around is like a blind pig looking for a truffle. The pig might find a truffle, but he could just as easily starve. Wandering around looking for problems is probably not a good use of your time. However, I do agree that simply wandering around is a good way to better see your business in action. But unless you want to see what happens when your customers are wandering around looking for help, this approach isn't the best.

Costco uses a different approach. The managers come in and do a thorough walk around the entire store, with department managers in tow. It is a grueling couple of hours and it is tough on managers and staff that aren't prepared. I have been in enough Costcos over the years that whenever I see one of the hives making the tour, I go up and ask a question.  Like, "How come you stopped carrying Doritos?" or "The O.J. used to be in aisle 12, but now I can't find it." And then I wander off looking lost.

So how is that call going? Are you still on hold? You are? OK, I will keep going.

Companies will also hire secret shoppers to routinely check up on the company and provide continual feedback. But you have to watch out. Employees will oftentimes figure out who the secret shoppers are. I have been in places where in the back room, they will post up a list of names or descriptions or patterns used by secret shoppers. I have even seen managers pay employees for spotting the secret shopper.

People are people. If you measure teachers' performance by the scores of their students, don't be too surprised that teachers will teach for the test. Employees will figure out a way to game the system.

Your job is to make sure employees and managers understand that instead of trying to game the system, the goal is to provide good customer service. Reward employees that excel at customer service, punish or retrain those that don't.

The first step to providing better customer service is answering the phone. If the IVR is the barrier between you and the customers, get rid of the IVR or make sure that it is programmed to handle all sorts of input so it doesn't loop the customer through phone help.

Now back to your call. Are you still on hold? If you are or have had to enter your 16 digit account number three times only to be asked by the support representative for your account number, well now you know you have some work to do. At least you know what your customers are going through and when you fix it, your customers will thank you.