Sunday, August 24, 2008

How Not To Do Customer Service

Once upon a time, a cable TV installer arrived at my house. He didn’t know which services I ordered, but he knew he was there to install something. As first steps go, this one was not a confidence-builder.

I told him which services I ordered. As he was doing the install, I noticed he was providing the wrong set top box for our service. When I asked him about this, he was surprised I knew the difference and said that he “just ran out” of the correct boxes, but this one would work.

I pointed out that it wouldn’t work as well. I asked him to get the correct box and come back. He said he couldn’t do that; I needed to make another appointment.

I asked him why that was my problem to solve, considering it was he who did not have the correct equipment. He didn’t have an answer, but he suggested the fastest solution was for me to take the wrong box and swap it at the local cable store, nearby on Bloomfield Ave. He said this in a knowing tone, as if I’d eventually end up there anyway.

Later, I went to the cable company’s Web site but couldn’t find a store locator to get the store’s exact address. I ended up finding the store locator by Googling the cable company’s name and “store locator.” Sure enough, it was on the company’s Web site, but there was no obvious way to get to it.

I put in my zip code. The only store that came up was a Best Buy somewhere in West Hartford—literally “somewhere” because there was no address or phone number provided. Perhaps the store locator was hard to find because it was not meant to be used.

So I moved on to the cable company’s “live chat” feature. Having started a session, the screen said, “Status: You are waiting for an analyst to assist you.”

While waiting for the chat feature to do something, I called the cable company’s support number. It told me they were experiencing higher than normal call volumes. “If your call is not of an urgent nature, please call back later.” I rechecked the chat change.

While waiting, I searched Google for the cable company’s name plus the name of towns in the immediate vicinity. It provided a listing, not on Bloomfield Ave. I called the number. No one answered, and the voicemail box was full.

I had left the support number on speakerphone, and it eventually got me a person who gave me the address of the cable-company store where I could exchange my box. It was neither on Bloomfield Ave., nor at Best Buy, nor at the office where the voicemail was full.

Having gotten an answer on the phone, I bailed out of the chat feature, which was 25 minutes into waiting for an analyst. In doing so, I got a customer-satisfaction survey for my Web visit. Eager to express an opinion or two, I was disappointed to find that most of the questions were irrelevant to my visit. For example, the first question was, “Please rate the ability to limit sharing of your personal information on this site.” There were multiple screens, largely filled with such irrelevant questions. I skipped the whole thing.

Later, I went to the store. I waited a while. When my number was called, I found that the store itself “just ran out” of the correct boxes. I expressed frustration that my time was being wasted. I asked whether I had done something wrong in the process. No, said the person, but perhaps my expectations could have been set better.

Let us examine and extend that insight.

Maybe the cable guy could have said, “Hey, I’m sorry, but I just realized I don’t know what you ordered or if I have the right equipment. Let me get your order now, and if I’m not set to do this right, I’ll schedule myself to come back first thing tomorrow with the right gear.”

Or, lacking that, the cable guy could have said, “I’m sorry it’s a hassle, but your best bet is to swap this box at the local cable store. I think it’s on Bloomfield Ave., but let me call them to make sure they have the box you need and to get the exact address.”

Or, lacking that, the cable company’s Web site might have had a findable and functioning store locator.

Or, lacking that, the cable company’s chat feature and support line might have had one of those messages that estimates how long until a person would be available.

Or, lacking that, the person I eventually reached might have suggested that I call the store to make sure they had the box I needed because sometimes the boxes are out of stock. (Actually, this would not work because the store apparently does not have a public phone number. Rather, the only number given was the cable company’s general support number.)

The irony is, if one of the first few scenarios above would have happened, I probably would have said the overall experience was good, because I would have appreciated someone’s taking the initiative to fix a problem. But with failure at every turn, it’s harder to be understanding. And irony upon irony, the company’s one attempt to solicit my feedback (the customer-satisfaction survey on the Web site) was so poorly executed that it wasn’t worth using.

Having read this far, you might be wondering if I ever got the right box.

While at the cable store, I asked whether they had a waiting list or some other way to notify me when the correct box was available. Looking as if he was taking pity on me, the guy asked for my name and number. He wrote it on the back of a piece of scrap paper. He also offered that I could set up another appointment and maybe the correct box would be on that truck. “Maybe?” I asked. “Why would the truck come if the box wasn’t on the truck?”

That was like asking why things fall down, not up. It just works that way.

A day later, I happened to be driving near the cable store. Having zero expectation of success, I went in anyway, skipped the line, and asked someone if the correct type of boxes were available. The person said yes. I took a number. I got the box. Everyone lived happily ever after—the key word being “after.”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Enlightening about Lightning

In Connecticut today, we had three separate waves of thunderstorms, the last of which is still going. Earlier I was near enough to a lightning strike that the thunder had no rumble; it was a bomb-like detonation, right after the flash.

Having recently moved from San Francisco, where thunderstorms are rare, the summer thunderstorms in New England are still novel for me. According to statistics from the National Lightning Detection Network, Connecticut has between five and six times the lightning flashes per square mile as California.

Yet that’s only enough to rank Connecticut 36th among U.S. states for cloud-to-ground flash densities. The southeast dominates the top five, with Florida leading by a substantial margin. (Florida has seven times Connecticut’s lightening flashes per square mile. It also leads the nation in lightning deaths.)

Having addressed where you’re likely to see lightning, we might as well also cover the following:

People ask, “Who is most likely to be struck by lightning?” Something stirs in the mind about metal objects, and you might guess golfers, out there on the open fairways with four-irons raised to the sky, or fisherman clutching their metal rods. But you might not think of farmers, perched on their tractors and insulated by rubber tires, and, in fact, farmers it is. Where we need protection is overhead, not on the ground. Closed vehicles act as Faraday cages — named after Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century British physicist and chemist, who specialized in electromagnetism — and are a good choice for cover, because the metal that encases them channels the charge into the ground. As it descends to earth, lightning current is drawn to isolated objects, anything taller than others in its field. This might be a lone tree, a skyscraper, a mound of granite in a riverbed, or you in your small craft on open water. Farmers are vulnerable because of where they are when they’re out in their fields — the tallest object in an open space, plowing or haying as the summer day heats up.

The quote is from a fine essay by Jill Frayne in the Canadian magazine The Walrus. In addition to enlightening us about the science of lightning, she narrates a few close encounters: “The strike shot through the radio antenna, exploded in the living room into a blue fireball that roared down the hall, lifting up the linoleum runner by the tacks, ripping the nails out of the floor, splintering the house walls as fine as kindling before it ran off over the bedrock outside and died.”

Here’s the link again. It’s a good read.

And with that, I’ll post this before the power goes out.

[The image is from Wikipedia’s Lightning article.]