Accommodating the Limitations of Age
An Old Lady’s Fine New Car

The Excruciating Torment of Customer Abuse

Crabby Old Lady’s week began with a major computer malfunction. The tinkering involved in fixing it stole an entire day from her life but as events of the following days were to prove, that was a mere tickle in the afflictions of life compared to the excruciating torment customer service representatives routinely administer.

You were expecting the regular Sunday edition of the Silver Threads column today. Due to the robotic Neanderthals who are paid real salaries to torture customers, Crabby had no time this week to surf her sources, read blogs or even follow the links in her Google Alerts.

Therefore, you hereby have her permission to leave now. What follows will be lengthy diatribe (Crabby needs to get this off her chest) filled with spleen, acrimony, rancor and venom aimed at a variety of big-time service providers who deserve eternal damnation.

The goal, which appeared simple enough in the beginning, was to rearrange Crabby Old Lady’s communications services to ensure a smooth transition from New York City to Maine next month and in doing so, effect some changes Crabby had been planning even without a move. She made a list:

  • Switch now, before the move, from telephone landline to VOIP from Vonage. It is less expensive, offers more services for the price and on arrival in a new home, needs only to be plugged into the computer to be up and running.
  • Switch Verizon landline telephone number to Vonage.
  • Sign new cell phone contract and get new free phone as the battery of Crabby’s antique cell, in use for four years, dies after ten minutes of talking.
  • Arrange pick up for a specific day of Time-Warner television cable box and internet cable modem.

Now Crabby Old Lady will be the first to admit that we are all a tad over-communicated, but it is how we live now. These services are as essential to our lives as the Pony Express was in the days of the old West, and they don’t come cheap. Crabby is not being unreasonable in expecting efficient, knowledgeable service, but it is non-existent.

Over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Crabby estimates that she spent about 15 hours with a telephone attached to her ear. It started with Vonage at whose website, she had been informed, her landline number could be transferred. That was the first piece of misinformation although it took three customer service representatives (hereafter referred to as CSRs) and, eventually, a supervisor, to determine that for certain.

The supervisor was actually smart, amusing and helpful in finding a new number with a Maine Area Code that met Crabby’s needs, and because she had been put through more than an hour of conflicting information delivered in stolid officiousness from the three previous CSR cretins reading from a script, he eliminated the activation charge on Crabby’s account. All seemed well but, alas, it was not.

Several more lengthy, unpleasant telephone conversations with more CSRs who didn't, wouldn't or couldn't understand have left Crabby, three days later, without the telephone number that was selected, so there will be more CSR agony tomorrow.

One of the enraging situations with CSRs in general is their mindless adherence to a script and inability to hear what the customer is saying which, in its latest version, went something like this:

CRABBY OLD LADY: When will my new number be activated?

CSR: You telephone number will be transferred on Friday.

COL: (Mildly concerned). No, no. I am not transferring a number, I am activating a new number.

CSR: You can’t select a new number. Your number will be transferred on Friday.

COL: (More concerned) I did select a new number and just want to know when it will be activated.

CSR: You can’t select a new number. Your number will be transferred on Friday.

COL: (Alarmed) No. I selected a new number. Please tell me when it will be activated.

CSR: You can’t select a new number. Your number will be transferred on Friday.

That continued with some minor variations for awhile until Crabby hung up and sure enough, her new phone number, scheduled to be activated Friday evening, was not done and she woke Saturday morning to a phone with no dial tone. More CSR telephone calls got her a dial tone and she can call out, but the wrong phone number is attached to the line. Crabby is saving that fight for Monday.

Crabby desperately wanted to keep the landline number she has had since 1975, and that became possible if she transferred it to her cell phone. Since Verizon reception is excellent in Portland, Maine, she will make greater use of her cell phone there than she has in New York and this was a good opportunity to take advantage of the free phone that comes with signing a new contract.

But it took two-and-a-half hours of a non-functional online form together with too many uninformative telephone conversations to find out, in her final call with customer service, that Crabby cannot order her new phone online (and it’s not free if ordered on the telephone) until the final bill on her landline is sent which would not occur for another three weeks. Unacceptable! Crabby needs a functional telephone for her next trip to Maine.

With an ear so sore it was about to fall off, Crabby was willing to pay for the damned phone and fight it out with the company later. So she hied herself to a Verizon store where it took more than hour to make the purchase because the sales woman didn't understand the computer system and then, THEN, they wanted $10.00 more to transfer her contact list from her old phone. Crabby was so angry, she’ll program the numbers herself while she watches television over the next few evenings.

Having written this, Crabby feels better now and won’t exhaust you further with the television and cable modem problems, but she has some suggestions for all customer service management everywhere:

1. Get rid of the [expletive deleted] mindless scripts and train CSRs to hear what customers are saying.

2. Never, ever allow a CSR to say, “I think that’s how it works.” It makes customers nervous (rightly so) and they can’t make decisions without definitive information.

3. Teach CSRs the following words: “I don’t know the answer to that. I will transfer you to someone who knows.” Crabby will crawl through the telephone and strangle the next CSR who pretends to know the answer and screws up the entire transaction.

4. When a customer has already spent 20 or 30 minutes first on hold and then another 20 minutes explaining the issue, don’t make her wait on hold for another 20 minutes for the next idiot to whom she must reprise the issue and who won’t be able to answer her question. Keep a reserve of more informed CSRs who take the transferred calls without requiring another wait.

5. Eliminate from the vocabulary of the CSRs, “We apologize.” Apologies don’t cut it and they don’t fix the problem. Each one of the 20 to 25 CSRs Crabby has spoken with in the past three days apologized but didn’t understand the issue.

6. If you insist on outsourcing customer service to other countries, hire CSRs who do not have heavy accents. Having to ask a CSR to repeat what they’ve said is waste of time, is embarrassing to the customer and leads to misunderstandings, frustration and wrong orders.

7. Get rid of those endless marketing greetings each CSR begins with: “Welcome to XYZ Company, the best communications provider on earth here to serve you with all your needs unto the grave at exorbitant prices and lousy customer service. My name is Melody. How may I help you today?” How about just: “XYZ Company customer service.” Profits go to the swift and you’re wasting everyone’s time.

There needs to be a new designation for the frustration of not being able to accomplish what companies promise on their websites, in their television commercials and what we pay a lot of money for. What that designation is - without question, after suffering years of it - is abuse: customer abuse. For every ten customer service calls Crabby Old Lady makes, she is abused in nine of them. And don’t tell Crabby she is overstating.

The abuse is so habitual that there is not one of us who cannot recount dozens of abusive customer service situations.

The torment of that abuse is bad enough. But in the end, when she is calm again, what dispirits Crabby Old Lady is the theft of her time. The only thing of real value we humans own is our time and it is our very lives - especially when you are as old as Crabby - that are taken from us when hours are wasted due to bad customer service management and general incompetence.


I hope you feel better now; I know I do, knowing we're all in CSR hell together.
One more thought. To whatever extent (and I didn't read closely) your problems were with Vonage, their reputation for service is UNIQUELY BAD, especially their out-sourced CSR company. Lately I bought their service and before discontinuing my regular Verizon service I read so much horrifying customer feedback on line about Vonage that I decided to keep it for long distance only and dump it after a year (no refund is available within the first year, something they're absolutely deceptive about, another big complaint.) Bottom line for me is the savings aren't worth major aggravation - not to mention losing service when the power goes out after every thunderstorm or blizzard.

I feel your pain!! How well I understand. I can't even discuss how frustrated I have felt dealing with these idiot CRS people because if I got started, I would get all worked up again.

I'm so sorry, that's AWFUL. I would also add another term to go with Vonage based on your description of the number-transfer issue: "Deceptive advertising" aka LYING. You might want to rethink getting srevice through them. Could Skype or some other service like it serve your land-line needs instead?

First, let me say that I read Time Goes By every day. For me, it is simply the best. On this topic you have definitely activated my outrage receptors. The mere mention of this so-called customer service sets me on edge, and telecom companies seem to be the worst offenders. Hang in there, and start writing the letters you must send when this nightmare is over. Make a lot of noise!

I am forever commenting to my husband, "And he/she is getting paid for that!" ( bad service ) Amazing that we all have to put up with it. Wonder what it would be like in a state-run country? Probably as bad but without the lying.

Whew!! To think I thought the central problem you were experiencing had to do with your insurance, and now this.

You are correct on every count. Unfortunately, your description of all too many CSRs mirrors those with whom I've had to interact. I have concluded these people receive little or no prior training, or are trained by people who don't understand either.

Instead, I think they must be expected to learn almost solely through interaction with customers. This is what I characterize as "flying by the seat of your pants," probably something most of us have had to do in a job at one time or another, but hardly an approach designed for CSRs.

As tech savvy as you are, just imagine what some of us (me) with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, much less those knowing even less than I do, go through struggling to use the tech language in the first place in order to explain the problem, whether it's cell phone issues, or other.

Wish I could offer a quick fast and clean, even dirty would do in this situation, solution to resolve your problems. The most I can offer is commiseration and a whole bunch of cliches' which I suspect would merely cause you to hurl something across the room if you read them. For your cat's sake, I simply say, "Good luck!"

Shame, shame, shame...another lip-biting, eye-twitching, stress-inducing customer service experience recorded for posterity. It's hard to believe they could get any worse; but they do. This ranks way up there Ronni, along with the Dell customer service fiasco that Jory has written about on several occasions. I don't know how you kept it together. I know spouting off gets you; but I think it might be worth it from time to time. I'm sorry that you...or anyone would have to endure dealing with such inept people. When, in the rare case, you DO get a CSR that actually is helpful and knows what they're doing, you almost feel the urge to ask for their name and address to send them a thank you card.

I hope Crabby remembers that "Management Owns The System."

HI friend! I so enjoyed being with you on Friday. I went looking for a blog that deals solely with customer service hell and couldn't find one.

This wouldn't help you, but might help other readers: a table of how to get an actual human when you are in phone tree limbo:

Painful personal experiences with "customer service" are legion. One problem of contemporary society is that we are lied to with such frequency that we really accept untruth as a normal part of 'customer relations.' The moment we hear a recording on the phone telling us, "to better serve you," or "for your convenience," we all know it's a lie. The real reason for the wholesale flight from real people on the other end of the line to providing automated telephone menus is always to reduce the company's 'bottom line.'
And of course, there are the scripted responses you are describing, Ronni. I recall that a few years ago I received a call from one of Verizon's many predecessors, a real person saying, "This is a follow-up call regarding a call you placed to report a problem. Was the Customer Service Rep courteous?" 'Yes.'
"Was she prompt?" 'Yes.'
"Was she friendly?" 'Yes, but she wasn't effective.'
"What?" 'She didn't solve my problem or direct me to someone who could.'
This was too much for the 'Follow-Up' person. Effectiveness wasn't an issue. She could only go back again to her script. "But was she courteous? . . ."

Crabby, Customer service is just as incompetent over here in France! I just experienced it last week, trying to get my 89 year old uncle's phoneline to work

Your comments on the inefficiency of CSRs had me falling off my chair in laughter while, at the same time, remembering similar experiences when I moved from Arizona to Oregon. Whether it's because I'm too old to be savvy about all the vagaries of cellphones or whether I just didn't have my brained turned on at the time, it never occurred to me (until I got my cellphone bill) that the TIME one spends on a cellphone with people on a toll-free call is still charged as usage against total minutes allowed. And, because most of the places I was talking to had "normal" business hours, I was using up prime-time minutes at a fast clip. When I discovered how much those minutes ended up costing me, I was highly indignant, to be sure!!

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