I’ve been working hard to be more courteous when speaking by telephone with customer representatives. As part of that effort, I’ve been reflecting on what drives me to be rude and sarcastic.

One important factor is that I rarely call up some large company for a happy purpose — it’s almost always a problem. Whatever has happened — a billing error, a product failure, a problem with an order — 90 percent of the time, it’s the company’s screw-up.

So, when I have to call customer support, it’s an interruption to my work, and I’m already primed for conflict. The pressure to respond with asperity mounts to the extent that the customer-service experience stinks — having to navigate through phone-menu options none of which apply, having to wait on hold, encountering a representative who can’t help me with the problem or is poorly trained or is not empowered by the company to do the right thing for the customer.

Fortunately, I’m usually able to maintain enough perspective to recognize that the customer representative is usually as much a victim of the company’s abysmal approach to customer experience as I am. Like most of us, the rep is just a poor soul trying to make a living within the limits of the reality they are presented with. Unless the rep is as incompetent or uninterested in the customer as their employer is — in such case, the individual might warrant some castigation.

I often take the opportunity of the interaction to ask the representative to pass along my feedback about what is wrong with their company’s customer relations. Like throwing a stone into the ocean, but who knows, someone might listen.

I would have to say that most of the time my experience with telephone customer service is negative, but normally that doesn’t justify mistreating the human being who is trying to help me.

ARB — 6 April 2012