Today on his popular blog, Boing Boing, science-fiction author Cory Doctorow published an abysmal experience he had yesterday with United Airlines on the final leg of his U.S. book tour. I’m not going to repeat his account, but it is sadly typical of the experiences many of us have with big-company customer service.

In a nutshell, United Airlines screwed up and the customer service representative dealing with the problem refused to do the right thing for the customer. I’ve had similar experiences time and time again, and it is the primary reason that I am constantly searching for providers of all kinds who will treat me better than the communications company, bank, technology provider, regulated utility, retailer, or government agency I am currently stuck with.

Usually when I get mistreated by a big company I don’t blame the customer service rep who refused to help. I assume that that person is stuck with the rules, training, supervision, and other constraints imposed on them by their company. I try to avoid blaming the rep, but I always encourage the person to pass along to his or her masters the reason for my dissatisfaction with their company. Most big companies have people who sit around a table and discuss why their customers leave them, and I always have hopes that if enough feedback filters up from the front line, it might make a difference in the way the company treats its customers.

In short, my message to big companies is: Empower your front-line people to do the right thing for your customer.

ARB — 2 March 2013

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

The Times-Reporter of new Philadelphia, Ohio, reports that police searching for a potential suicide victim were thwarted by a Verizon Wireless operator who refused to turn on the customer’s cell phone so the p0lice could use a nearby cell tower to locate the victim.

The man was behind on his bill, the rep informed police, and the police would have to make a payment on the bill or the signal would not be connected. (See “Unconscious Carroll man found after 11-hour search,” by Nancy Schaar)

This kind of intransigence makes me think that Verizon Wireless has been unsuccessful at implementing a key practice in good customer relations: Empower your people to do the right thing for the customer.

Perhaps my experience with Verizon Wireless is not typical, but twice in the last ten years I have had to write letters to company executives and lodge complaints with the state consumer protection agency simply to get Verizon Wireless to do the right thing for me as the customer. In both cases, I was in the right but customer service reps and even supervisors were evidently trained and incentivized to stonewall. (One of these incidents occurred when the company was still called Bell Atlantic.)

The Times-Reporter article describes the interaction between Sheriff Dale Williams and the Verizon Wireless operator:

Williams said he attempted to use the man’s cell phone signal to locate him, but the man was behind on his phone bill and the Verizon operator refused to connect the signal unless the sheriff’s department agreed to pay the overdue bill. After some disagreement, Williams agreed to pay $20 on the phone bill in order to find the man. But deputies discovered the man just as Williams was preparing to make arrangements for the payment….

“I was more concerned for the person’s life,” Williams said. “It would have been nice if Verizon would have turned on his phone for five or 10 minutes, just long enough to try and find the guy. But they would only turn it on if we agreed to pay $20 of the unpaid bill. Ridiculous.”

AB — 23 May 2009