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Guest Editorial
Robert Green

Call Me Dissatisfied

Call centers can improve or demolish customer satisfaction.

I recently wrote a small news story for Quality Digest that was based on an American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) study dealing with the use of call centers as tools for improving customer satisfaction. Since that experience, I've been especially conscious of the service I've received from call centers--and it appears as though not everyone read my article.

 Proffered as tree-like structures, call centers are designed to handle incoming calls as efficiently as possible, routing them to the appropriate person quickly while eliminating the need to allocate valuable human resources for that purpose. However, from the outside, they feel more like immense spider webs of overly cordial voices asking you to "please enter a selec-tion," apologizing be-cause they "did not understand your response," and requesting that you call back during times when the company is not "experiencing higher-than-usual call volume."

 I recently had to contact American Express to discuss my charge card, for which I'd had to put a $500 security deposit into an American Express bank account. I had decided to close the account, so I called the 800 number and informed the customer service agent that I wanted to cancel my card. It seemed simple to me; American Express only needed to transfer my $500 in savings at its bank to pay off the $498 balance, and then send me a check for the whopping $2 difference. The person I spoke with assured me it would be just that easy.

 Two weeks later, I received a letter from American Express' collections department informing me that my credit report could be marred if I didn't remit payment immediately. Again I punched all the right buttons and entered all the requested data. When I finally reached another agent, she asked me for my account number and mailing address for verification. I informed her I had just entered the 15-digit number. She responded that that had been for the computer's use; she had no access to any information I'd entered prior to speaking with her. So why enter it?

 Again and again I called. Each time, I had to punch in all the information, then regurgitate the same information when I reached a new agent, for whom I'd also have to recount all of my dealings with the other agents. My frustration built. Eventually, I composed myself and asked to speak to a supervisor, but instead was met with a mysterious dial tone.

 I called back, again entered the necessary data, explained my situation to a new agent and asked to speak directly to a supervisor. Of course, he wasn't at his desk. I was promised that "Mr. Seko" would call me back within 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, I called and asked for Mr. Seko. No such person existed. When I asked to speak with the last agent I'd talked with, I was told that I had to have her extension; her name alone wasn't sufficient to get me transferred to her. Why, then, had she offered it to me?

 My struggle with American Express continues. Although my battle wounds include a bias against credit card companies, call center wariness and a distrust of customer service operators, I did learn from my experience. I've developed my own call center survival guidelines:

  Ask for the operator's name.

  Ask for extension numbers.

  Write everything down, including the dates of previous calls. It's likely you'll have to recreate your past conversations with other agents.

  Don't press any keys. You'll usually be transferred directly to an agent, as are people without touch-tone phones.


 The APQC's study suggests that a link between call center representatives and the company vision must be made. Perhaps that's too optimistic, because it assumes that quality customer service is not a thing of the past. As advances in technology have opened up global markets and increased the customer base, the value of one little customer in the ever-widening pool has plummeted. The adage that "The customer is always right" seems to have been replaced with "The easy customer is always right; the difficult one should be replaced as quickly as possible to avoid expending valuable resources on just one account."

 The shame is that companies with call centers have a tool that can greatly improve customer satisfaction--if only they'd use their power for good. A mainstay of call center recordings, aside from the elevator music, is the phrase "This call may be monitored to ensure quality." My experiences have led me to believe that anything short of the operator threatening my life must be acceptable. Calls should be monitored not only to ensure that accurate information is being given, but also that the manner in which it is given adheres to the company's customer service philosophies. For companies that have no storefronts (like American Express), call center agents create our entire image of the company. As technology has widened the market, it has also brought increased competition. Call centers can and should be used to set a company above the rest, especially in service industries without tangible products to compare--for them, what else is there besides customer satisfaction?

 For more information on call centers and customer satisfaction, visit the APQC at . To research poor customer service, dial an 800 number at random--chances are probably good you'll find what you're looking for. To express your frustration, mail a copy of this editorial and the piece from July's News Digest section along with your next credit card payment.

About the author

 Robert Green is Quality Digest's assistant editor.

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