One of the fringe benefits of my job is that the cost of my monthly bus pass is taken out, pre-tax, from my paycheck. The next month's bus pass usually arrives in the mail sometime between the 24th and 28th of the month. No such bus pass arrived this month. This morning, I called the Fringe Benefits Management Company, who oversees the commuter pass program, and the woman on the phone told me that--for whatever reason--the post office returned the card to them. (Never mind that other mail, especially magazines and bills, have no trouble making it to us.) The address was still valid, we've lived here a year and a half. It would be 30 seconds out of their day to put the bus pass in a new envelope, and, just to be safe, mail it to my work address, right? No, they couldn't do that, because COTA, when the bus pass came back, credited my paycheck. It apparently involved too much hard labor for someone at FBMC to dial my number to tell me that my pass had been returned, and to ask me did I want it mailed to an alternative address?) A few keystrokes on their computer could have rectified that. But no, I have to buy the bus pass myself this month. And if the benefits administrator mailed me a bus pass anyway, COTA is out $22--their problem, not mine. If COTA asked the benefits administrator, "Did you mail it back to us?", all the benefits administrator would have to say is, "Why, yes. You mean you didn't get it?" The FBMC people worked about as hard as the Unknown Soldier to fix this situation.
And it doesn't end there. Steph gave me a Visa gift card, and I decided to do something responsible with it, rather than go on a minor spending spree on Abebooks or Amazon.com. I thought I'd pay my cell bill with it. I logged onto their Website and entered the Visa card number, expiration date, the works. Three times I submitted, three times I got the message that there was a problem submitting this payment. There was a sufficient balance on the card, I typed its number in correctly, I did nothing wrong.
Revol is my cell phone carrier, a small carrier out of Independence, Ohio (a Cleveland suburb), and what makes this glitch so galling is that they expect their customers to pay online or with plastic on the phone. They go so far as to add a $3 surcharge for people who show up at their stores and pay the bills in cash, in person. If they are going to penalize people who pay in cash, and in person, which is actually more convenient for them, their customers should expect nothing less than an online payment system that works the first time every time.
Certainly their phones don't work first time, every time. In Clintonville, the neighborhood I call home, I may or may not get a signal in my own house, depending on what room I am in, or even what corner of what room. They wring their hands about other services not leasing them tower space, yet they don't turn over one spade of dirt to build new towers. I am counting down the days until a Revol phone drops or loses a 911 call in a life-and-death situation. The lawsuit that will result from that would rival what B.P. is going to pay to clean up the spill.
The common denominator with bad customer service seems to be when companies know that you have no alternatives. They have a bully's sixth sense about when you're totally at their mercy and beholden to them. In 1989, when I dropped out of O.U. and moved to Cincinnati, my first apartment was a small room above a small appliance store in Elmwood Place, just north of the Nu-Maid Margarine plant. I called Cincinnati Bell and arranged for phone service. The technician would be there at 10 o'clock Saturday morning.
Ten o'clock came and went, and no installation. The front door was not easy to hear, since my room was in the back of the building. I even left a note for the man to knock loudly. I kept my radio and TV off, did not use my typewriter, and kept my room door wide open so I could hear the knock. I called Cincinnati Bell's customer service people from the appliance store, and received a lot of noncommittal answers about when, or whether, the technician would come. I finally resorted to calling at 10- or 15-minute intervals, and they dispatched the person, just to give their customer service reps some relief.
And the story doesn't even end there! When the man finally deigned to come, he ended up having to disconnect the jack that was in the wall by my desk. I had some thin multicolored spaghetti hanging from my wall, and he hooked up my phone. It was then we realized that they hadn't bothered to turn on my line. It was too late in the day Saturday, no one could take that nanosecond to flip that one switch, I'd have to wait until Monday.
Phone companies seem to think your life revolves around their convenience. One reason I am happy about the imminent demise of the land line is that when you buy a cell phone, even a pre-paid throwaway phone at a corner bodega, you bypass having to deal with people like this. When Steph and I were separated, I ordered a land line in the small apartment on W. 5th Ave. I was renting. This time I was told the man would come at 10 a.m.
I was awakened by his arrival at 8:30. And even then, I had no phone service that day, because he had brought the wrong jack for the type of phone wiring in my building. This meant I had to schedule another day off from work, and put my entire day on hold until they elected to come. Their person had come 90 minutes early. I was glad I was home asleep that day. What if I had other plans or commitments that morning before his arrival? The customer service representative I spoke to had an "Oh, well!" attitude about this.
My worst face-to-face customer service experiences were both when I was living in Boston. Topping the list was an incident I described in the LiveJournal blog. Besides working at The Crimson, I typeset The Boston Phoenix during the summer. (The Phoenix is Boston's equivalent of The Village Voice, and is the largest weekly newspaper in New England.) Around the corner from The Phoenix' offices on Mass. Ave. was Brigham's Restaurant, a uniquely New England ice cream chain which featured delicious milk shakes ("frappes"), and excellent hamburgers.
On one particular afternoon, my waitress was an elderly woman named Mable. She took my order, writing it down in pencil on her pad. She returned with it very quickly, and I was quite pleased, because my lunch time was quite limited at The Phoenix. Also, I was very hungry, having eaten nothing but M&Ms and Coke that morning. She set down my cheeseburger, fries, and coleslaw. I was like Pavlov's dog when I saw it, and I bent down and reached for the plate.
At this moment, Mable came back to my booth and snatched the plate away from me. Over her shoulder, she said that someone else ahead of me had ordered the identical thing, so it was theirs. How did she know I hadn't shed my whiskers into it, or coughed and/or sneezed in it? The replacement burger was longer in coming, and I had to wolf it down in time to get back to work on time. It was also the only time I ever walked out of a restaurant without paying for my meal.
The other shoddy customer service experience I had was at Wordsworth Two, a now-defunct bookstore on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, on the way to Central Square from Harvard Square. I bought many books there, usually on my way home from work at The Crimson. One night, there was a lone cashier, a guy about my age at the time (20), behind the cash register at a semicircular counter. Bearing my purchase, I walked up to the counter, where he was punching away at a calculator. He bustled around at finding receipts and notes, and he would have seen me if he had turned his body just a few degrees in my direction, all the while talking to two or three people, who did not have merchandise, on the other side of the U-shaped counter. I finally got so exasperated that I leaned across the counter and waved the $20 bill I was holding in his face, less than a millimeter from his eyes. He jumped back, startled, and then very frostily rang up my order. (I had assumed that waving the bill in his face was the universally accepted symbol for "I'm trying to pay you.")
My experiences today are all the more appalling when you consider that I had a very pleasant conversation with the customer service people at American Electric Power earlier this week. I was going to be a day or two late with my bill, and they renegotiated a new payment plan, one that was even more generous than the one we had previously. The woman on the line was chatty, sympathetic, and went the extra distance to make sure I had a plan I could afford. And AEP is not one of those companies I can just say, "Screw you! I'm going to your competitor!" to if I'm not happy.