GUEST COLUMN

Customer service should mean actually serving customers

After six calls to five different numbers over nearly an hour, I began to think that despite the TV commercial I had seen, the big telephone company did not want me as a customer. When I finally spoke to an alleged "customer service" representative her confusing answers to my questions did nothing to convince me that I was wrong.

Like building a fancy house, but forgetting to put in a door, many large companies spend huge dollars on advertising but skimp so much on customer service that it's nearly impossible to actually do business with them. These outfits - specifically cable, phone and cell phone companies - throw big bucks away signing people up, only to lose them whenever a consumer actually needs a question answered or a problem solved.

Only recently, however, have I discovered a company so bad at customer service that it's nearly impossible to become a customer in the first place.

My saga started when during a repeat of "The Simpsons" I saw a commercial for a national company offering telephone, cable and high-speed Internet at a very attractive price. The cost seemed a little too good to be true, but since it was less than half what I currently paid for those three services the offer seemed worth investigating.

Since the ad showed no telephone number, I began my ill-fated quest on the Internet at the Web site specifically mentioned in the commercial. The site made it very easy to sign up for these services but provided no specifics. If I signed on I would get phone, Internet and cable, but it could very well be a cable package of eight channels in Spanish paired with phone and Internet services involving tin cans and string.

I needed to know quite a bit more before signing up, which is where the company made its first massive customer service error. Finding an actual phone number to call took approximately five minutes of clicking around various pages. One would think that an 800 number would be prominent on a phone company's Web site, but this one clearly does not want anyone to call.

Eventually, I found what I thought was the number and began what I expected to be a pretty quick phone call, Of course, once I called I had to wade through an endless menu of pressing "1" for this and "2" for that. Ultimately, this got me to a person who asked me a handful of questions before letting me talk.

When I was allowed to say something she quickly told me that I was speaking with the telephone people and I needed to be talking to the TV people. After being transferred and wading through a fairly similar mess of "1s" and "2s," I reached another person. When she finally asked what I wanted she told me I needed to be talking with the Internet people, but she would give me the number.

Calling that number led me to learn that none of these numbers were right and I needed to call a local number. Dutifully I dialed those digits only to be greeted by one of those systems where you have to say things and the computer on the other end tries to guess what you want.

This system understood approximately none of the words I spoke, ultimately leading me to chant "give me a person. I want a person" into my phone. That tactic does actually work and the robot promised that it was transferring me to a live operator.

Instead, after feeding me an Elton John song and two commercials, the system hung up on me. It did the same thing after 10 minutes when I called back. On the third try I reached the aforementioned unhelpful customer service woman who explained the offer with around the same detail as the original commercial I had seen.

So, I now know that I could get phone, cable and Internet for a fairly good price, but I still have no idea how the services compare to what I currently have. I do know, however, that I can keep my current services without calling anyone, pressing any buttons or being hung up on.

Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. His parenting blog can be found at babydidwhat.com. Daniel B. Kline can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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