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Dear Valued Customer

September 12, 2010

With everyone’s commitment to great customer service these days it’s good to feel that the people who look after my money, energy supplies, telephone connection and all-round wellbeing have my best interests at heart.

I know this because I’m regularly told that my call is important to them (not quite important enough, though, to answer within the next 30 minutes), that they take my feedback seriously (and are far too polite to tell me exactly where to stick it), and that they are constantly trying to improve their service (but secretly like things just the way they are).

Generally I try to avoid dealing with the big corporations who control my happiness, and only do so when there is a problem I have to resolve – what they call an ‘issue’. This is because the amount of time and emotional energy I need to invest in dealing with my bank, utility companies and other monoliths far exceeds my available resources of either. I’ve pretty much resolved never to move house again because I know that if I do, BT will wreak such havoc for the next few weeks that I will either die in the process or never have the means to work again.

All of these companies are bad (and not ‘as in good’), but those whose business is based on the internet are worst. It’s as if they believed that simply being an internet facility was in itself good customer service, removing as it does those whimsical humans who get in the way of consumer satisfaction. I’m generally suspicious of companies who bury phone numbers, email and postal addresses in the deepest recesses of their website and who view these perfectly serviceable tools of communication as last resorts when their automated responses fail, and I assume they do this in order to minimise contact with their foul-smelling clientele.

Here we name and shame the guilty men. Come on down National Westminster Bank, EDF Energy, last.fm (the record label side, anyway), Virgin Trains, Royal Mail (especially the PO Box division, but actually all of it), and Ebay. I despise you all. And an honourable mention for Tiscali (even though they’re not one of mine) with whom I spent an entire weekend locked in conflict as I tried to sort out my mother’s phone and broadband connection after she had made the fatal mistake of relocating from the ancestral home.

I can detect the early physical signs of gearing up to contact any of these companies (or ‘bastards’ as they are known in the industry jargon) – feelings of anxiety, irritation and a tendency to procrastinate. It’s not the anticipation of confrontation that produces these symptoms – I’m a frequent and vigorous complainer – nor the actual dealing with the suppliers, although that’s bad enough. It’s finding out how to get hold of them and locate a single person with whom to have a sensible conversation.

I learned the rules of engagement in these encounters long ago. Don’t swear, however mildly, however severely provoked. That only results in an immediate and dramatic swerve in the conversation, away from your ‘issue’ and towards the kind of language the customer service adviser isn’t paid to listen to. The furthest I go, in moments of extreme emotion, is to describe their company as ‘the absolute pits of customer service’. ‘Pits’ doesn’t feature in the long list of words their salary won’t cover – possibly because it was legitimised by John McEnroe back in 1981 and we’ve all heard it so often since then that it’s become safely sanitised. But it still sounds strong. Advisers are very sensitive, too, about the word ‘you’. So any statement beginning ‘last time I called, you told me…’ will be countered by the assertion that they themselves didn’t tell you that. Which leads down another by-way, to explain that ‘you’ are a representative of your company, like the last one I spoke to, who was presumably giving the company line rather than a personal opinion. I know it’s not only you who works there. They were called Joe, or Sue, or Adam and, like all customer service advisers, were born without a surname.

My most recent run-in was with Ebay, and therefore also with Paypal. If you go to them with an ‘issue’, Ebay’s particular forte is to repeat your question back to you in the hope of convincing you that their understanding the problem is the same as solving it. Then repeat it again. And again.

For reasons known only to Ebay, I was no longer able to list anything in the global auction house. I’ve only ever sold with them, never bought, as, having spent the first half of my life accumulating the generically-named ‘stuff’, I am dedicating the second half to getting rid of it – books, records, memorabilia I will never realistically look at or listen to again.

My account was restricted, and I only found out when trying to offload some 1973 copy of Melody Maker that it had ‘exceeded the limit’. This was interesting, as I’d never been told it had a limit, nor what such a limit might mean. Was there only a certain number of Ladybird natural history books I was allowed to flog to eager Australians who had somehow missed out on this wonderful resource? To have my account liberated again, I would have to provide Ebay with my credit card details. Also very interesting, as they’ve never had them before. I’ve always paid my fees to Ebay directly from a linked Paypal account, and would very much like this entirely satisfactory arrangement to continue. Fair play to Ebay, they are completely upfront in telling me they want these numbers specifically so that they can take their money from the card, in contravention of my wishes.

So here I go. It’s online to grapple with Ebay’s alleged help facility. As with most of these services, any query must have its essence crammed into one of the standard formats they offer – these are the questions most people ask us; if you’re not like most people, then too bad.

Inevitably my particular problem isn’t offered, so I choose the nearest equivalent, and next day I get a reply. The first line of defence is to tell me that the issue must be with Paypal who, predictably, have erected the same impenetrable walls of obfuscation. After going three rounds with both Paypal and Ebay, both of whom deny any awareness of any problem, or possible reason for the same, I am eventually directed to Ebay’s ‘live chat’. This looks promising – the chance of a rational question and answer session which should, surely, deliver a way out of my online hell.

Live chat is a misnomer. (A word of warning to those who like that kind of thing – there’s no heavy panting or ecstatic moaning. Although probably plenty of other kinds of moaning by customers with other kinds of frustrations). It’s not a chat, it’s an online corrrespondence, and doesn’t feel any more ‘live’ than any email transaction. The live chatperson starts by thanking me, of course, for my query, apologising for keeping me waiting, and asking me initially to outline my problem. The apology is a fairly regular recurrence from then on, as I spend the next half hour chained to my computer with frequent updates as I slowly move up from 39th place in the queue. When my ‘representative’ has finally beaten 38 desperate customers into submission, it’s my turn. I’ve outlined my problem, and the ensuing chat goes something like this.

  • Ebay asks me to outline the problem (again).
  • I outine the problem (again).
  • Ebay affirms ‘so the problem is, Mr Jones, that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction’.
  • Yes, that’s the problem I outlined, got it in one.
  • OK, we understand that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction. And is your query specifically about this issue?
  • Yes, not just specifically, but also generally, vaguely, every way you can think of.
  • Thank you Mr Jones, if your problem is that your account is restricted and you want to remove the restriction, I will need to ask you some questions to see if we can resolve this situation.
  • Good, expected that, now we’re getting somewhere.
  • Several questions later, and it’s back to blaming Paypal.
  • No, no, no, they’ve said it’s nothing to do with my Paypal account, they’ve referred me back to you.
  • Mr Jones, I have to ask you to go to our Help page; when you receive our email response, click the link and one of my colleagues will be able to help you.

This fruitless chat has taken about 40 minutes. I endure this ritual twice more. The third time I do the outlining, waiting, reading apologies, repeat outlining, only to be told, 30 minutes later, that I have come to the wrong place entirely and need to follow this link to go through the process again. Right. Give up.

I suddenly notice that my last email from the Pal Of Pay concludes with the words ‘Kindly note: try this number’ followed by an apparently valid, relevant, genuine-looking 0845 phone number. Yes, that’s very kindly.

I ring the number and spend 20 minutes on hold. Eventually something stirs at the other end of the line. The voice is a strange synthesis of Professor Stephen Hawking’s cosmic tones and the kind of stateless mid-Atlantic drawl that international golfers and tennis players acquire, and sounds as if it’s coming from a chamber at or near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I reckon that the voice does, just about, represent a real person, and decide to persevere. It identifies itself, improbably, as Brian.

Like the live chat, Brian has been programmed to repeat my question and his answer until, weeping with frustration, I go off and find something hard to kick. I eventually tell Brian that he isn’t helping me at all and that I’d like to speak to his supervisor who, presumably sharing the underwater lock-up, takes me through the same elaborate dance of outlining, questions, apology, repetition. And then finally, amazingly, she helps me. My account was restricted because Paypal were late paying Ebay my last monthly fees (I later discover that the reason for this lies with my bank cancelling a direct debit to Paypal without telling me). I need to reset Paypal as my preferred payment method and the problem will be solved. This takes me a couple of minutes. Any of these advisers, chatters, Brians could have told me this, if they had only treated me as an individual rather than an issue.

One week on, after 35 minutes on the phone, 12 emails to Ebay and Paypal, and three sessions of live chat totalling about 90 minutes, my issue is resolved, and I can once more put my Robert De Niro videos up for auction for anyone who still has the means to play them.

Thank you for your interest. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

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