New Customer Service Chaos in Big Companies?

A few paraphrased responses to a recent inquiry to “the phone company”:

–“You can’t do that. It’s part of a package of features.”
–“You can’t do that,” and then, after consultation with a supervisor. “That’s an Apple           feature and our contracts don’t allow us to alter Apple features.”
–Rep: “I can’t do that. I’ll transfer you to one of our techs.”
–Tech: “No, he transferred you to the wrong group. We just sell features, usually in             packages.”
–“Tell your daughter to forward her voice mails to another, domestic line.”
–“She has to do that herself on her phone. Tell her to just follow the prompts.”

Just two days ago my daughter moved to France for a year to teach in the French school system. Amid myriad preparations, my humble task was to check out phone service options and even more specifically to make sure my daughter’s voice mail was disabled. Essentially, if you don’t do that you may find yourself with bottlenecked voice mails all downloading at once at impressively high international rates.

For the most part, she will keep her domestic iPhone turned off and use a “French phone” day to day.  (Why that’s the best option for an extended stay is another story. Don’t ask.)

Turning voice mail off should be simple enough, right? We thought so, especially since my daughter had lived in France for six months as a student only a year or so before and it was simple enough then. That time we almost forgot and called the phone company on our way to the airport. No problem. First person we talked to did the job while we worried about missing the plane.

This time we didn’t forget. But the phone company apparently had–complete amnesia. It took two sessions and six, no seven, different reps to accomplish what had just a year before required one rep and a drive to the airport.

This time the first round required five successive reps over an hour and 15 minutes–without resolution–before I took a break. This was my Saturday morning, after all. In the second round, two reps in a three-way conversation with me did the deed in a mere 30 minutes. I had insisted that the first rep stay on the line until the job was done.

So, what happened? Well, that’s a really good and really scary question. Initially, no one I talked to, from regular, front-line customer service reps to elite international customer service commandoes, had a clue as to how to turn voice mail off. Finally, rep number six, a commando, assured me it could be done because she used to do it. But in her new position she didn’t have the right access, so she volunteered to get me to someone who could.

My theory of what happened, based on similar experiences with mega companies in several industries, is that we’re in a new era of customer service chaos beyond rudeness. Happily, “The Death of Civility” was greatly exaggerated. Without fail, all seven of these reps were “nice.” Now we’re deep into the more troubling “Death of Competency” or, more accurately, “Death of Communication.” And by that I mean “internal communication” within these extremely large corporations.

Today’s big companies may have finally gotten too big, hairy, and audacious for their own good and, worse, for ours.  Are they simply too complex to communicate with themselves effectively? Are there too many employees, too many technologies, too many variations on an increasingly complicated theme?

Not only doesn’t the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Neither hand even knows the other exists or, more to the point, that thousands of others exist. Sometimes, they don’t realize that they’re only awkward appendages of a larger whole.

But I almost forgot. Let me tell you about the third round.

My daughter’s line is one of five on our family plan. After her voice mail was turned off, the commando rep celebrated and said . . .

“Well, that’s done. Now your voice mail is turned off.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean my daughter’s voice mail, right?”

“Mmm . . . well, you know, it is part of a package. Let me just check . . . .”

Scott Pemberton is a senior consultant at Productive Strategies, Inc., a marketing and management consulting firm specializing in consultative sales training, lead generation and appointment setting, and marketing and marketing communications.  Scott can be reached at 847-446-0008 Extension 3 and at


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