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Rotten Customer Service? The Smart Way to Handle Companies that Waste Your Time

Flickr.Clock.MattiMattilaSome interesting commentary appeared on The Huffington Post this past week, and I’m not one to read that online publication expecting anything original. (If Arianna Huffington has earned any journalistic reputation, it’s for borrowing copy from every source on the planet to build her “aggregation nation.”)

But Arianna H. said something that I’m really taking seriously, in light of a horrific experience that led up to my column this week.

In “America’s Real Deficit Crisis,” Huffington writes:

So how about redefining success to include a third metric, beyond money and power — time affluence, which will lead, without doubt, to greater well-being and deeper wisdom? Not a bad thing to put on top of our to-do lists.

Huffington’s got a point, which she backs up with statistics and research: To be “time affluent,” you’ve got to reclaim your time from things that don’t matter. Time is not just money: It is value. No wonder we talk about time in monetary terms — spending it, wasting it, investing it.

How to handle bad customer service

So the next time a horrible customer service experience wastes your valuable time, what should you do? How do you calculate “the loss”? And what are the proper steps to take when asking for renumeration for lost time, or worse?

I have a convenient example to share, though it comes at a steep price. About a month ago, I tried to book three round-trip tickets on United Airlines for my wife and two young kids — an exercise that should’ve taken no more than 20 minutes. Instead,  my wife and I spent a total of 5 hours and 20 minutes on the phone. I know. I timed it via the call logs on our iPhones.

How did such a simple process spin so far out of control? It started when one United call center representative (likely based in the Philippines, though United representatives would not confirm this), assured me that I could buy extra frequent flyer miles to book all three tickets, if I combined my Mileage Plus miles with those held by my wife.

That turned out to be false information. But nailing down my reservations with another overseas call center rep — one who purported to be a “manager” —  turned into an ordeal to rival the planning sessions for the next “Star Wars” trilogy.

I won’t rehash all the hairy details, but here’s the gist: My wife and I were forced to confirm our identities in the Mileage Plus system by establishing brand new PIN numbers. One reservation was split into four legs, marooning my son from the rest of my family. Reserved seats booked adjacent to each other on both flights were mysteriously dropped, forcing me to pay for Economy Plus seats to reunite the gang. Fees were refunded, then tacked back on, and the refunds not restored. Computer glitches. Bad phone lines. Call center drones reading from a script instead of hearing me out. I must’ve heard “I’m so sorry, Mr. Carlozo” 100 times, and maybe once it sounded sincere. On and on and on and on and on and…

If you experience a bad customer service experience like this, keep in mind two diametrically opposite truths: Time is money, and you deserve something for putting up with any conspiracy of idiots that wastes it. But that agreed, you’ve got to keep a cool head. That’s hard, I know — and it’s much more fun, perhaps, to lob grenades via Twitter or YouTube. But is it fair? Even in my extreme case, I had other ideas.

Your customer bill of rights

Your bill of rights for customer service, as I define it, is as follows:

1) As a customer paying for a product or service, you should always be treated with deference and respect. The agent or salesperson is not doing you any favors; it’s the other way around.

2) Customer service agents are paid to listen, to expedite purchases quickly and to troubleshoot your problems. If they constantly meet your reasonable requests with “No” or “I’m not authorized to do that,” ask to speak to a manager.

3) If you still don’t experience satisfaction, you have a right to take your complaint as far up the corporate totem pole as possible. This isn’t always easy to figure out — United’s protocol involves submitting gripes through its website — but make sure you give the company every last chance to respond before going public. (This piece on AOL advises going the social media route first, but I strongly disagree; if my wife has a complaint with me, I don’t want her tweeting about it before giving me a fair shot to rectify it.)

What to demand from a company that wasted your time

1) No matter how wronged you feel, you have no right to hold a gun to the company’s head. Simply state what happened, where you think the customer service broke down, and what you feel is fair compensation. That’s what I did in my complaint to United’s customer service web portal.

2) In calculating my “time loss,” I know that I lost at least a few hours of productive, paid writing time, capped by the aggravation my wife and I went through. So I asked for all my additional fees and expenses for frequent flyer miles to be refunded.

3) There’s nothing wrong with asking for a sincere apology. Let the real human being on the other end know that your loyalty as a customer has been called into question, and that loyalty translates into business kept — or lost forever. But again, refrain from making threats.

In the end, United did the right thing: It sent me two $250 travel vouchers without any sort of oppressive restrictions attached, and I used them to help book a business trip scheduled for this month. I also called United’s public relations department to find out how the airline is doing in terms of its customer service and get some answers as they pertained to what I went through.

United spokesman Charlie Hobart acknowledged that the airline’s customer service representatives recently went through a retraining process, and efforts to raise the bar for customer satisfaction are ongoing. “Around last summer, we took a look at the perception of customer service at United and realized we had to improve,” he said.

So should I gloat? And did I win? No, and no. Rather, I was surprised that Hobart would reply frankly to my concerns about whether my experience might reflect a larger issue in United’s culture. And getting those travel certificates was never a “stick it to the man” proposition. I simply wanted renumeration for lost time and money, and I got it — a break-even proposition at best, but one I’m delighted had a positive ending.

Airplanes, when they are in flight, drift off course routinely. Good communication with the control tower results in what’s called “course correction.” So it is with customer service: You’re going to run into aggravation, but that doesn’t call for extortion. Take a lesson from the pilots: Simply ask for course correction. Keep it calm. Hold firm through the turbulence. Avoid the temptation to run a kamikaze mission.

And in the end, remember that if you don’t handle bad customer service and stand up for your rights — and seek to make up for lost time and money — no one else will.

Have you ever had a customer service nightmare — or victory — that turned out to be a learning experience?

About Lou Carlozo

Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at feedbacker@aol.com, or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).

Comments

  1. Brendan says:

    Right now the most aggravating customer service I am dealing with coming from the company servicing my federal student loan (Direct Loan Servicing). The worst part is they don’t owe me anything; I owe them…

    • I agree, it is a nightmare dealing with all those people

    • Sallie Mae is terrible (meaning incompetent) when I had my student loans with them.

      I had the worst customer experience with Skype recently, where I tried to complain to their IM customer service about a discount code not working, wasted 3 hours and in the end they said they would get back to me and never did. Sent an email with the whole IM transcript, still nothing. Terrible and no way they seem to care about compensation, despite me spending hundreds of dollar a year on their services….

  2. Justine says:

    Love the airline metaphor that you use at the end to tie everything together. Agree that it’s important to hold firm and ask for what you think is fair in how they rectify the issue. When I’ve run into challenges, I’ve found that most reps come through when you give them the space and respect to follow through on their job.