Call Waiting 

Can business and customers find common ground?

Fed up with customer service by phone? God knows you've got your reasons: the wait, the runaround, that voice from halfway around the world. Here, however, are some facts:

Every second of every day, 1,363 Americans are on the phone seeking some form of customer assistance.

Got a problem? You're hardly alone. According to the Customer Rage Study, 70 percent of customers have had it with the lousy service they get. Twenty-eight percent end up yelling at the agent on the other end of the line; 8 percent threaten legal action; and 15 percent want revenge on the company (1 percent report getting it).

The fact is, none of this is new. Mark Twain called his telephone service "the very worst on the face of the whole earth."

That call of yours, though, can be costly. If you're talking to an American-based customer-service agent, the price, on average, is $7.50 per call. If you're speaking to an agent in another country (India? The Philippines? Argentina? Egypt?), each call is about $2.35. But if you bypass human beings altogether and work through an automated response phone system, the call averages only 32 cents. Just ask "Julie." She's Amtrak's automated telephone agent, and she answers an estimated 50,000 calls per day. That's 18.3 million calls per year.

But if you want to reach a human being, any time, day or night, call the Vatican. Its switchboard is staffed 24/7, and that kindly voice you hear is a nun who's a member of the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master.

God help you, though, if your lord and master are a cell-phone and cable company. They're the worst at customer service by phone. Internet retailers and overnight shippers score best.

So reports author Emily Yellin in Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives (Free Press), and not only is Yellin well-equipped to report her findings — she's worked for national news publications and for the Flyer's sister publication Memphis magazine — she can talk. As she recently did (by phone) to the Flyer regarding her latest book. As she did years ago in New York City.

"I sold cardboard file boxes for six weeks over the phone," Yellin said. "I even became their top sales person. How? 'She sticks to the pitch,' my supervisor told some trainees. But I never stuck to the pitch! I said anything to get these companies to buy these boxes! The scary thing is I might have become a very good customer-service agent."

Not so scary were Yellin to be at FedEx, where the author watched some top-flight agents in action and where she had a chance to sit down with FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith.

"Fred Smith has thought about customer service at a level none of us could imagine," Yellin said. "At FedEx, it's both an art and a science. It's a priority, not lip service."

It's also, according to the author, a barometer of how we communicate and how we treat each other not only nationally but globally and across all sorts of barriers.

"Race, gender, class, nationality ... customer service is a crossroads of contemporary culture," Yellin said. "From people on welfare to Nordstrom shoppers, it's an amazing way to look at the world."

In her research, Yellin herself had a look at a bit of the world — from an older couple answering calls for JetBlue in their Salt Lake City home, to young workers in call centers in Buenos Aires and Cairo, to cutting-edge managers in Zurich. One thing she's sure of:

"Customer service isn't going away," Yellin said. "Outsourcing isn't going away. The trick will be to do it right. But we as customers need to 'detach' a bit and treat our calls as business transactions. Businesses need to be more personal and not treat customer service as a mere transaction. That's the common ground where customers and businesses need to meet.

"I know from writing this book that it's made me a better customer, a better advocate for myself. It's given me more empathy for that agent on the other end of the line."

Emily Yellin will be signing copies of Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Thursday, April 2nd, at 6 p.m. Ten percent of all sales of the book that day will go to the Memphis Literacy Council.

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