Phone or Email? I Need A Human! Jerome | February 4th, 2009

In my last post, I wrote about how helping can make us happy. I asked: what does customer service mean to you? Someone suggested we should publish our phone on our site – for customer support. That was a great suggestion, and something we’ll certainly consider as we grow.

A few days ago, I had a personal experience that made me question the importance of the phone. It was one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve ever had.

Earlier this week, I came home and found, in the mail, a Chase credit card application addressed to someone I don’t know with my company name and address on it. Nice!

Just to be sure that nothing was wrong with my account and that I wasn’t financing someone’s vacation in Brazil, I decided to call Chase’s Customer Service. In short, I ended up being on the phone for an hour, spoke to 6 different representatives and the last one hung up on me. Nicer!

In the process, I had to repeat my story and information 6 times (not counting the automated menus prompting me left and right) and none of them apologized for the potential fraud! Of course, each time, I got upset, called back, and after “clearly” repeating my story and asking for the necessary help, I had the chance to speak to a great customer service representative in Chase’s fraud department. Within minutes of talking to the right person, my problem was solved.

Here’s what I learned from this experience. Although I spoke in total to 8 representatives, only 2 actually did their job. Six wasted my time, and the time of their employer.

The two who did help me reassured me, took ownership of my problem and solved it. But to get there, I spent a huge amount of time and became very frustrated. It seemed to me that the first six representatives were like robots – they didn’t care about my problem – they were only going through the motions. Also, the structure of the Chase customer support system allows and encourages agents to pass your call back and forth until one representative decides she can really solve your problem… or not!

So here is my dilemma: between spending an hour on the phone or sending a quick email to a support center, what is the best? Is there really a difference?

My (subjective) answer is pretty obvious: I’d rather send an email and know that someone received my request and is taking care of it. I don’t appreciate being bounced back and forth by robotic customer service agents (many of whom are poorly trained). And I certainly don’t appreciate when an agent hangs up on me. I’m sure that’s happened to you.

What matters the most to me is that a person is happy to help me, not so much whether they use a phone or email to help. If I sent an email, I could have used the extra time to do something else and I would have had proof that my request was being processed. On the phone, I was simply stuck until someone decided they could help me. And when they hung up on me – I couldn’t even prove that I spoke with someone.

So, how do you feel about phone vs. email? And if you were running a small company – how would you provide customer support?

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  • Scott

    Email is the easiest and lowest cost option for a small business. It also allows for scalability for the long term. The key here is to build in an escalation path for “hot” issues to resolve quickly. In today’s flat world, it only takes one bad experience to flash all around the world and tarnish your brand, just like your Chase experience.

  • Scott

    Email is the easiest and lowest cost option for a small business. It also allows for scalability for the long term. The key here is to build in an escalation path for “hot” issues to resolve quickly. In today’s flat world, it only takes one bad experience to flash all around the world and tarnish your brand, just like your Chase experience.

  • sean harper

    The other issue is how EMPOWERED the person doing the support is to actually solve problems. At zappos it is clearly the case that the customer support people can do a lot of things – ship out new shoes, refund shipping, etc. to solve problems for customers. Banks are always the worst, whenever I call with an issue the answer is “well I can’t do that”.

    I started a business 4 years ago TSS-Radio, that handles about 200 customer inquires each day. We initially started with email but realized that some customers were more comfortable on the phone and added a phone number to the website. Regardless of how the customer chooses to communicate, however, our support people are empowered to do whatever is necessary to resolve the issue. Sometimes that costs us money but usually it saves us money because the call is resolved immediately and there are no further calls. It also results in greater customer loyalty.

    Perhaps the biggest reward, however, to empowering the employee, is much higher employee satisfaction. For most people it is emotionally satisfying to help another person with a problem and pretty frustratign to hear other people complain about things that are not in your control. Our employees are pretty happy, and I’ve heard that Zappos’ are too.

    At my new business TransFS we are trying to do the same thing.

    I suspect that Chase organizes the call center to optimize the cost per call (this is pretty common in call centers), where they really should be optimizing the cost per customer issue. Your 8 calls were not profit-maximizing to them, even if we ignore your dissatisfaction and the negative PR they get when you talk about the experience.

  • sean harper

    The other issue is how EMPOWERED the person doing the support is to actually solve problems. At zappos it is clearly the case that the customer support people can do a lot of things – ship out new shoes, refund shipping, etc. to solve problems for customers. Banks are always the worst, whenever I call with an issue the answer is “well I can’t do that”.

    I started a business 4 years ago TSS-Radio, that handles about 200 customer inquires each day. We initially started with email but realized that some customers were more comfortable on the phone and added a phone number to the website. Regardless of how the customer chooses to communicate, however, our support people are empowered to do whatever is necessary to resolve the issue. Sometimes that costs us money but usually it saves us money because the call is resolved immediately and there are no further calls. It also results in greater customer loyalty.

    Perhaps the biggest reward, however, to empowering the employee, is much higher employee satisfaction. For most people it is emotionally satisfying to help another person with a problem and pretty frustratign to hear other people complain about things that are not in your control. Our employees are pretty happy, and I’ve heard that Zappos’ are too.

    At my new business TransFS we are trying to do the same thing.

    I suspect that Chase organizes the call center to optimize the cost per call (this is pretty common in call centers), where they really should be optimizing the cost per customer issue. Your 8 calls were not profit-maximizing to them, even if we ignore your dissatisfaction and the negative PR they get when you talk about the experience.

  • http://crowdspring.com chris

    Generally, I prefer email. Most of the time I get a quick response, usually automated, but sometimes personal. The other advantage to email is the ‘paper’ trail. If you hit Contact Us and send away, at least, somewhere, there has been a ticket created and someone will hopefully be notified the next time they check their email, help desk queue, whatever.

    On the other hand, when there is a serious situation, that needs immediate response, and the complexity cannot be expressed accurately in written text, a phone conversation is the better option. Also, live chat might work as an alternative to phone, but again, it’s just text. You can’t hear a customer’s frustration via email.

    I had a similar experience with Comcast a while ago: http://keinrhythmus.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/comcast-owes-me-two-hours-of-my-life/. In that case, email ultimately might have been more effective because I got lost in the agent-menu maze several times.

  • http://crowdspring.com chris

    Generally, I prefer email. Most of the time I get a quick response, usually automated, but sometimes personal. The other advantage to email is the ‘paper’ trail. If you hit Contact Us and send away, at least, somewhere, there has been a ticket created and someone will hopefully be notified the next time they check their email, help desk queue, whatever.

    On the other hand, when there is a serious situation, that needs immediate response, and the complexity cannot be expressed accurately in written text, a phone conversation is the better option. Also, live chat might work as an alternative to phone, but again, it’s just text. You can’t hear a customer’s frustration via email.

    I had a similar experience with Comcast a while ago: http://keinrhythmus.wordpress.com/2008/07/25/comcast-owes-me-two-hours-of-my-life/. In that case, email ultimately might have been more effective because I got lost in the agent-menu maze several times.

  • Doc Kane

    Hi Jerome,

    I completely understand your frustration, as I’m certain everyone else does as well!

    Here’s the way I see it based on the past experience of having worked in a call center, being a communications guy, and having a father who is the most kick-butt guy at

    cutting through call-center idiocy.

    First, the phone: Still the best way, I think, but you HAVE to get past the first-line support people. Email is great, but that “in the ether” feeling isn’t too reassuring for

    most folks.. Live chat is even better than email, I feel, because you can toss it out there and do other things while they think about how to help you.

    Second, the way a call center works: From working in a call center and dealing with so many of these folks over the years, I can assure you the first-line is triage. You’ll

    hardly ever get any real help from them if your problem is anything out of the norm.

    Their job is to help you with the F.A.Q. , and they’re trained only on that. Sure, there’s a manual that weighs 3 pounds and looks nice on their desk that covers other

    areas, but most will never read it. And for those firms with a knowledge base online. . .good luck with that. Every try to use your corporate Intranet’s search function?

    Ha! Unless they’re running Google behind the firewall, they’ll never find what the heck they’re looking for half the time. So what they’ll do is offer the most complete,

    but vague, answer they can, hoping to God you don’t call ‘em on it.

    Issues related to dealing with first-line help has also been complicated due to the trend to outsource this function, placing people on the phone who possess very little

    attachment to the product they’re supporting, and communications styles (not accents, mind you) that hamper true dialog and negotiation.

    The workaround then is to explain your problem once, and only once to the first line people. Let them try at least. Then when you don’t get the answer you need, ask

    to speak with a manager. Don’t repeat your story to the manager, ask the first-line rep to do it for you. That’s their job. If they don’t, it means they’re more concerned

    about their “call times” (the time they’re on a call) then they are about you. This shouldn’t surprise you. The best call centers, however, encourage this type of

    behavior. . .Target. . .which is where I worked many moons ago followed this model, and they were excellent in providing ongoing training and coaching as well in

    hiring people who actually cared to do the job. Others can penalize their first-line if they talk too long, and do a clearly horrific job of training reps in conversational

    tone, feedback loops and chunking, for example, (which is how you read numbers back to someone giving you a credit card number for example. Is the number:

    555-555-555-555 or 55-5555-5555-55 ? You get the idea.

    So aim high, and keep aiming higher if you don’t get the answer you deserve. When going up the chain, try to come up with a one sentence question they can answer

    yes or no to after they’ve been told your story. So you’ll end up saying something like: “Okay, so you understand my problem, right? Can you help me solve it by

    doing x for me today?” If they say “no”, then immediately you know you’ve got to go up the chain a bit more.

    Now this is where it’ll get tricky. Supervisors are trained to squash the problem before it gets out of hand. Explain things as they are, offer consolation to the customer

    (or not) and close out the call. In times when you’re not on the winning side of that equation you’re going to start burning up about this time as they try to get you off

    the phone. Try to keep your wits, and remember these things. . .I’m tellin’ you they work:

    1. Be nice, but firm.
    2. Ask again.
    3. Ask again. Yes, ask again.
    4. Plead loyalty.
    5. Ask to go up to their manager.
    6. If they say “the buck stops here” ask them who does their annual review. *everyone* has a boss
    7. They won’t tell you? Ask them to contact their boss on your behalf, and have their boss call you.
    8. This should work. If no dice, be sure you’ve got their name and extension number, cause you’ll need it in step 10. (Actually, you should get this at the top of every

    call!)
    9. Always be sure to ask which call center they’re in. . .as in which city they’re in this could prove valuable later.
    10. If you’re still not getting anywhere, and find yourself once again off the phone without a solution, go to Yahoo Finance, find out who the executive team is, and

    either call or email the CEO’s office (both can be found with a bit of research online). Nine times out of ten I guarantee, when you take this final last step you’ll get what

    you’re asking for if not more. ESPECIALLY if when you call you have all the ammo you gathered in steps 1-9.

    This works like a charm. I learned it from my Dad, and use it all the time when I’m being walked over by a company that does not understand that I am there best and

    worst customer every day of every year I AM a customer.

    …and so are you. So good luck!

    Rock on,
    Doc
    http://www.roscommon.com

  • Doc Kane

    Hi Jerome,

    I completely understand your frustration, as I’m certain everyone else does as well!

    Here’s the way I see it based on the past experience of having worked in a call center, being a communications guy, and having a father who is the most kick-butt guy at

    cutting through call-center idiocy.

    First, the phone: Still the best way, I think, but you HAVE to get past the first-line support people. Email is great, but that “in the ether” feeling isn’t too reassuring for

    most folks.. Live chat is even better than email, I feel, because you can toss it out there and do other things while they think about how to help you.

    Second, the way a call center works: From working in a call center and dealing with so many of these folks over the years, I can assure you the first-line is triage. You’ll

    hardly ever get any real help from them if your problem is anything out of the norm.

    Their job is to help you with the F.A.Q. , and they’re trained only on that. Sure, there’s a manual that weighs 3 pounds and looks nice on their desk that covers other

    areas, but most will never read it. And for those firms with a knowledge base online. . .good luck with that. Every try to use your corporate Intranet’s search function?

    Ha! Unless they’re running Google behind the firewall, they’ll never find what the heck they’re looking for half the time. So what they’ll do is offer the most complete,

    but vague, answer they can, hoping to God you don’t call ‘em on it.

    Issues related to dealing with first-line help has also been complicated due to the trend to outsource this function, placing people on the phone who possess very little

    attachment to the product they’re supporting, and communications styles (not accents, mind you) that hamper true dialog and negotiation.

    The workaround then is to explain your problem once, and only once to the first line people. Let them try at least. Then when you don’t get the answer you need, ask

    to speak with a manager. Don’t repeat your story to the manager, ask the first-line rep to do it for you. That’s their job. If they don’t, it means they’re more concerned

    about their “call times” (the time they’re on a call) then they are about you. This shouldn’t surprise you. The best call centers, however, encourage this type of

    behavior. . .Target. . .which is where I worked many moons ago followed this model, and they were excellent in providing ongoing training and coaching as well in

    hiring people who actually cared to do the job. Others can penalize their first-line if they talk too long, and do a clearly horrific job of training reps in conversational

    tone, feedback loops and chunking, for example, (which is how you read numbers back to someone giving you a credit card number for example. Is the number:

    555-555-555-555 or 55-5555-5555-55 ? You get the idea.

    So aim high, and keep aiming higher if you don’t get the answer you deserve. When going up the chain, try to come up with a one sentence question they can answer

    yes or no to after they’ve been told your story. So you’ll end up saying something like: “Okay, so you understand my problem, right? Can you help me solve it by

    doing x for me today?” If they say “no”, then immediately you know you’ve got to go up the chain a bit more.

    Now this is where it’ll get tricky. Supervisors are trained to squash the problem before it gets out of hand. Explain things as they are, offer consolation to the customer

    (or not) and close out the call. In times when you’re not on the winning side of that equation you’re going to start burning up about this time as they try to get you off

    the phone. Try to keep your wits, and remember these things. . .I’m tellin’ you they work:

    1. Be nice, but firm.
    2. Ask again.
    3. Ask again. Yes, ask again.
    4. Plead loyalty.
    5. Ask to go up to their manager.
    6. If they say “the buck stops here” ask them who does their annual review. *everyone* has a boss
    7. They won’t tell you? Ask them to contact their boss on your behalf, and have their boss call you.
    8. This should work. If no dice, be sure you’ve got their name and extension number, cause you’ll need it in step 10. (Actually, you should get this at the top of every

    call!)
    9. Always be sure to ask which call center they’re in. . .as in which city they’re in this could prove valuable later.
    10. If you’re still not getting anywhere, and find yourself once again off the phone without a solution, go to Yahoo Finance, find out who the executive team is, and

    either call or email the CEO’s office (both can be found with a bit of research online). Nine times out of ten I guarantee, when you take this final last step you’ll get what

    you’re asking for if not more. ESPECIALLY if when you call you have all the ammo you gathered in steps 1-9.

    This works like a charm. I learned it from my Dad, and use it all the time when I’m being walked over by a company that does not understand that I am there best and

    worst customer every day of every year I AM a customer.

    …and so are you. So good luck!

    Rock on,
    Doc
    http://www.roscommon.com

  • jmarfurt

    I personally prefer email. I agree with Chris that a paper trail is important (on _both_ ends, to document what was said & done). For my nonprofit organization, I only use email and we don’t even have a phone number available for people to call. It’s also helpful for me because if I don’t know the answer to a question offhand, I can take a day to do some research, and then provide a concise answer to the person via email (instead of bumbling like an idiot on the phone the first few minutes, while I tell the person that I’ll have to call them back with an answer later.)

    The only potential problem with email is the same problem we have online with other methods of communication (blogs, forums, etc) — lack of tone of voice. Words can be taken the wrong way, or people’s intentions can be misinterprated — all because you lose that “tone of voice” factor that you would definitely get via the phone. Other than that, email’s definitely the way to go. :)

  • ArtbyAudree

    I think with an online community like this, most people will prefer to use e-mail – for the reasons stated above.

    But, as jmarfurt says, the “tone of voice” can be a major factor. With more and more projects, the occasional issue may arise that would be handled best on the phone. ( Like the one you posted about before.) This would probably be a rare occurrence.

    But for those in the business world who prefer to communicate on the phone, it would be nice to have the option.

  • Jack Ament

    I thought about the same thing on this phone subject as I am building Unknown’s Net Mall and desided that I had rather send and recieve eMails,

  • Jack Ament

    I thought about the same thing on this phone subject as I am building Unknown’s Net Mall and desided that I had rather send and recieve eMails,

  • Sinnick

    I used to work as a product specialist in claims and adjustments for member services at a regional BCBS and customer service has a direct correlation to pay (or rather “incentive”)… Consider the customer service department to be the “military” of the company…on the front lines you have many poorly trained, low paid CSRs (the most in fact). Their job performance is usually tied to the number of calls they handle in the amount of time they’re at their desk (their metrics). Beyond them, you have their supervisors (fewer, but they are properly trained, they’re still paid very little though), they will do almost everything they can to solve your problem, no matter how long it takes (unless of course, you call at 5:45 P.M. and they close at 6)…and finally, you have specialists…such as the fraud department. Per department there are very few, but they are exceptionally trained in their specialty (and basically nothing else) and are paid very well, they will help you solve your problem and safeguard against any future problems…most will continue working on the issue once off the phone even.

    anyway, you should have been taken to the fraud department immediately…the second you mentioned a concern about “fraud”.

    I handle everything I can over the phone, I find that, if you know how, you can get better service/deals that way. case in point…a few months back, I got a brand new $400 phone for $30 thanks to knowing how to work the call center…

    Doc Kane provided some tips, I can’t vouch for them because I have my own method which has served me well in the past:

    1) get the CSR’s name and any identifying number (operator number etc) up front, before anything
    2) write down everything, time of call, how long they had you on hold, etc.
    3) be firm and to the point immediately.
    4) express anger at the company, but not at the representative (emphasize that you know they’re trying to help you and acknowledge that you appreciate the effort on their part)
    5) If the CSR can’t help you, keep getting a supervisor until your problem is solved
    6) If that doesn’t work , use the notes you took, to compose a letter (not an email, an actual, printed letter) and send it to their CEO (contact information can usually be found if they’re a publicly traded company)…you’d be surprised how quickly things get done when you go straight to the top
    7) if all else fails, explain your situation online, especially to the consumerist (www.consumerist.com) and ripoffreport.com a lot of companies read them and if your story comes up, they’ll try and turn the bad PR into good PR…

  • typodactyl

    I hate dealing with CSR – period. That said, I hate both email and phone for different reasons.

    Voicing a complaint by email can take weeks to resolve. Send an email, respond a day later, and 7 emails later it’s a week!

    A CSR by phone may give me a headache and mean hours with autoprompts and inadequately trained CSRs, but that’s still a lot less than a week of frustration.

    There’s something to be said too for actually having someone else on the other line – something tangible. If I send an email and don’t receive something that says it was received, it’s hard for me to believe that the email will matter at all.

  • Conference Call

    My company tries to give the customer many ways to reach us…you can email, phone or chat with a rep online. This empowers the customer to choose the method that works best for them at the time. If you’re driving down the road, give us a call. If you’re stuck on a call at your desk, then chat with us online. If your issue is complex and you only feel like explaining it once, then shoot us an email. No matter the choice, the fact that you HAVE a choice, can start the conversation out on the right note.

    Check out an article on customer service “Don’t’s” http://www.accuconference.com/blog/HowNotToDoCustomerService.aspx

  • Conference Call

    My company tries to give the customer many ways to reach us…you can email, phone or chat with a rep online. This empowers the customer to choose the method that works best for them at the time. If you’re driving down the road, give us a call. If you’re stuck on a call at your desk, then chat with us online. If your issue is complex and you only feel like explaining it once, then shoot us an email. No matter the choice, the fact that you HAVE a choice, can start the conversation out on the right note.

    Check out an article on customer service “Don’t’s” http://www.accuconference.com/blog/HowNotToDoCustomerService.aspx

  • GraphicDesignGuru

    Within my own company, I respond via email, and follow up with a phone call. Email is just not personal enough when emotions are on the line. As far as me dealing with other peoples customer service departments, I am not very forgiving. I quit one web hosting company…whose product I loved…to sign up (and recommend to others) another one, which was slightly less user friendly…solely because of customer service. The later company has one of the best customer service models I have seen. So I feel good about recommending them. I once spent two hours on the phone with another companies customer service department…in which I was initially routed to India…spent a great deal of time with them on the phone, trying to get to their headquarters in California. It did become more about principal at some point…once I did manage to get to speak to someone in management. I had to marvel at their idea…’We charge $50 an hour, to answer questions about a $65 piece of equipment.”…Who do they think they are…Adobe?

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  • Fontinalis

    I think that in this world where English has become the ‘lingua franca’, and that your base, both Buyers and Creatives, is not exclusively from US, UK and other English speaking countries, you are better sticking with email.

    My experience is that people for whom English is not the first or main language, write and read English better then they can speak it, or comprehend it. So, as we exchange through email, there are less linguistic barriers (such as strong accents, taking time to find the right word, etc.) then if we had to actually talk in real time, over the phone.

    I agree with a lot that was said in this tread about great customer service being achieved where the service rep have the power to fix things. Not just give you the run around. Better for the rep, better for the customer. And issues get resolved faster.

    I also find that a customer service that sort of ties into a FAQ database often times solves problems even faster. Not sending us to FAQ as a road block, preventing us to get directly to customer service. But as a complement. I recently needed to contact the customer service of El Gato (gizmo and softare that enabled me to turn an older mac into a tv set). Once I had hit the ‘send’ button at the bottom of the ‘contact us’ form, I was prompted with a series of items from their FAQ that were very relevant to my problem. And it was extremely useful. It was not asking me to go through it FIRST, and only after that would they get back to me if nothing was relevant. It was inviting me to read it, while someone got back to me. I liked that approach. And before they got back to me, I had solved my problem, had written back to cancel the ticket, and felt… empowered. Their FAQ database was very big and I had not, on my own, found those relevant entries.

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  • Keith Williams

    Why cant I talk to so one in chase customer support?

  • Keith Williams

    Why cant I talk to so one in chase customer support?

  • Conference Call Services David

    I must say that sometimes phone is better and sometimes the email. It just varies on what the transaction is about if it were instructions I prefer email for them to read and for business talks or transactions I prefer phone to fully understand the details on the agreement.

  • Conference Call Services David Phone

    I must say that sometimes phone is better and sometimes the email. It just varies on what the transaction is about if it were instructions I prefer email for them to read and for business talks or transactions I prefer phone to fully understand the details on the agreement.

  • M Clark

    This is a weak justification for not offering a phone number for customer service. This in and of itself IS poor customer service as emailing customer support is horrifically inefficient.

    Example Issue – I had NO CLUE while I was publishing my first project with you that I would not be able to edit any of the text, materials or headlines once the project was published. I need to make changes and the only way for me to get answers or get something fixed is to send you an email.
    I sent the email and now expect a response within the next 12 – 24 hours for an issue that needs to be addressed immediately as my project has a firm deadline for submissions and for the next 12 – 24 hours the problem will still exist.

    Bottom line: phone call is immediate, it allows the caller to quickly explain the issue and work out any miscommunications and details of an issue.

  • M Clark

    This is a weak justification for not offering a phone number for customer service. This in and of itself IS poor customer service as emailing customer support is horrifically inefficient.

    Example Issue – I had NO CLUE while I was publishing my first project with you that I would not be able to edit any of the text, materials or headlines once the project was published. I need to make changes and the only way for me to get answers or get something fixed is to send you an email.
    I sent the email and now expect a response within the next 12 – 24 hours for an issue that needs to be addressed immediately as my project has a firm deadline for submissions and for the next 12 – 24 hours the problem will still exist.

    Bottom line: phone call is immediate, it allows the caller to quickly explain the issue and work out any miscommunications and details of an issue.

  • Ross

    @M Clark – Starting about 6 months ago, we’ve published a toll free number on the pages when you post your project. Perhaps we didn’t do a good job emphasizing it enough. I do see your ticket and am responding…

    Thanks for leaving your thoughts.

  • Ross

    @M Clark – Starting about 6 months ago, we’ve published a toll free number on the pages when you post your project. Perhaps we didn’t do a good job emphasizing it enough. I do see your ticket and am responding…

    Thanks for leaving your thoughts.

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