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Summary: Christopher Lochhead used to enjoy the executive perks of a Silicon Valley executive--such as instant IT support. He was the chief marketing officer at Scient and then at Mercury until the company was sold to HP last year.


Christopher Lochhead used to enjoy the executive perks of a Silicon Valley executive--such as instant IT support. He was the chief marketing officer at Scient and then at Mercury until the company was sold to HP last year. Now he is mostly retired, and living life as a well-heeled consumer. He relates his recent unhappy and aggravating customer service experiences in this  guest post.

Is customer service getting worse? It sure seems that way. Global 2000 companies have spent billions on customer relationship management software, customer support websites, and call centers over the last ten years. Yet it often it feels as though major companies are using technology to purposely piss-off customers.

How far away are we from dialing 911 and hearing, “For faster service when reporting an emergency please visit our Web site. If you must talk to an agent, press one if someone is trying to kill you, press two if your house is on fire…etc.”

Cell Phone Company Can’t Setup New Account

When I left my last employer I had a simple request of Cingular Wireless (now AT&T)--transfer my work cell number to my personal account and sell me a new Blackberry (on top of the personal cell phone I already had from them). It took two and a half hours in the store. Subsequently, when my first bill came, it was very wrong. It took two hours on their Web site and over the phone to resolve the billing problem. Then, the evil spirits on their servers would randomly disconnect my wireless email service.

Fixing this problem was not possible on their support Web site. It took another four phone calls and about another two hours to resolve. All told it took a six-hour effort to give more money to Cingular. Makes you wonder how hard it is to get Verizon on the phone?

Rotten Apple

When I bought my new MacBook (which I love) at the Apple store I paid extra for the “ProCare” service (which Apple promotes as “ticket to priority repairs and available same-day service”) so that when I had problems I’d get help. Nope. After a problem with iTunes and my iPod (which I also love), I went into an Apple store in Silicon Valley and was told it would be a seven-hour wait. When I told the clerk the wait was unacceptable, he explained that when you are sick and need to see your doctor, you have to wait and that Apple’s “genius bar” was the same idea. So I split and called Apple support. They were great and fixed the iTunes problem quickly.

After that, I went online to book an appointment with a “genius” at the Apple store for the next day. I got there at the scheduled time. I still had to wait twenty minutes. The genius spent about ten minutes playing with my iPod only to tell me it was dead. The two-year-old’s hard drive was toast. So I asked what they could do. He said the best they could offer was 10 percent discount on a new one. The Apple genius failed the IQ test. 

Car Company Makes It Hard to Service Cars

Want to by a new Toyota Highlander Hybrid or Prius to save money on gas and lessen the damage cars do to the environment? I have purchased both products. They are great and marvels of modern technology. Good luck getting them serviced at Steven’s Creek Toyota in Silicon Valley. It takes three hours to do an oil change, if they can fit you in, and oh and by the way, for the basic service “We don’t provide loaners.” You will enjoy reading their complementary March 1998 edition of People Magazine to pass the time.

Stock Broker Can’t Execute Trades

Done any trading on eTrade lately? After I was unable to execute a series of trades on their Web site I called them. Wait time at their call center was half an hour. Then I got transferred to a “specialist” (more wait time). They then told me they were having a problem with their trading systems and would need to call me back. They didn’t. I had to call them back (more wait time, more getting transferred) to finally get the trades done. Oh well, who really cares about their money and investments.

Two Brands That Lie

Last summer I needed some new blinds. Found a place called “3 Day Blinds”. I went in and ordered a bunch of blinds. Guess how long they told me it would be before I got them installed? Seven to ten working days! I asked why the company was called 3 Day Blinds, if it takes them seven working days. The clerk looked at me like I was insane. She told me that if I had ordered more standard stuff, and if they had it in stock, and if they could get a guy to come out to my place, I might be able to get blinds in three days. I asked her how often they were able to deliver binds in three days. She said not often. There is a health club chain called “24 Hour Fitness.” Many of their locations are not open twenty-four hours.
So what do you do to make sure your company delivers a legendary customer experience? My next post will explore that topic.

Christopher Lochhead is a retired technology executive, part-time strategy advisor, full-time ski bum, and a grumpy consumer.

Topic: Apple

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  • Acomdata's "web service"

    I'd add AcomData to the list. I bought an external drive enclosure and a Seagate drive to assemble as my backup system. The USB box was visible, but did not show the drive. I called Seagate, worked though some angles and approaches, determined that AcomData's enclosure could be the problem.

    AcomData's website: No "800" number, email contact for technical support with a guaranteed response of "3 business days". So, I took the enclosure back for a refund, which took considerably less time than 3 business days.
  • That is so true

    Well written, Christopher. Corporate service has been going steadily downhill for years. Cell companies are the worst, but it's hard to pick a winner in the sucky service lotto. I dropped Dell and started building my own PC's because of their "award winning service." A Dish Network reseller committed fraud when I signed up for service. Dish blamed a reseller and didn't want to let me out of the service, even though they admitted the advertised prices were bogus. It took several phone calls, a complaint to the state consumer protection office and the threat of lawsuit to get them to settle. Bellsouth's internet provider and I went back and forth on an over-charge they threatened to send to collections. Ameritrade, don't get me started. The list goes on and on.

    I spend far more time fighting with corporate service suppliers now than just a couple years ago. It's unimaginable how much money they soak consumers out of because most people don't have the time to battle the phone system guantlet. Many companies are exempting themselves from the few consequences they may be subject to by making customers sign binding arbitration agreements.

    It's getting to the point of near insanity. Something's got to give.
    • Let me tell you about Verizon DSL

      I've had Verizon DSL for years. My new bride has had an old gte account before it was acquired by Verizon several years ago. We purchased a new house and therfore signed up for new service. I asked if we could move our old accounts (email addresses is all I needed) to the new service. "No problem". Well, [i]problem[/i].

      Immediately, the old gte account went dead. I called them back the next day; each person I spoke to was very confused about this "other" provider (that they acquired), and couldn't seem to help. Then they told me they 'fixed' it, but it would take 24-48 hours to see the change. After 48 hours I called them back (more confusion). Now they said it could not be done. One person told me it could never have been done (if I knew that I would not have requested it; they should have confirmed that before they killed the account). Another just said there was nothing further they could do; they could not restore the account; it was forever lost. This was from their "tier 3" support.

      Finally I contacted a team called [i]Presidential Appeals[/i]. They straigtened out the whole mess in a few minutes. (but all emails were lost during the 'outage'). I asked why regular support could not do that. He told me their team has too much power to be in the hands of the regular support team. This is the second time their standard support system could not help, but the executive team could.

      So, that's my story.
  • Cingular...

    I wound up telling Cingular to go pound sand after spending over two hours on the phone with them for three months running because they were charging me for something included in my plan. The third time was the final straw when the manager I spoke with tried to blame the problem on anyone else but their customer service department. I can deal with a sales person not setting something up correctly in the store, but their customer service department was given two opportunities to fix the problem and couldn't do it. Cingular is now one of those companies I would never, ever consider using again. If anyone ever asks me what cell provider to use, I'll do my best to steer them away from Cingular.
    • I love Cingular... Sprint, on the other hand...

      I've never had a problem with Cingular. In fact, they've bent over backwards for me not once, not twice, but 4 times due to defective cell phones! (Seems LG manufactured a bunch of crappy phones a year ago, and has since pulled that product line). I've never had a wrong bill from Cingular, and customer service has always been helpful. Now for my Sprint horror story...

      I had been with Sprint for almost a year, on their basic service plan. After 8 months, my handset (an el cheapo Samsung "freebie") started shocking me if picked up while on the charging cord. I took the handset and cord to a Sprint store, where a technician verified that the phone was defective (bad battery), that the phone had not been damaged (it was in pristine shape, no water damage), and that it would cost me $50 to get a refurbished phone to replace this one. Wait a second... I was paying for phone insurance, and it's going to cost me $50 to replace a bad phone? No way Jose, says I. After 3 months of phone problems, with numerous calls to Sprint, I finally talked to to their legal department. I explained to them what was going on (bad phone, not damaged in any way), and they agreed that the phone should have been replaced for free. By that time, I had discontinued my service with Sprint. I told the legal guy that Sprint had violated my contract, and while I would be happy to pay any phone charges, I was NOT paying an early termination fee. Surprisingly, he agreed, saying it was Sprint's fault that I wasn't satisfied, and waved the early termination fee. Three days later, I received a call from Sprint, saying if I rejoined Sprint, they would wave the disconnect fee. I told them where they could go...

      Incidentally, I had almost as many problems with Verizon about 4 years ago. If people ask me for a cell phone provider, I definitely recommend Cingular.
  • Sadly

    Sadly great customer service is a thing of my grandfather's past. Consumers/paying customers aren't seen as an asset or steady stream of revenue that should be taken care of and treated better than they are currently being treated. I think the problem relates to the investor's greed. Investors only care about the bottom line, their bottom line. New customers = Growth (Ever wonder why new customers get the better deals than the loyal customer that's supported the company for many years? Companies are focus mostly on growth.

    Somewhere both sides forgot that the relationship between seller and buyer is a give and take relationship. Even worst, as consumers, we've forgotten we have a choice to walk away or find a better deal.

    This is my opinion so forgive the blanket statements above.

    • Oh, it's not a blanket statement

      I'm gonna piss off the MBA's who monitor this forum, but I tie the decline in American corporate society to the introduction of the Harvard MBA program, whose teachings I can summarize in one sentence fragment:

      Profit, more profit, maximize profit.

      How do we do maximize profit? By renaming "personnel" to "human resources" to remove any semblance of caring about your fellow humans in society. By having "just in time inventory" so that you respond to sudden demand increases by increasing the price (see: gasoline prices) instead of having inventory to level out the peaks and valleys, (I have issues with inventory taxes, too, BTW.) By wanting to reduce costs so much that companies will rely on third parties to provide products under their name that are of inferior quality. By skimping, nay removing training.

      Speaking of grandfathers' grandfather worked for Firestone International, purveyors of fine tire and rubber products back in that day. He would not, though, buy his tires from Firestone, but from Montgomery Ward. Why? Because Firestone made the tires for MW, and he knew that they went through a more rigorous quality testing process. The reason for better quality testing was that because the reputation of Montgomery Ward rested on those products, not Firestone's, and corporate policy was that no actions must be made by Firestone that would sully another company's name for which they made products to be sold under said company's name.

      Enough of a rant for now.
      • No, please...

        ...rant away. That was an excellent post. "Human Resources" has been a peeve of mine for quite a while now. And I never tied JIT inventory to price fluctuations before.

        Carl Rapson
      • Having both a business and IT degrees...

        I would say you're right. However, there are other factors that aren't looked at. For example, buying new technology/software/ERP & CRM systems that aren't necessary because that is what's "in" now. There is something to be said for using "appropriate" technology. Failed projects cost many businesses HUGE amounts of money. So does "unnecessary" technology.

        My father owns grocery stores in a small Southern town. There is also a Super *al-Mart there. He still does quite a bit of business because he offers great customer service, especially in the areas of meat and produce. You can't get cut to order meat service at the superstore, nor can you find someone knowledgeable about produce. While his prices are a little higher, people are willing to shop at his store because they get what *they* want, not what the store gives them. Which is as it should be.
    • 1 major factor

      There is one major factor that has not been mentioned thus far: shrinking profit margins. It is not necessarily greed on the part of the company that causes these deteriorations over time. If your margin was 40 points, and there was a problem - eating the cost was a viable option to keep the customer happy. With 10 points? You can barely cover the shipping for the part to fix the problem - let alne keep an expert on staff to answer/fix problems...

      Not to be a complete apologist here - but it *HAS* to be a factor...
  • In is not easy to improve- Client cooperation is needed too.

    The article is very well written and very true in some cases.

    I'm on the other end of this problem, trying to give service. We have a small company with limited resources. We have switched back to a real person answering the phone. A clerk calls back after two hours is a tech rep has not responded to give an update on tech rep status. This is a cost that they don't want to pay for.

    We ask our clients to let us know ahead of time if their hardware supplier is replacing the network, or adding a new workstation so we can make sure someone is available to help when the supplier is on site. Most of the time this does not happen. Our clients are then ngry that we can't provide instant availability.

    We suggest that they contact us immediately is they are unsure how to proceed, and don't guess. Most of the time they do the wrong thing, and we sometimes spend hours straightening it out (All a part of their annual support contract).

    The only really time sensitive software we support is Payroll. It makes us crazy when someone calls at 4:58 (our support hours are 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM) with an "end of the world" payroll problem.

    And those are just a few of the problems.

    Most of us on the support side want to satisfy our clients. It is, however, a two way street. We need cooperation.
    • Not really...

      You listed out the problems so they are well known to you. At that point it is your job to correct it.
      • Yes, really...

        How do you "fix" the problem of a client calling you 2 minutes before the end of the publicized support day, with a problem that will take well over 2 minutes to fix? That issue can hardly be laid at the customer service department's feet. It lays squarely on the customer's shoulders to be a responsible consumer, not an "entitled" one.
    • It may be a two way street BUT

      It is your job to help them. Sure there are mitigating circumstances in some situations. Just as you are busy so are they. There are times when they are not aware of situations, or cannot get to them, until the 11th hour so to speak.
      They are paying you for a service. That doesn't mean they always have to treat it like its a proveledge that you are there to answer the phone for them. Something you should realize is that (usually anyway) by the time someone calls you for help they are at their wits end. They're frustrated. Tell me, when was the last time you were able to do everything you needed to do to fix something when you were thoroughly mad?
      And I work in tech support so I do this every day.
    • You're right but..

      He's not talking about making ridiculous calls two minutes before closing. I understand that and I try to avoid doing that.

      I have the same problems with retarded customers that don't follow instructions and everyone gets screwed. However, I have the same problems this dude has/had and I've always had and particularly since I moved to the US.

      It's all talk and no action here. Everyone's bragging about service, about this and that and I realize that it's all advertising hype.

      Yes, things have changed abroad too (where I'm from) but since I haven't been there for 10 years, I'm kind of talking about the way it used to be. However, I never got much service here 10 years ago either.

      I've stuck with HP printers for ONE reason only and that's their service. THIS HOWEVER has changed lately too.

      I've gotten shi*ted by pretty much every company I've dealt with.
      In particular, Micron computers, Dell, Office Max, Best Buy just to name a few.

      Logitech is another company I've had problems with and none of these are isolated issues by the way.

      You don't get to talk to people. In HP's case, you can press a selection as many as 8 times or more before talking to a person. Here's the worst problem right now as far as I'm concerned. NOBODY knows anything.

      I don't give a shi* if I talk to a guy in India or Timbuktu as long as he KNOWS the product but it's not hard to tell when they're just reading off a manuscript..

      One of the problems is consumers themselves.

      Everyone wants something cheap and they dont' care HOW they get it. So, I sell it so cheap I go out of business. They don't care. Hell they think, I'll just go to the next company.

      Well, if NO ONE makes a lot of money, they're gonna cut costs somewhere and guess what, stock holders won't give up their profits so it's coming out of QUALITY and SERVICE.

      ..guess what? It'll get a lot worse before it gets better and we have ourselves to blame for it.


  • Companies that suck.... Where to begin???

    The number of companies that provide just plain miserable service has grown significantly over the past decade. While I've worked with a few that still provide me with great service, the majority seem to get continually worse.

    There is not much sense in complaining about it though since it's usually about as useful as talking to a rock. The only real solution is to tell them to stuff it and go elsewhere. Of course that only works if they have real competition elsewhere. Far too many companies have effective monopolies in whatever service or goods they provide which leaves consumers to put up with crappy service or do without.
  • what goes around comes around

    I am going to guess that Christopher Lochhead and his executive buddies in Silicon Valley are largely deserving of the frustrating downsides described in this "guest post" about dealing with large high-tech businesses whenever there are problems. After all, these folks invented those wonderful hardware and software "solutions" that Chris is finally experiencing firsthand as a (sort of) outsider.

    Lets see if anyone can explain why it is impossible to reach a qualified individual who speaks English when you call corporate America for help. It should simply be illegal to sell complicated devices like computers, cell phones, and other expensive electronic trinkets to the general public without offering an easy and free pathway to qualified assistance.

    I would be willing to bet that the bean counters (who have largely taken over corporate management everywhere) decided long ago that they would eliminate anything smacking of customer support to save lots of money -- and then line their own pockets come bonus time.

    I have an email account that has a flaw in its operation. The DRAFTS folder refuses to work. I have tried contacting the help desk of this provider many times (they only let your questions in free via email) and I have NEVER run into anyone who comprehends the problem or can point me to a resolution. (I refuse to pony up money for the "privelege" of phoning these idiots.)

    If good old Christopher, now living life as a well-heeled consumer, has issues with these kinds of things, the rest of us really want to strangle somebody. An occasional public lynching of those responsible might also be useful.
    • Self help

      "Lets see if anyone can explain why it is impossible to reach a qualified individual who speaks English when you call corporate America for help. It should simply be illegal to sell complicated devices like computers, cell phones, and other expensive electronic trinkets to the general public without offering an easy and free pathway to qualified assistance."

      I would be happy with more complete user guides for starters that better explain the ins and outs of the product. I recently decided to convert my music files ripped onto the computer in .wma format to .mp3 and went thumbing through media players help files looking for directions on how to do that. I never did find what I was looking for and downloaded something that would do it and stated so out front.

      So many products out there cover everything but what I need to know in the user guides and very little beyond the obvious "make sure its plugged in" troubleshooting tips. Corporate America could, in my case anyway, could reduce the number of calls or inquiries simply by giving me more information. At least offering a message board where users can talk and discuss things in the open. I found a few sites with message boards attached and I got more questions answered that way then if I had made that toll call.

      I agree completely that the root of the problem is companies running to keep that stock price as high as possible.
    • Think before you throw stones.

      Dear dmennie, while you are entitled to your opinion, it is offensive for you to
      imply that me and my buddies are ?largely deserving? of poor service.

      While Mercury was by no means perfect, we were deeply committed to the success
      of our customers. Mercury?s customer support organization won multiple
      customer service awards from The Service and Support Professionals Association
      (SSPA) and was inducted into the SSPA support hall of fame.

      Mercury was also one of the fastest growing enterprise software companies in the
      world over the last few years, while there was a giant downturn in tech spending
      going on (from aprox $350m in 2002 to aprox $1b in 2006). During this time the
      bulk of our sales growth came from existing happy customers coming back to buy
      more of our ?solutions?.

      Good luck solving your customer support problems in the future,

      christopher lochhead
      christopher Lochhead
  • Great Article

    Awesome and soooo ON.