An ex-Verizon employee explains why it's not worth helping customers

As the pandemic has rolled along, many things in phone retail have changed. What's happening in stores, according to a recently departed Verizon employee, seems quite extraordinary.

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Troubled times?

I used to go to phone retail stores with a disturbing regularity.

It was always interesting to look at new phones and ask salespeople what they really, really feel about those phones.

COVID-19 has somewhat curtailed my forays into the outside world. This hasn't, however, stopped carrier store employees from getting in touch and, well, telling it how they see it.

Today, let's listen to Gordon -- not his real name, for very good reasons -- who recently left his job at a Verizon store after being, in his words, "in the top 1% of the company for multiple years in sales."

Gordon contacted me in a particular spirit. He told me: "I'm not a disgruntled ex-employee but someone who legitimately believes that people are being ripped off just because they don't know any better."

It sounded like there was some vehemence attached here. So I asked Gordon to explain.

"The company is directing employees to only offer a $17 a month insurance offer called Verizon Protect," he said. "This is a product that is made up of a bunch of individual products sold as a package. If someone wants coverage on their phone for lost or stolen stuff, there is an option for $6.85 a month. However, it was forbidden by leadership for retail employees to offer this to customers."

This sounds a touch peculiar. There's a product you have, but you don't want customers to know about?

Gordon believes the more expensive product isn't so good: "Verizon Protect includes features like Tech Coach, which is a third-party technical support line that's absolutely horrible."

Well, yes, but upselling is part of the game, isn't it? The company wants to make more money, so it gets salespeople to push the more expensive items.

Offer You Service? That Could Cost Us.

It was another aspect highlighted by Gordon that made me stop and wonder about the meaning of (commercial) existence.

Gordon explained that previously it had been possible to make "fairly attractive money" by "behaving with dignity and without pushing customers into items they don't need."

But then came COVID-19.

"During COVID, they decided to make the commission a team model," he said. "They also took out upgrades as a form of compensation altogether."

Instead, explained Gordon, in order to get commission salespeople had to either sell new lines or accessories, watches, tablets, and insurance. There was a new, third way to qualify for commission.

"They also added in a new component that directly affected commission -- based off of customer satisfaction surveys," said Gordon. "If you open an account, the customer got a survey. If that customer gave you an eight or below that would lower the pay for the store."

Some might mutter this was a good move. Surely incentivizing customer service would create positive results for both customers and employees.

Oh, but some salespeople looked at it a slightly different way.

"What happened is that no one would open accounts," said Gordon. "If the customer isn't buying something, they sent them away to either the website, the chat, or the call-in customer service."

Wait, I wondered, what does "open accounts" mean? 

"'Open an account' would be asking for a phone number and sending a verification to the customer. You don't need to sell anything. You just go into the account to look at a bill or take a payment. Also, if the customer picks up an order, 'open an account' would be accessing an account."

Essentially, then, some salespeople didn't want to risk being scored poorly by a customer -- and risk lowering their team's commission -- so they tried to send the customer to other parts of Verizon for help.

Which may, to some, feel like an exalted level of absurdity. Oddly, though, that's not all.

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Your Service Is Not Being Upgraded.

There was another kink when it came to helping those who wanted to upgrade their phones. Explained Gordon: "If someone upgrades a phone and doesn't buy accessories or get the top tier insurance -- or goes on a low-cost plan -- individuals are judged against that as employees."

Gordon also pointed me to an online forum where Verizon employees express themselves heartily -- and anonymously.

Here's a sample from a Verizon salesperson addressing the company's bosses. It's a reaction to a recent company email inviting customers to come back to stores.

The salesperson pleads to their bosses: "You think you are going to get quality when I'm abused all day and our customers had to wait forever... I'm just trying to survive the day. Do you know we are touchless and have to wear masks, then catch grief all day about masks from customers?"

This has been an issue across retail and certainly at carrier stores. Yet now, says this Verizon salesperson, store staffing has been reduced by half. 

The salesperson again: "Do you know our SMB (small and medium business) reps hide at home and we only have the ability to help half as many customers as before and you ask us why SMB sales are down? Do you know how many new lines walk away daily due to not being staffed properly? Of course, you don't. Do know how many customers come to get help at the store only to walk away in disgust because of the lack of help? Really? Does this sound like a successful business strategy?"

Not entirely, I hear you sniff.

Naturally, I contacted Verizon for its reaction on these issues. Has the company, I asked, actually seen an improvement in customer service scores since adding those scores to employee commission calculations? I will update, should I hear back.

Customers Still Want Humans. But Does Verizon?

This salesperson struck on a very important issue. People still want to go to a store and talk to a real person. (I'm one of them.)

Says the salesperson to their bosses: "You changed retail's entire landscape. Stop placing blame and understand we all want to succeed, but your vision handicapped our ability to win. Your customers aren't ready and willing to do the telesales world. They don't want a chatbox. They don't want bad answers from an app."

And there you were thinking AI is truly wonderful.

Of course, this might all be kvetching from a minority. It may be that Verizon's management is trying hard to do the right thing -- or, at least, the right thing for its corporate purposes.

I confess I've always experienced kind, thoughtful, and thorough customer service in Verizon stores -- even during the pandemic. But Gordon believes the company is "trying to make their corporately owned retail stores obsolete."

He added: "What customers don't realize is that a few years ago Verizon laid off all of their technical support people. Not one employee in a Verizon-owned retail store has any type of technical training on devices."

Which would seem awkward, but perversely believable.

Gordon has extremely fond memories of his years at Verizon.

Yet now, he says: "I can sleep at night. The culture was great, but the new upper leadership has distorted it."