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Friday 18 April 2003

Customer Service Report

I have been thinking about customer service lately. Actually, I think about customer service quite often, but recently I’ve been thinking about it even more than usual, and an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal brought my thoughts into focus.

bellsouth-card.jpg You need to subscribe to the Journal for that link to work — it’s well worth it — but since the most important thing was only in the print version, that shouldn’t much matter. The printed story was accompanied by this picture of a greeting card, sent by BellSouth to customers they’ve lost.

You can’t really see this in the scan, but the text on the front of the card says “Okay, we admit it, we let the romance slip away”.

I can’t imagine how effective these cards are. Myself, I don’t look for ‘romance’ from my phone company, I just look for phone service. This might be why I’m so dissatisfied with the treatment I get from so many places. I’m looking for goods and services; they just want to snuggle.

Let’s put aside, at least for now, the spookiness of companies hijacking the language of interpersonal relationships in an attempt to paper over their customer-relations gaffes. Let’s just look at one of the customer service horrors I’ve experienced in the past few weeks, and analyze what might have gone wrong.

I moved my base of operations recently, and I even more recently got around to changing my address with my bank — Suntrust. This is important, and not just because eventually the post office will stop forwarding my statements. Because the banks and credit-card companies have never really got around to implementing any kind of real identity-verification system with credit cards (like, say, a PIN), a lot of online merchants will only ship orders to the billing address associated with a given credit card. It is therefore important that the billing address for your card — in this case, a check card — be somewhere where you might want things shipped.

You can’t change your address on the bank’s website, presumably because this is not secure enough. The bank recently changed the password requirements for its website, requiring a 7-byte alphanumeric password that does not contain any dictionary words; you can see all my financial details on this website; you can move money around on this website; but you can’t change your address.

I called the bank’s 800 number, and I was told that I had to go to a bank branch in person to change my address, because my identity needed to be verified. (I was later informed, by someone else, that this was incorrect; but never mind.)

I went to the bank in person and talked to a teller, because the rest of the bank staff were out to lunch, taking a break from their back-breaking 10 am to 2 pm schedule. I made a withdrawal from one of my accounts and gave the teller the details of my new address information, which she wrote on a slip of scrap paper. You see, though she’s allowed to hand out cash that belongs to other people, either she or her system is not trusted enough to change addresses. The branch manager would have to actually make the change, when he returned from lunch.

(This might, in hindsight, be a good policy, because I wasn’t asked for identification, even though I was performing an apparently-incredibly-complex address change operation, and walking out the door with $200 in cash to boot.)

Anyway, this was a Tuesday. On Thursday, I placed an order with an online merchant, who called me back on Friday to tell me that my charge had not been approved because the billing address was wrong. I gave them the old address for the billing address, and that worked. (They still wouldn’t ship my order until Monday, though, because it was so late in the day —12:15 p.m. But that’s another rant.)

I called the bank branch, and spoke to the manager. I gave my name, etc. and was told that “sometimes” address changes took “several days” to make their way through the system. I was told that I should be patient.

I called the bank’s 800 number. I verified my identity by giving my name, social security number, date of birth, account numbers, address (the old one, that is), mother’s maiden name, and the amount of my last transaction (the ID-less $200 withdrawal). I complained that a system that took several days to change an address was insane, and the helpful person on the phone then told me that my address hadn’t been changed at all. This wasn’t an IT fuckup that had resulted in the change not propagating to some sub-system; nobody had ever entered it in the computer. Nobody in this case being the branch manager, the very person who had, minutes earlier, told me that it would take a few days for the change to “go through”. Go through his brain to his keyboard, maybe.

I complained about this at some length, and I was apologized to. My address was changed by the person on the phone, and, aside from a determination on my part to find a bank that wasn’t so glaringly incompetent, all was well.

Or so I thought.

On the following Monday, I tried to order something else online. On Tuesday, I was again told that my charge was being rejected because of an invalid address. I again called the bank. The bank assured me that everything was in order. I told them that I belived that they believed this, and that I’d be in good shape if I was trying to buy a laser printer from the bank, but that in fact the people who actually did sell laser printers were under the impression that my address was incorrect, and that they were probably being told this by the bank.

I was put on hold, and when the person came back I was told that all appeared to be in order. I asked whether something had been changed, and she said no. I pointed out that I had hard evidence that something wasn’t in order — my order being rejected — so I’d appreciate her checking again. We went through a few rounds of this, until eventually — aha! — some sub-system was discovered, a system that had to be manually changed independently of everything else and which — amazingly enough — represented the ‘billing’ address for the Visa account that was associated with the check card.

I placed my order again, and it went through this time. It had only taken me a visit to the bank in person, three 30-minute phone calls, and two delayed mail-order purchases, but I had managed to change my address with the bank.

Until I saw this article in the Journal, I chalked all this up to the bank’s incompetence and the banking industry’s general tendency to see consumer banking as a burdensome business they would rather not be in.

Now, though, it’s all so much clearer to me. I had let the romance out of the relationship. I hadn’t cuddled the bank enough. I hadn’t listened when it wanted to talk about its feelings.

Well, they can be that way. Me, I’m going to find a bank that’s less high-maintenance. This princess routine is charming for the first couple of dates, but it gets old in a hurry.

Posted by tino at 15:43 18.04.03
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