Customer Communication

Just before Christmas, a major ice storm swept through Michigan. More than 400,000 people lost power, some of whom still do not have power. This is a story about the power company and the cable company.

Consumers Energy announced the next business day that some people would be waiting as long as a week for power to be restored. It is an unfortunate situation, especially in the winter and right around Christmas, but you can get an idea of the scope of the problem from that “more than 400,000” thing.

Consumers Energy explained the holiday vacations were being canceled and that emergency overtime was starting, again unfortunate right around Christmas but “400,000.” They explained that downed lines were the top priority, then intersections, then power lines that served entire neighborhoods, and connections to individual residences last. If you live in the country, with acres separating you from your next neighbor, you are bottom priority. Sorry, but “400,000.”

This is good customer service. The people at the bottom of the priority list were unhappy, but they knew what they were in for. Consumers laid their cards on the table on day one. “We have finite resources. We are using all of them. Here is what we are doing. Here is your realistic timeframe estimate.”

The local municipal energy service had a greater problem both with response and communication. After their help desk told customers that they could not tell which houses did or did not have power, customers started compiling a map for them. This is the power company with customers still without power. This is bad customer service on two levels.

Cable service also went out during the ice storm. These days, cable service can include your television, internet, telephone, and more. Comcast is the local monopoly on that service. If you called Comcast about the outage, an automated message informed you that service would be restored in one to three hours. The message was not “one to three hours” but rather a time they kept updating when you called back after the one to three hours passed. After several days, the time listed in the message changed every twelve hours. It was remarkably precise: 6:22pm, 6:12am, 6:03pm. Either someone had strong reason to believe that 6:00pm was not doable but 6:22pm totally was, or bored and irritable techs were punching in random numbers.

Note that business offices close at 5:00pm, so the message always said to call back after the office was closed, at which time the message would say to call back once offices open.

This is bad customer service. It is usually a bad idea to lie to your customers repeatedly. My heart goes out to the phone bank in India receiving those angry customer calls, because they had nothing they could do to help, and whoever they were talking to had already been lied to about when service would be restored. Their computer screens said that techs were working on the problem and that it would be fixed by 6:00. Their computer screens said that for days at a time, and they were being lied to just as much as the customers, and it was their job to repeat what the screen said as if they believed it.

As someone who has managed a telephone help desk, I am professionally angered by that last bit. The people on the help desk are the ones who get to deal with the angry customers. They have a lousy job, usually with the lowest pay, and your plan is to lie to them and not give them any resources to help the customers?

Disney business training explains that good customer service is built on good internal customer service, and treating your employees well is a key step in treating your customers well. That includes your contract employees in India who you left answering the phones during a week-long outage, while a pleasant, automated, Anglo voice once again assured customers that service will be back after the local offices are closed.

So please: put that information out front, provide realistic expectations, and provide good information to your customer support crew.

: Zubon

3 thoughts on “Customer Communication”

  1. Comcast is actually decent here in MA, but I suspect that’s because we also have FIOS as an option. Magically Comcast gave everyone faster internet without charge as FIOS came in, and every year when I have to re-argue my contract, saying ‘FIOS’ somehow drops my monthly charge by about $50 and gets me free HBO. Funny how that works.

    My buddy who has Google fiber as an option told me Comcast magically almost tripled his internet speed for free a few months ago. Again, funny how that works.

    Monopoly; sucks for customers, isn’t all that fun as a board game.

    1. Comcast has little competition here. My recent bill has a $5 per month increase. They are doing themselves no favors for when competition finally does arrive.

    2. Cannot WAIT until Comcast/TWC gets competition nationally, as opposed to certain local areas. The state of American internet is an absolute travesty and it’s ridiculous how long Comcast/TWC have been able to get away with their virtual monopolies.


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