The Twitterer and the Pauper: Thoughts on the Crap Age

February 8th, 2010  |  Published in etc  |  1 Comment

I was telling my Invisible Skyjacker Phone Pirate story to some folks at a neighborhood pot luck last night. When I got to the part about the measures I took to actually get some traction with AT&T, I was forced to think about something that had made me uncomfortable in a way one might explain by the presence of an SEP field.

I’m getting old, so there are lots of things that a version of me from 10 years ago (Past Me) who found himself in 2010 might think of right away that I simply did not. For instance, Past Me might have instantly thought that dialing straight through to AT&T customer service when he first had a problem was a fool’s errand when there’s probably an AT&T customer service rep monitoring Twitter for just this sort of issue.

I didn’t think of that, though, so I picked up my phone, dialed the customer support line, and was treated about as poorly as I’ve ever been treated by anyone in customer service. I was talked down to, belittled and escalated only after protesting. The second and third levels of support I dealt with were better, but less because they could actually do anything besides what common sense might dictate and more because they didn’t act like bad human beings while trying to carry out a policy that’s still effectively anti-customer: In the event of a severe billing error, apologize but figure out a way to impose some sort of charges on the customer, even if it’s inappropriate to do so.

Even though I don’t have a parallel universe version of me we could use to repeat this experiment under laboratory conditions, we do have a simple fact:

The customer support I got from AT&T after dialing in to report a problem with my bill effectively ended with “we’re still going to charge you some amount of money for our mistake.”

And we have another set of facts:

After being told my road ended there, I did a little blogging then sent a Tweet to someone from AT&T asking only that my blog posts be read, and that got a much more satisfactory response from someone who had more authority than all three levels of customer support I’d previously dealt with combined.

Not a big discovery. That’s how things work now that flacks have learned to view the Internet as a gigantic, potentially viral attack surface. They’ve adapted, and they’re remaking our experience of the Internet on some level. At first glance, it’s as if they’re fulfilling The Promise: A customer has a problem and is instantly connected with someone competent to do something.

This connectedness has led to a number of blogging narrative subgenres:

  • “company tried to screw me over, I went out and got INTERNET on its ass and got satisfaction, so NOW who’s the badass you sclerotic meatspace, uh … COMPANY? Next time, send me TEN dollars in coupons or I’m taking this straight to FACEBOOK!”

  • “company tried to screw me over, and before I could go out and get INTERNET on its ass it demonstrated to me that it rilly, rilly gets it

  • more rare: “company tried to screw me over even after I explained that I have Twitter followers numbering in the four digit range … the company DOESN’T GET IT and WILL PAY.”

I think the closest I’ve come to performing these narratives in a concise manner is in a comment I left on Metafilter about this time last year:

*splutter*

You can’t talk that way to me! I’m from THE INTERNET.

The Crap Age

I’ve been working on a general theory over the past year that I’ve come to think of as “The Crap Age.” We’re living in the Crap Age as the result of a process I refer to as the ongoing Crapification of everything.

I’m not completely comfortable with what my theory might reveal about my general emotional state, but I’ll happily concede that things might not be worse than they’ve ever been because I’m pretty sure we can still agree that some things don’t seem to be improving:

  • some classes of products don’t last as long as they used to

  • an overemphasis on finding efficiencies in every business process has led to shoddier goods and services

The “services” part of “shoddier goods and services” has been getting my goat more and more over the past several years. I even wrote a customer support interaction HOWNOTTO for the benefit of my readers at LinuxPlanet over eight years ago, and my general experience hasn’t really improved since then.

So the new era of Internet Engagement from Big Companies we’re living in would seem to refute my notion that customer service is getting worse, right? After all … if you just tweet a big company with your complaint, you’ll get a better outcome than you would have dialing them up or writing a letter.

A moment’s reflection on the disparity between phone support and “Twitter support,” however, suggests that there’s no way the Positive Internet Engagement Era can last.

We can start with two premises:

  • Outcomes from phone interactions probably aren’t worse because the phone makes customer support reps bad people.

  • Outcomes from Twitter or other social media interactions probably aren’t better because the Internet makes support reps better people.

In fact, outcomes from Twitter or other social media interactions are probably better because companies are terrified all hell is going to break loose if the wrong person tweets her frustration to the wrong group of hotheads … that a minor issue could “go viral” and create bigger problems. They’re not so much providing support as they are performing the act of providing support … performing a bit of support theater for an audience that could number in the millions on a medium over which they have no control … and I don’t think they’ll be able to keep it up indefinitely.

As a customer service strategy, it only works as long as the population of people who can be mollified by that strategy is of a manageable size. Telephone support lines probably seemed like a magical ticket to the front of the line before just anybody could pick up a phone just about anywhere and dial in, and companies are stuck with them now. We all expect a support number of some kind, so this is where we’ve ended up: The job is outsourced to people who work in big call centers who do their best to clear a call as quickly as possible—resolved or not—lest they be deemed inefficient; or with speech recognition decision trees designed to mimic human interaction, but never seeming to quite understand what you said. When you get a “real person,” that person is unable to do much more than triage you, and they’re probably overworked doing even that much.

Those terrible call centers, disempowered representatives and crummy speech recognition systems exist because companies have decided they can live with a certain level of shoddiness in their support operations. More to the point, they’ve realized that we will live with a certain level of shoddiness in their support operations.

At some point, they’re going to decide that gently holding the hand of every irritable Twitterer and blogger just isn’t worth it. They’ll be pushed closer and closer to that decision as word spreads that the 800 number is for chumps.

Call me a malcontent, but my experience hasn’t made me like AT&T more. It has made me like AT&T a lot less: Rather than making some sort of investment in how it deals with all its customers it’s banking on an ongoing disparity of information. If you know enough to blab your dissatisfaction over the social network du jour, go to the front of the line. If not, you can suck it and they’ll even tell you that you’ll need to pay another $3.99 a month to avoid future three-call ordeals.

The worst part of it is that AT&T’s biggest accomplices are the people who brag about the responsiveness they can wring out of it by menacing it with an Internet lynch mob. They’re just abetting the simulacrum of responsiveness it and every company like it are trying to construct—a simulacrum the companies will be able to sustain only as long as a certain percentage of their customers remain ignorant.

Responses

  1. gl. says:

    February 10th, 2010 at 4:52 pm (#)

    yes. this:

    “Call me a malcontent, but my experience hasn’t made me like AT&T more. It has made me like AT&T a lot less: Rather than making some sort of investment in how it deals with all its customers it’s banking on an ongoing disparity of information. If you know enough to blab your dissatisfaction over the social network du jour, go to the front of the line. If not, you can suck it and they’ll even tell you that you’ll need to pay another $3.99 a month to avoid future three-call ordeals.”

    the fact that i feel -lucky- when i get reasonable service or am treated fairly is a sad state of affairs, and i am willing to use all the meager privilege i have to make it happen. but it still makes me feel gross. and i know that social network privilege will go away when your social priority is more accurately triaged, and that just makes it all sadder.

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