Demonizing the Customer
Some Company Help Staffs Disdain the People They Serve
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Find yourself muttering the "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it
anymore" consumer mantra more often lately? Since misery loves
company, check out this bizarre episode from the Customer Service
Encounters of the Worst Kind folder. It's a case about one company
even misery may have trouble loving.
When LaChania Govan couldn't get her cable-TV's digital recorder
working, the 25-year-old working mother complained to Comcast Corp.,
her cable company. More than 40 times over four weeks she phoned
Comcast's customer-service department asking for help. "Calling
Comcast became my second job," says the Elgin, Ill., consumer. "I had
to ensure the cordless phone was fully charged and the kids were
content -- and I sat and called, I cooked and called, I cleaned and
called, and just called."
Govan says she was disconnected repeatedly, transferred to the
Spanish-speaking customer queue (not her language), put on hold,
transferred to technicians who didn't have a clue, "and so on and so
Eventually she reached a "savior," that gem of a service rep everyone
hopes to reach. The rep sent a technician to replace Govan's cable box
at no charge and credited Govan with a month of service.
Case closed, right? If only. When Govan's next monthly Comcast bill
arrived in the mail, it was addressed to "Bitch Dog." Go ahead, rub
your eyes in disbelief, then read again. Govan says her initial
reaction was "come on, you have to be kidding me!" Then, she felt
"shocked and appalled," she says.
The Chicago Tribune scooped the story in mid-August, and follow-ups
have appeared in the Trib, the Associated Press, MSNBC and
elsewhere. Govan's case has become something of a cause clbre bringing
to a head the rage consumers increasingly feel toward inept and
uncaring customer service -- and now vice versa.
"The demonization of customers is not an uncommon or rare event, but
getting caught demonizing the customer as this company did is really
rare," says Scott M. Broetzmann, president of Customer Care
Measurement & Consulting, which recently released its annual Customer
Rage Survey (see the Oct. 30 column, " 'Service' That's Anything
Customer service personnel commonly "ventilate" about customers they
deal with all day, he says, but seldom to the customer's face. When
one of his clients held sensitivity training for its customer-service
employees, asking them to draw pictures of their customers, most of
the drawings were "hideous, grotesque," he says. There's even a Web
site called http://Customerssuck.com (slogan: "The customer is never
right!") where "frontline retail types" tell their horror stories.
"It's a high-stress job," says Broetzmann, not making excuses, just
stating the fact.
Govan, you should know, is a customer-service rep herself. She works
for a credit card company and has been in the business for six
years. That training helped keep her from flying off the hook through
the incident. When you hear what she thinks customer service ought to
be about, you may wonder why Comcast doesn't hire her. Customer
service "means to me being friendly, helpful and respectful," says
Govan. "I know how it feels to be a customer service rep and [to be] a
consumer on the other end. You do not have to settle for less, and you
do not have to be mistreated."
To Comcast's credit, the supervisor to whom Govan first told the story
was aghast, offered her two months of free service and promised to
investigate. When the initial story ran in the Trib, a Comcast
executive left an apology on Govan's answering machine. In a later
conversation with Govan, he apologized again and offered six months'
free service to make amends -- which Govan has refused. Comcast, she
says, "has to accept the fact that they have humiliated me, not just
by the bill" but by the fact that people associate her with this
story. "It affects everyone around me and my children."
Comcast reportedly fired two customer-service employees connected to
the incident and changed rules to allow only supervisors to change
customer names on billings.
"This goes beyond losing your temper and saying something you wish you
kept to yourself," says Cheryl Reed, spokeswoman for Consumers for
Cable Choice Inc. (CCC), an Indianapolis alliance of consumers,
advocacy groups and other organizations founded in June to promote
fair prices, choices and better service in the cable TV marketplace.
Inspired by Govan's story, CCC last month launched the
http://MyCableNightmare.com Web site as a consumer grievance forum
encouraging cable customers to voice their frustrations.
"We're not anti-cable, we're anti- bad cable," says Reed, adding that
Govan's story and those on the site are indicative of an industry
problem -- no competition in cable, video and broadband services is
why cable's prices are skyrocketing and customer service is hitting
rock bottom. "Consumers need a better deal, and competition by its
very nature will give them a better deal."
But one disclosure is needed: When CCC got started last summer, it
received a $75,000 start-up grant from Verizon Communications Inc., a
telephone company that has a vested interest in promoting changes in
regulations to open the cable marketplace to competition.
"We are quite open that we have accepted industry funding," says Reed,
adding that 38 member groups and organizations also supply
support. "We don't care who provides the competition that will give
consumers a better product and better price ... but we're passionate
about having competition."
Got questions or comments? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail
details firstname.lastname@example.org write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington
Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Because of the volume of
mail, personal replies are not always possible.
Copyright 2005 The Washington Post Company
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