Customer service requires actually picking up the phone

By Michael Beach

The Sunday Times

Perth, Australia


A former editor of mine hated the sound of ringing phones. Not the actual sound, but the repetitive brrring-brrrinng, repeating itself over and over again.


Because on the other end of the line was a reader. They were never to be ignored. Plus, there was always the possibility that reader could be ringing with a tip for our next front-page story.

Answering phone calls promptly and helpfully shows a commitment to customer service.
Answering phone calls promptly and helpfully shows a commitment to customer service.

“Don’t listen to it — pick it up!” he would yell across the newsroom. Mostly there was an expletive inserted randomly before or after any of the words.

It didn’t matter whether it was your phone or not. Just get it. Now.

It was an early lesson in customer service.

I had a flashback to this memory while spending nearly two hours listening to hold music last week. I’m sure the scenario is familiar but I’ll repeat it anyway, because it involved a digital company once renowned for its incredible customer service.

It started simply enough. The Internet stopped working at home, so I called my Internet provider. After tripping my way through the 12-step programme of button-pressing options, a real recorded voice came on the line. “Your waiting time is approximately one hour,” it said. I couldn’t wait an hour, so I e-mailed the company instead.

I outlined the problem and asked politely if they could e-mail me back or call me. No reply.

Until 18 hours later when they called me while I was at work. Perfect. I’ve got a problem at home so they call me during work hours. Perfectly pointless.

So, I called them again when I got home. “You waiting time is approximately one hour,” the voice said again.

It might seem odd to an Internet provider, but waiting an hour isn’t always convenient. So before leaving work the following day, I e-mailed them again. Give me a call. Please.

They didn’t.

After getting home home, I decided it was now or never. “Your waiting time is approximately one hour,” my old friend said.

No matter. I put my mobile on speaker and:

  • Ate dinner with the family.
  • Bathed the kids.
  • Helped put the toddler to bed.
  • Went through my other kids’ school reports with them.
  • Listened to them read bedtime stories.
  • Did the dishes.
  • Watched some TV.

When, lo and behold, a real voice sprang out of the phone — one hour and 45 minutes after I called. And do you know what the first thing the customer service rep in another country told me? “Your issue has been placed with another customer representative. Let me talk to them first to tell them I am talking to you.”

I was put on hold!

Of course, the customer service entailed me scampering around the house trying to fix their problem. And, in the end, they couldn’t work it out. However, they could arrange for a technician to come to my home, but I would probably be liable for the US$300 bill.

The onus was completely on me — both financially and more of my time.

I thanked the customer service rep. The next day and I switched companies. The gentleman who helped me saw the funny side of my story with the rival company. “They should call them customer waiting representatives,” he said.

The moral to the story? Ringing phones should be picked up by real people as quickly as possible. This is a common-sense strategy — not just a digital strategy.

About Michael Beach

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