Business Books: Customer service, from both ends of the phone

NEW YORK, March 19 (Reuters) - There’s no question that “customer care representatives” are the people U.S. customers love to hate, but the feeling is often mutual.

Consumers gripe about the confusing phone prompts, lengthy hold times and ill-prepared employees that are often the hallmarks of a call to a company -- and many have no compunction about taking their frustration out on those at the other end of the phone.

Emily Yellin, author of an upcoming book with the tongue-in-cheek title “Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us,” sees room for improvement on both sides.

“As customers, it’s important for us to not take the transaction so personally and realize that it is a business transaction,” she said.

At the same time, she added, companies “have to think of it less as just a business transaction and think more about the personal and interpersonal relationships that go on.”

Set for release on Tuesday, “Your Call ...” (Free Press, $26) also looks at customer service from the viewpoint of various companies that provide it, as well as call center operators and automated voice technology developers.

In fact, the subtitle reflects what Yellin considers the book’s main theme: “Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives.”

It’s not always a pretty picture.

For example, some Americans systematically harassed customer service representatives in Bangalore to vent their ire at the outsourcing of jobs. Newspapers documented the trend with articles like “I Made an Indian Girl Cry, You Can Do It Too!” and “India Call Centers Suffer Storm of Four-Letter Words.”

But U.S. call center employees are not immune from abuse. Unruly callers have earned nicknames like “Pervert Pete” and “Domineering Dave,” the book says, and many disgruntled workers have turned to the Internet to publicize their plight.

“(Customers) continue to take out all their lives’ frustrations on me, even if I had nothing to do with it and I’m trying to help them!” Yellin quotes from one blog. “Reps often get used as ‘punching bags’ for customers, which is totally not fair.”


From the customer's point of view, the author points to people like 76-year-old Mona Shaw, who literally took matters into her own hands in 2007 after Comcast Corp CMCSA.O cut off her new phone service for no apparent reason.

Shaw and her husband drove to the nearest Comcast office on a Friday, asked for the manager and were told to wait outside in the August heat. After two hours, they learned that the manager had gone home.

The couple returned on Monday, and Shaw took a hammer to the company’s office equipment while asking: “Now do I have your attention?”

Shaw received a $345 fine and a suspended sentence, but the retired military nurse became something of a celebrity.

So did Vincent Ferrari, who called AOL to cancel his Internet account in 2006. After 15 minutes of automated prompts and being on hold, a customer service rep spent five excruciating minutes trying to talk Ferrari out of his decision.

Ferrari, who had recorded the call, posted it on his blog, and the story got picked up by the mainstream media.

But companies like AOL and Comcast did make efforts to reverse such missteps, the book says.

“With the ability of customers to take their experiences out into the public with a much bigger megaphone in the Internet, I think the equation has changed a bit,” Yellin said.

The recession could also affect the company-customer relationship.

Many companies tend to view customer service as an obvious place to make cuts during tough times, Yellin said, but others see it as a long-term investment.

“In a climate like this, where price is probably not going to be a competitive thing because I think everyone is going to try to compete on price, the only differentiator will end up being the service,” she said. “And there are a lot of studies that say customers now leave companies because of bad customer service experiences.” (Editing by Brian Moss)