Customer service or customer service theater?

Yesterday afternoon I listened as K exhibited patience and tact beyond what I would have been able to muster while dealing with a customer service nightmare with Blue Shield of California, her health insurance agency. She has probably spent an hour+ on the phone with them three times in the past week, trying to get what seems like a simple issue resolved.

The problem seems to stem from the fact that when she originally signed up in mid-November she wanted her insurance to start December 1, as she had other coverage until then. When her card was initially issued it indicated a start date of mid-November. She called up to request that this be changed to December 1. Not a problem the guy said and sure enough, a few days later, a new card arrived with a December 1 coverage start date.

Now Blue Shield is insisting that her coverage actually started in mid-November, and that additional funds are therefore owed. The start date can't now be changed because a change needs to be requested within 30 days. When K explained (over and over again) that she did request that change well within 30 day deadline multiple customer service reps have just robtically repeated that their computer doesn't show this. What their computer does show is that a card was re-issued, a card that gives a new start date of December 1. They "don't know" why this was sent; the computer doesn't tell them. Might it be because K had requested it, just maybe? Sure, that might be the case, but without a record in the computer there's nothing they can do. And this isn't just talk, the customer service staff literally are not empowered to actually solve problems. Their job is entirely to deflect blame and get you off the phone.

At the end of the call the Blue Shield woman asked "is there anything else I can do to help?" and K replied "I just want to feel that I've been heard and I don't feel that." Long silence. K: "Hello?" Blue Shield Woman: "Sorry, what do you want? My mind went blank for a minute there." She literally couldn't retain focus to listen to the response to the question she asked! And precisely what that response asked for was being heard. Oh irony.

This all got me thinking: surely any service that involves this type of customer interaction is ready to be dominated by a company that empowers its staff to treat people like humans, like the valued customers they are, and actually solve their problems? Just as was seemingly just selling shoes but was really selling itself based on superior customer service, in any sector with relatively interchangeable products companies win with service. And, honestly, it's not so hard. Zappos allowed their people to act like real people, not script-reading automatons, and gave them the tools and permission to actually solve problems. Not only is this much more enjoyable for the customer it is also much more satisfying for the staff.

We should stop being so impressed with companies that exhibit these characteristics in the public domain such as social media but not in the private and more regular phone interactions. Comcast comes to mind. They are regularly cited for their great Twitter-enabled customer service through their @comcastcares, but have you dealt with their call center recently? It's the typical frustrating and dehumanizing experience. What does it mean when a company makes a show of great customer service publicly but fails to follow this philosophy in their call center? It means it's not real, it's customer service theater, a performance designed to disguise the fact that for many people there's no where else to turn but venting on Twitter.

Let's save our congratulations for companies who treat both their staff and their customers in a more humane way, empowering all their customer service staff to actually perform services for their customers, rather than just pretending to behave this way in public.

Photo by Michael B via flickr (Creative Commons license).