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Whose problem is this?

This lady is Joyce, my customer service queen at Enspyre, who used to answer my phone when I lived in Taiwan. I've had a few interesting encounters with customer service people recently, one outstandingly good and one outstandingly bad, both worth commenting upon. At the core of this issue is the question I've asked before: whose problem are you trying to solve?

If you know me, you will know I don't expect much from customer service people; just a fast knowledgable response, superhuman patience, and a genuine desire to solve whatever problem I throw at them. But what I really want is to never need them at all.

I want companies to organise things so that I don't have to be constantly asking for help, or complaining, but sadly the majority seem to be so focused on their own needs that they don't think about mine. And when I contact them to sort something out, they resent this feedback on how badly they are doing, and immediately start defending themselves instead of trying to fix the problem. They talk about their systems, their requirements, their rules, what I did wrong, anything except what I want them to do for me in exchange for my money. It's as if they've forgotten that companies exist to solve problems, fulfil a need, do something worthwhile, and profits are just the fuel to make that possible. They think their profits are more important than my satisfaction, and bullying me into compliance is good business.

A great example of a company that does things right is my webhost, ICDsoft. I posted a support ticket today, and 15 seconds later it had already been taken by someone who replied a few minutes later with the answer I needed. Looking back, since October 2003, this company has dealt - successfully - with 40 confused and stupid requests from me, with an average response time of 11 minutes and 21 seconds.

That's pretty good, but it gets better. Two of those tickets concerned things that had suddenly stopped working, and each time someone had taken the trouble to investigate for over an hour before replying. Was I hacked? Had the aliens taken over my website? No, I was being a retard, and someone had to patiently explain things to me until I understood. Take these two exceptional cases out of the record, and the average response time for typical requests is just 7 minutes 12 seconds. By response, I mean "to log in to your account, turn off the caps lock," or similar helpful advice.

Compare this with the hours you spend being told to "press 1 if your enquiry concerns an existing order," before being put on endless hold, or the stoically stupid operative repeating that "our policies don't allow that," in the face of your perfectly resonable request. Everyone who thinks they have power does this to you; your bank, airline, dentist, school, government officials, phone company, facebook (who don't even have a customer service department, as far as I can tell), everyone that thinks they make the rules.

They forget that if you have no problems then you don't need them. You are their reason for going to work every day. They, and their companies, exist to serve you. They should welcome you and engage with you, so that you become an evangelist for their service or product. But they don't, and too many people let them get away with it.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine called me in tears from the airport in Taipei. KLM groundstaff were being arseholes, she was being forced to buy an additional ticket for her flight, at a cost of nearly US$2000, and nobody was prepared to consider the possibility that the customer was right and the airline was wrong.

The problem was that someone had misread the EU visa regulations, decided that my friend's existing ticket wasn't good enough, and didn't want to admit they made a mistake. The airline preferred to protect staff, rather than investigate or even read the bloody regulations. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for saying "we did the wrong thing and should issue a refund immediately." When I finally spoke to someone on the phone, she couldn't see why it was a problem to spend US$2000 on a ticket that would never be used, and "request a refund, minus the service fee, when you return." (The whole problem centred around the uncertainty of the return date in the first place.)

Worst of all, I asked explicitly whose problem they were solving with this "solution" and was told in no uncertain terms that they acted to protect the passenger. I call bullshit, the lying bastards! The passenger had no problem, and the worst possible outcome of doing nothing is that European immigration officials would ask her to change the return date on her existing ticket. Why would she need another one?

After a long discussion, after convincing them that I could and would fight and win, and after forwarding them copies of the relevant regulations, the case was referred to unidentified managers who eventually ruled that a full refund was in order. But no apology or acknowledgement that things needed to be done differently.

I "won" because they chose to turn this into a fight. Imagine if, instead of fighting their customers, they had the same customer service philosophy as ICDsoft? We would have both been winners, and the process would have been much simpler and smoother.