Sometimes you just can’t make stuff up when it comes to dealing with people who work for big companies that serve the general public. Like a utility.
As part of relocating (which I recently did from Philadelphia to Chicago), I had to return a couple of digital cable boxes. The online locator for the nearest office to my home apparently didn’t work too well, as it was sending me to one several miles away from my home when I entered my zip code. I knew there had to be one closer, so I entered a different zip code for a neighborhood next to mine. Sure enough, I got directed to a much closer office.
When I arrived at the office, I was surprised to see that it was arranged with counters fortified with bulletproof glass thick enough to make any bank envious. There was also a nifty electronic “take a number machine” at the entrance that asked whether I was seeking assistance with my cable, telephone or internet. Well, since we had all three from this company and since our move necessitated that I cancel all three services, I was momentarily stumped. Remembering the cable boxes tucked under my arm, I gamely pressed “cable” to receive my number and waited for it to be called.
While waiting, I noticed that others who came in before me, and who pressed phone or internet, were issued numbers lower than mine. Sure enough, they were served before me. Obviously, like what always happens to me at the grocery store, I had picked the wrong line (or in this case, service). Eventually, though, I was invited to come to the counter and speak through six inches of Plexiglass to a real person.
Upon giving her my account number, I was promptly informed by the person behind the glass that I was at the wrong office to drop off my cable boxes. My bad, but I’m here now, I replied. It was late in the day, and there was not a chance I’d make it to the other office before it closed. With a frown on her face, the person told me to put the cable boxes into “the slot.” The “slot” was a small pass-through compartment that, when opened, provided a window through the barrier. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to figure out how to fit the boxes into it so that the door would close, apparently allowing the person on the other side to take them and allow me to get on with my life.
After a couple of miscues, complete with the person yelling at me through the glass to put the boxes in a different way, she finally gave up her shouting with one final huff. The next thing I know, she’s stomping off to a nearby door, yanking it open and joining the hoi polloi (i.e., customers) on my side of the looking glass. “It fits this way, dummy!” she snarled as she shoved the boxes into the slot in the correct (and obviously unfathomable to me) position. And I have to admit here that she didn’t actually say “dummy,” but I was able to infer it. She then stalked back to the door and returned to her position on the other side of the glass, where she retrieved the boxes from the slot. [At this point, you may be wondering why she didn’t just take the boxes from me and walk with them to the other side of the glass instead of placing them in the slot for me, but that will have to remain a mystery to us all.]
By now, the wearying effects of moving and the person’s attitude had taken a toll on me. With my irritation only slightly checked, I opened my big mouth and said, “You know, you might want to take a little refresher on your customer service skills.”
The person behind the glass stopped tapping into her computer, looked at me with a scowl and said, acidly, “Sir, I’m not in customer service. That’s another department.” She then returned to her typing, without a hint of irony.
I was stunned into silence, which for those who know me, is a feat that is damn near next to impossible. I looked around to see if anyone had just witnessed this exchange. One guy standing a couple of windows down looked over at me with a slight smirk, as if to say, “Well, what did you expect her to say?”
Honestly, at most I was expecting a dirty look, which I likely deserved for my essentially obnoxious remark. I wasn’t expecting the perfect fodder for a parable on how not to communicate with your customers, directly or indirectly.
And so I recount this exchange as often as I can when my friends and colleagues engage in a game of “can you top this” for unbelievable stories involving customer service. Many of them are naturally incredulous at my tale. But almost none are surprised. And if I were a company that provoked that kind of reaction in my customers or my prospective customers, I would be very, very worried.