By James Kwak
So, I wanted to transfer phone and DSL from one house to another. I went to Verizon’s web site, clicked on the promisingly named “Moving to a New Home” link, and walked through the step-by-step wizard. It said I could have unlimited domestic calling and 3 MB DSL for $55 per month, which was a better deal than I was currently getting, so I signed up. The only issue was that the scheduling calendar only allowed install dates in the next month and I wanted a date six weeks out, but the live chat representative said I could just call in later and change the install date.
A few days later I went online to check on the order status in their online system and saw that my DSL order was nowhere to be found. So I called up and, after much misunderstanding and aggravation, I figured out that my order had been canceled by their back-end system. Even though the front-end (web) system knew that I was an existing customer (remember, I clicked on “Moving to a New Home”) and offered me a discounted bundle, the back-end (probably mainframe system) didn’t want to give discounts to existing customers and wouldn’t allow the order to be processed.* After a little arguing, the representative said that she would manually book the order at the higher price and then go in and give me the originally promised discount.
The next time I checked my order status I saw that I had three different DSL orders in their system, which made me nervous, but there was nothing to do but wait.
Then, during the dead period (the period when I didn’t want service anywhere), I got a bill. That bill showed that my phone service had been suspended correctly, but I was being billed continuously for DSL. I chatted online with a Verizon rep, who said that my DSL order had been set up as a move to happen all on the same day (July 26, the date I asked for the installation). She said that she could not change the order, but I could call customer service and they could maybe change it. I didn’t want to mess anything up, so I asked her to verify that DSL service would move to the new address on July 26, and she said yes, so I just left it at that.
Eventually the install date came, the phone worked, and the DSL didn’t. I also got a bill that only mentioned phone service, not DSL. And my online account only showed phone, not DSL. No big surprise. I started a chat session with a Verizon rep, and he insisted repeatedly that my DSL was working, and he had some system that showed it was working. When I pointed out all the evidence that it was not working, he told me to go check the modem and look at the light.
So I went back to the house with the non-working DSL, verified that the DSL light was blinking (bad), and called tech support. After the many prompts, during which the nice recorded voice told me I should turn off the DSL modem and turn it back on, the person I reached quickly verified that my DSL was not working, which makes me wonder what system the previous person was looking at.**
After some more investigation, he said that in his “system,” it showed both that my DSL order had been canceled and that there was a delay with the installation. (This is probably because, remember, I had three different orders in the system. The original order is probably the one that got canceled, and the newer one had some unexplained delay.)
At this point I said that if they couldn’t fix the problem, I was going to cancel what was left of the DSL order and switch everything to Comcast. This was partly due to frustration with the installation process, but partly due to the fact that at this point I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to convince them to give me the discounted bundle (the agent I had spoken to earlier either lied to me or was unable to do what she said she would), and without the discount Comcast is cheaper. So then the agent said he would transfer me to some other vaguely named group of people who could solve my problem. He tried that for about ten minutes before telling me that, since it was after 5 pm (on a weekday!), that group had gone home, so I should call the next day. I asked instead if he could simply ensure that all my orders were canceled so that I could go switch to Comcast, and he said only the billing department could do that, and he would transfer me. So he transferred me, I waited on hold for ten more minutes, and then I just hung up the phone.
I did go through with the threat to switch to Comcast, but that was no walk in the park, either. First I called, told the IVR system that I was a current customer, told it that I wanted new products, and ended up with someone who not only couldn’t help me but couldn’t even transfer me to sales. When I said I had tried to get to sales, she tried to transfer me, but a minute later the phone went dead. I called back in again, told the IVR system I was not a current customer, and ended up with someone who asked me where I lived and then transferred me to a voice message that said their office was closed. (This is before 7 pm on a weekday.) Finally I entered my order online, and now I’m hoping it will work.
So why did I make you wade through my personal customer service nightmare? (Actually, I didn’t make you–you’re free to leave anytime you want.) Well, partly because it’s therapeutic to be able to complain about bad customer service in public. But there are also a couple of lessons here about how the business world operates.
The first is that the business world runs on software, and most of it is bad software. The back end of just about any major company is a tangled mess of archaic, poorly coded, worse maintained, incompatible software programs written over the past forty years. When you’re dealing with millions of customers via thousands of customer service representatives, your company is only as good as your software. If Verizon had good software, none of these problems would have happened. The web site wouldn’t have let me place an order that would cause the back end to choke; the scheduling system would have gone out more than a month; the order status system would have had usable information; the billing system would have realized that I wasn’t using DSL; the tech support system would have realized DSL was down; a single customer service system would have shown each rep all of my previous interactions; the poor rep at the end would have known which teams were still available; and anyone would have been able to escalate my problem to someone who could fix it.
The second is that oligopolies are bad for customers. Switching from Verizon to Comcast wasn’t nearly as joyous as dumping Bank of America for a local community bank was, because I’m just trading one member of the duopoly for the other. In theory, duopolies are supposed to be somewhat better than monopolies. (Draw the demand and supply curves and you could figure it out, although it’s been over a decade since I did.) But in practice they’re usually not, because it doesn’t take a lot of signaling for two companies to agree to charge the monopoly price. The same goes for customer service; they can both suck, but as long as neither is significantly worse than the other, there’s no reason for either to change, since their churn rates are more or less the same.
Since the 1980s, we’ve had cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, satellite . . . and no significant increase in telecom competition. What’s wrong with this picture?
* The software problem here is that the back-end system has some rules–“edits” in mainframe terminology–that have to be manually replicated in the front-end system. Otherwise data can get through the front-end system that the back-end system doesn’t know how to handle. Whenever companies write web front ends for mainframe back ends, they make this kind of mistake.
** I’m not surprised that, say, Verizon’s Internet and phone people look at different systems; that’s not good, but it’s common. I am surprised that their chat and phone tech support people look at different systems; that’s crazy. Or maybe some of them just don’t know how to use them.