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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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One of the big promises of the Internet that has failed to deliver is asynchronous customer service. In theory, the Internet meant an end to spending hours on hold, to talk to some guy in a call center for two minutes. The Internet could do this by having you explain your problem in a form (and it could prompt you for all of the relevant information you need to provide for them to produce a resolution).

But, the model breaks down for two reasons.

The first is standard operating procedures. I had a defective telephone adapter from Vonage. I knew I had a defective adapter because it was working one day and not the next, no network settings had changed, I’d followed all the restart and reset instructions provided by the manufacturer and vonage, and I’d attempted to even connect other computers to it, and it failed to provide routing or IP assignment.

So, I explained in several paragraphs what was wrong with the device, and I how I had been exhaustive in my isolation of the problem to be that device. Of course, two days later, I received an email asking me to please follow the instructions for resetting the device, and contact them if I have any further problems. I’m not going to belabor the point, but for more information on the saga of Vonage, click here, here, here, or here.

So there are two problems with the standard operating procedure. Initially, they require a large amount of information, but rather than using this to solve a problem, they force you to go through a dozen steps, each one requiring several days of e-mail latency on their end. The next problem is that the customer is presumed wrong, and every problem is assumed solved as soon as any response is set out. Rather than “we will be following up to determine if this works properly” they put the onus on the user to complain if their problem wasn’t solved satisfactorily.

This isn’t just Vonage I’m talking about, of course. Amazon is notorius for these sorts of problems, and usually the only times I get prompt responses to issues is when I’m dealing with small companies and the guy that owns the place is the one that has to answer the questions, because he still actually cares about service. For some more background reading on bad customer service from Amazon, see here, here, or here.

This brings us to the second, and perhaps more serious, intrinsic problem with Internet-based support systems: They are half-assed.

Here’s a quick example; it’s not particularly unique. Wednesday our subscription started for the New York Times home delivery. First off, I went to the New York Times web site that day, and despite being a paying home delivery customer, there are still no less than three “Get Home Delivery!” menus on the website. Right across the top: Get Home Delivery! | Norwalk, CT 68degF. Yeah, I have home delivery. Thanks. So, I wrote their nytimes.com support team, asking if, being that I was a paying customer, I could be relieved of a bunch of screen space asking me to become a paying customer. Their response, more than a day later, was:

Thank you for contacting The New York Times on the Web. We appreciate your feedback and have passed it along to the appropriate department. Please let us know if we can be of any further assistance to you.

Ok, fine, whatever.

Anyhow, Thursday came and no paper showed up. Friday came and no paper showed up. Each of Thursday and Friday morning, I used the online “Report a delivery problem” form. I explained that I had received a paper Wednesday, but had not received a paper since, each time. Once I had submitted my complaint, I was given a response that said my issues are important, and I will be contacted within 24 hours.

This last bit is that part I’m really harping on. I can’t count how many websites have told me they will either respond within X hours, or will try to respond within Y hours in most cases. Either I’m exceptional, or these claims are all patently false. I would say with certainty, the responess I receive are almost never within the stated times.

And I don’t get this. The whole beauty of asynchronous customer support is that I can fire off an issue, and instead of waiting on the phone for two hours, I can two hours later have a response in my inbox, right? No. Instead, two days later I can get a response. Rather than taking away the wait for me, they actually impose a different kind of expense, wasting an even longer period of time.

I want my fucking newspaper now, I don’t want my problems to be filed away into a black hole. When Saturday came about, I called the New York Times, spent some time on hold, and was then told that my account would be red flagged, the local distribution center would be contacted, and I’d have a paper today by 10:30, and by 14:30 if all else failed. Great. Why over the course of three days via email could none of that happen, and I get zero response?

Another example of this variety of problem is the Papa John’s online ordering system. I really like the idea of being able to leisurely figure out what I want online in terms of pizza, and then have it show up 45 minutes later. In practice, however, I’ve never gotten an order correctly this way (how can they screw up something entered by computer?), the driver often gets confused about payment and has to come back, because the order was “special” (and I sure as hell am not going to pay for it both online and through them), and I have no way of applying the $10 in credit I’ve received for previously screwing up my order. It’s another half-ass non-integrated system.

In the end, the only way to get things done is over the phone, and deal with the inherrent delays of that, which sucks. To tie this all together, online support needs some things before it’s ever going to work for the consumer (I’m sure it’s great for the companies already):

  1. Integration: There’s no point in having an online support system that lacks access to the same information held by telephone operators supporting the same system.
  2. Low Latency: Online support is value-less if it takes more than a small amount of time longer than telephone support. A moderate difference might be tolerable, but there’s no reason email can’t be sent out nearly as fast as a response on the phone.
  3. The Onus Of Proof: The customer is right, damnit. It shoud be the responsability of the seller to ensure the customer is happy, not the customer.
  4. Realistic Expectations: If you state you’re going to provide sommething in X amount of time, do not blow through this goal consistently.