Tag Archives: customer service

More Tips on Getting Better Customer Service

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you’ll know that customer service is one of my pet peeves – and praises, when somebody actually gets it right.

For my upcoming US trip, I need a cellphone. Actually, three, for the three of us going to Las Vegas for CES, so we can keep track of each other during the show. Though we all have tri-band phones that will work in the US, roaming charges from Italy are ridiculous.

I was astonished to find that there seems to be no way to simply buy a SIM card for whatever service and pop it into the phone I already have, as I did in India. Every US carrier wants me to buy an entirely new phone. This is annoying, since I am used to my own phone and have all my numbers on it. But there appears to be no way around it. US consumers sure put up with a lot of rubbish from their cellphone providers.

I consulted with my group of online experts, who concurred in recommending TracFone, and one even sent me a special free minutes offer. So I went straight to the TracFone site and ordered three cheap cellphones. Or tried to.

As I had been expecting – because it happens so often on US sites – it wouldn’t take my foreign-billed credit card. I could buy the phones from Amazon with any credit card, but that would cost a bit more, as would buying them in a shop.

Stubborn creature that I am, I decided to write to TracFone’s customer service about this. What do I have to lose?

But I knew pretty much what to expect from a low-level customer service rep. So I used an old trick (previously mentioned on my site – see below – and sometimes used on me in my Adaptec/Roxio days). I did a search for “Tracfone CEO” and found out his name. (I also saw, from the press releases mentioning him, that TracFone does a lot of socially-conscious stuff. That made a good impression.)

Now I had to figure out his email address. The address I had, customerservice@tracfone-ild.com, did not look like a corporate HQ adress – some sort of service center. CEO not likely to have email there. I sniffed around some more, found a press release with the email address of a company spokeswoman. Her address was formatted first initial-middle initial-lastname@tracfone.com From that, I could guess the format of the CEO’s email. So I copied my email to customer service to a couple of likely addresses for him. I was polite, and pointed out that they were missing potential business from travellers like myself, coming to the US with a need for a phone.

That was about 11:30 yesterday morning. At 1:20, I received an email from the CEO to someone named Steve, cc’d to me, instructing him to assist me in my purchase. I immediately thanked the CEO and said I was sure I would enjoy doing business with his company.

At 4:30 the same afternoon, I received the expected reply from customer service: “It was managements decision to only accept US based Credit Cards for security and business reasons.”

I’ll give them credit for swiftness of response, though a zero on punctuation (and, of course, helpfulness).

I’m now waiting to see whether Steve manages to pull this off for me. Even if he doesn’t, at least the attitude at the top is the correct one. Who knows, maybe they’ll change their credit card policy and find themselves with a whole new income stream.

later – Steve couldn’t come up with a payment method fast enough to solve the problem, so I’ll just have to buy from a store. He did tell me which were likely to have the largest selection of phones, and that the refill cards I want are also available there. That’s enough of a good-faith effort for TracFone to get my business.

Customer Service in Italy (Again)

We’ve been customers of Ikea for over 15 years – sometimes satisfied, sometimes not. I suppose that eventually we will replace most of our cheapish Ikea furniture with stuff that Rossella won’t be embarrassed to inherit, but for the time being, given budget constraints, we still buy Ikea. The Ivar unfinished pine modular shelving has mostly migrated out to the garage (after I spent hours this summer cleaning, sanding, and staining shelves coated in a decade’s worth of Milanese grime – I thought we were going to use them in the house!). The Billy bookcases are still in use, though by now they’re so old that Ikea doesn’t even make them in this color (pine) anymore. At least all this old stuff is no longer in the fancier public spaces in the house; my office and the taverna(basement den) have become the repositories of our less-presentable furniture.

Anyway, my point set out to be about customer service at Ikea. Which has markedly improved. A few years ago we got very angry about some customer service failing, I forget now what it was. As we stood arguing at the counter, a non-Italian Ikea manager observed, and came over to set things right, going the extra mile to make us happy, and showing the staff that this was the correct approach. I supposed that Ikea HQ had detected customer unhappiness in Italy, or this particular store, and sent someone from Sweden to make improvements.

During our latest visit, we saw that they’d taken great strides in staff attitudes. All the floor staff were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, in spite of being swamped with customers. It appears that Ikea have finally found the secret to training Italians to provide good service; this is knowledge they could sell, if they chose.

They could start with Telecom Italia, who continue to lose marks on both competence and politeness…

Service With(out) a Smile

I’ve bitched at length about Telecom Italia and Tiscali (my current and past Internet service providers), and the lack of customer service nous shown by both. Foreigners in Italy often complain that Italians generally don’t have a concept of customer service, and I’d have to say that’s a fair assessment, amply demonstrated in most chain stores, supermarkets, Ikea, etc.

If you want good customer service, go to the backbone of the Italian economy: the family-owned business. For 12 years in Milan I bought bread, meat, fruit & veg., cleaning supplies, school supplies, ice cream and coffee from our neighborhood shops. All of these were owned by individuals or families, though some had a few non-family employees, and some changed hands over time. We built up relationships with the shopowners. They saw us move into the neighborhood as a young couple. Some used to call us the sposini – newlyweds – because we shopped together, which they found terribly cute. They saw our daughter grow up. Every one had an onboard “database” of customer information, knew our tastes and preferences, and could therefore serve us faster and better.

I shopped at supermarkets only rarely, mostly for things I couldn’t get at the smaller shops. Supermarkets are often cheaper, but to me they were not worth the standing in line and the impersonality (some smaller supermarkets do manage to be friendlier).

I was afraid I’d feel lost when we moved to Lecco, having to re-establish my network of suppliers, but it hasn’t been a problem. I’ve become a regular at some shops, albeit a new regular, and the owners already know me, or at least they act as if they do. And, even if they don’t know me, they are courteous; as owners, they have a direct and compelling interest in my return.

What Italians have yet to develop is a sense of ownership in “mere” employees, especially of large and chain stores. I’ve had some terrible experiences at Ikea,Upim, and Coin (the latter two are chain department stores). American stores are almost all chains, but they have customer service down to a fine art: everyone smiles and greets you in every store you enter; in some grocery stores I’ve been positively spooked by the number of employees offering to help me (maybe I look lost). You could say that this is false friendliness designed to get more money out of you, but that’s what a store is all about, isn’t it?

update: Customer service at Ikea in Italy has vastly improved

How to Get (Slightly) Better Customer Service

David Pogue of the New York Times has written a series of articles on “Customer Service Cluelessness,” in which he postulates that the incorrect billing many of us suffer from various companies is actually a money-making stratagem: most of us won’t notice small discrepancies on our bills, or won’t spend the time to communicate with the companies to get them fixed, so the companies get to keep the bulk of their ill-gotten gains.

As I mentioned before, Tiscali, my former ADSL provider, tried to stick me for € 570 back in July, after I had left their service. But that was only the end (I hope) in the Tiscali saga.

That began two years previously, when I was first trying to get ADSL up and running in Milan. I applied online in April, had some paperwork problems, and didn’t actually receive the modem until June. Then there were problems with the line, which would have to be fixed by Telecom Italia, and Tiscali told me that could take weeks – by which time I expected to be out of the country. I told them: “Call me as soon as it’s fixed;” the only other way for me to know it was working would have been to test it myself every day.

I didn’t hear anything. I returned to Milan on September 10th, 2001, and called tech support again the next day.

“Oh, that was fixed back on July 11th,” he said, “Why don’t you try it now?”

I tried to go to to CNN, but couldn’t get through. “Still not working,” I said.

“Try our site,” he said.

I did. It had a news feed. And that was how I found out about the Twin Towers. “Something very bad is happening,” I said, and hung up on him.

The good news was that the line was in fact working. However, when the bill arrived, they had billed me back to July, wanting me to pay for two months in which I had not been using it, because I didn’t know it was working.

I called customer service. “We got it working in July,” they said, “so we began billing in July.”

“I was home and could have used it til August,” I replied, “but you were supposed to TELL me it was working, and you didn’t.”

“The technician tried to call.”

“He must not have tried very hard. We have an answering machine. Or why didn’t he send email?” No satisfactory answer was forthcoming.

I decided to make a formal complaint. The customer service rep said I should write all the details in an email and send it to an anonymous customer service address.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll copy it to your president. What’s his name?”

“That’s not necessary,” said the lady stiffly. And she refused to tell me the name. I was surfing the net while on the phone with her. A few clicks later, I found Tiscali’s corporate site.

“Ah, here he is: Renato Soru. Okay, let’s try renato.soru@tiscali.com…”

She went into a panic. “He’ll never read it!” she said.

I wrote a long message with all the details, being careful to give praise where that was due (“The customer service rep was very polite, even when I was screaming at her.”) and to explain what went wrong and where, and what kind of restitution I was expecting.

Renato Soru did read it, or at least his secretary did, and she replied politely that Dr. Soru thanked me for letting him know how things were going in customer service. She claimed that I would still have to pay for those two months, but in fact I was never billed for them, either through oversight or because someone realized that I shouldn’t be.

Writing to the big boss is an old trick in the US, but it seems that Italians are not used to it. It will still get results even in many US companies, if nothing else to get you off upper management’s back. Of course the email address of the president/CEO is not going to be posted on the website, but it’s usually pretty easy to guess: try variations on firstname.lastname@companyname.com, firstinitiallastname@, etc.; something is bound to work. webmaster@companyname.com may never answer you, but the president might.

Now we’re having a big hassle with Telecom about overbilling (to the tune of 500 euros). It’s time to write another letter…

The Infamous Miniskirt Photo: Give the Customers What They Want!

The photo above first appeared on the Adaptec website in April, 1998.

Over the years some of my colleagues griped that having a picture like this on a corporate website was “unprofessional,” and I suppose it was. But (a) why does “corporate” have to mean “boring”? and (b) there’s a story behind it.

It all started with a (rare) vent of my own to the Adaptec discussion list, titled “How NOT to Obtain Customer Service.”

Which I later followed up with “How Not to Obtain Customer Service – a Final Peeve”, which included this throw-away comment: “I used to wear miniskirts to conferences, precisely because this made everyone assume that I was a purely decorative booth bimbo. I then enjoyed the shock on people’s faces when I proved to have a brain or two in my little head after all!”

I wasn’t surprised when this resulted in several requests like: “How about a couple of mini skirt photographs to prove your point regarding Deirdre being a female name?” I laughed them off, until I received this plaintive note: “I’ve had a really tough week. I could really stand to see you in a miniskirt.” So I dutifully put on my miniskirt and had my husband take the picture, and posted it on the site for the benefit of our list subscribers.

Time marches on… I still adore the denim “Born 2 Burn” shirt and the cowboy boots, but, sadly, don’t  fit into the miniskirt quite as well as I did…