December 5, 2023

It might be hard to write this without coming off as self-righteous because just as there is bad customer service, there are bad customers. But, man, does customer service suck these days. It’s worse than ever, and we just put up with it.

One example came to light days after Mom’s death, when I had the task of getting her utilities put into my name while we sold her house and/or shutting off other utilities. It meant that I had to call a call center.

There are few hells quite like calling a call center.

And that brings me to the ultimate premise of my post: why is that the government doesn’t regulate voice-activated customer service systems? Shouldn’t public companies be forced to give you a “Press 0 to speak with a customer service representative” up front?

I think they should.

We know why companies don’t do it. It’s because they don’t want you talking to a person who costs them money. I don’t extend that so far as to say it’s because the company doesn’t care about its customers. On the contrary, companies try to keep labor costs down to keep prices down, which ultimately benefits the greatest number of people. It’s why only three checkout lanes are ever open at any given WalMart.

Long story short, I had to make contact with three companies initially: AEP (which owns Public Service of Oklahoma), Oklahoma Natural Gas and Suddenlink Communications. I needed to let them know my mother had died and that the bill needed to be sent to me for the foreseeable future. In the case of Suddenlink, I needed to shut off internet and cable service.

I’ll start with the good, actually great. AEP’s voice system gives its customers a “speak with a customer service” option pretty close to the top. And they were empathetic, friendly and efficient. Loved them.

Next came ONG, Oklahoma’s natural gas provider. They weren’t bad, but it took awhile to get to a human. Once I did, they were empathetic and efficient.

However, my experience with Suddenlink Communications might rank as an all-time worst. First, they have no “speak to a human option” in their voice-activated menu. To me, this is extra bad when you consider that municipal governments contract with these vendors. Cities should hold these businesses to a higher standard, and citizens should hold their representatives to account.

I had to trick the system into getting me a human.

And when I reached Charisma (ironic), I explained my situation. She started asking me for pin numbers and or a SSN, identification marks of some sort, and I get it. However, I reminded her that ultimately there would be no privacy complaint because their customer was dead.

Mind you, this is after 15 to 20 minutes (no exaggeration) of sitting on the other end of a phone, time completely wasted.

Charisma proceeded to explain that I’d need to drive the equipment an hour to their Muskogee office, an hour from Mom’s residence of Henryetta because that Suddenlink office had been closed. I was later told by a Suddenlink employee that they had brought in a manager to run the Henryetta office only to close it two months later.

My other options to return the equipment were to mail it in at my expense or toss it all in the Arkansas River and pay a fine. I’m only sort of kidding about that last option.

Where I have a beef is in comparing this experience to my delightful experience with DirecTV. When I abandoned them for Cox Communications a few months ago, I was able to take the equipment to a UPS Store and have a UPS employee take care of it from there. It’s a brilliant arrangement they have, great customer service that I’ve seen repeated by UPS especially over the years.

So, my brother and I drive to Muskogee to return all of their cable equipment.

After some cordial conversation and the junior employees lamenting their own company by telling us the story of why they didn’t have a Henryetta office, I wrote a check, explaining to them that we only had temporaries as we could not write a check from Mom’s account and had to create a new one — and, yes, I know I could have just paid myself and had my brothers Venmo me their share.

At this point, I kind of hated them and wasn’t going to budge.

But they were cool with a temporary check until it was written and a manager stepped onto the floor and said she wouldn’t take it.

I assured them it was good and that we didn’t plan to be continuing customers.

She said she wouldn’t take it.

And I told her she would or not get paid, and added, “It’s done,” walking away in disgust.

The experience was bad from the start because Suddenlink Communications didn’t even pretend in its voice-activated customer service system to be interested in connecting one person to another, and a conversation in this instance could have soothed everything.

The free market types will be saying, “More regulation? No way.” Why burden companies with having to hire more customer service representatives when customers can take care of basic tasks themselves.

The problem is that many tasks are not basic, and the customer shouldn’t bear the burden of fighting through corporate frugality to get some help. Online chat helps somewhat for some companies, but not everybody is digital. Not everybody can see. Not everybody can hear. Not everybody can walk or talk, and yet there have been strides made over the years to give people equal access under the law.

This wouldn’t be as socially important as that, not by any means. However, being able to talk to a customer service representative for any publicly traded company should be part of a customer’s bill of rights, a simple Federal Trade Commission protection that big government can give the little people.

As for Suddenlink Communications, in a moment when a little empathy would have gone a long way, they made every effort to come off as massive butt-heads. They’re the worst.

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