How not to solve systemic problems

Organizations generally try to find the nicest, most empathetic people for their customer service department. It’s way, I think, of placating customers without really fixing the problem.
The people at the front desk at Charter (our local cable company), Comcast (in spite of their occasional cement headedness), Social Security, Metlife, and other are very nice. It’s hard to get mad at them, even when they’re explaining something that clearly went kablooie.
My iPad app for our local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, stopped working the other morning. I was unable to sign in, even though my account was good on their website. Among other things, when I was trying to figure out what was going on, I received this vexing message.

I sent an email to their customer service address and received no response. Twenty-four hours later, I called and talked with a very nice woman who explained that a) my account number was linked to an old address that was no longer valid after we moved in June and b) everything was all set now, except that I’d have to wait another 24 hours before I could use the iPad app.
A day before I can use an app?! That’s frickin’ nuts. The person on the line was very nice.
We had a similar incident with Metlife, where an important document was sent to our old address and returned (presumably because the envelope said not to forward it). No one at Metlife thought to contact our agent or to call us on the phone numbers we had listed with our account. The transaction just dropped into a bureaucratic black hole from which neither light nor reason could escape. The person on the customer line was very nice in explaining what had happened.
Seth Godin writes that the lowliest employee in an organization is an ambassador. Theirs is a hard job. “They apologize. Not for things they did wrong, but for things that others did wrong.” Ambassadors can only be successful if the messages that they receive from customers are moved back up the chain of command, such that the originating problems are fixed. If you hire nice and empathetic people whose job it is to mollify the irate customer time and time again and have no mechanism to learn from those people, you will burn out those employees and lose customers. Unless, of course, you’re so big that you don’t have care.

Comcast uses Catch-22 as a system design manual

While reviewing my credit card bill, I noticed that the bill for our Comcast service at the camp was higher than expected. I went to the Comcast website, logged in to my account, and clicked the b to see the details on the bill. I learned that I needed a PIN to access the bill.

For security reasons, Voice management and billing information on your account will be limited until you enter the Security PIN we sent to your home address or email. Enter your Security PIN now, or have it re-sent to you.

Fine. I clicked the link to have it sent to my email. Quick as you please, I was brought to a page where I learned that the PIN will be sent to our camp address in five business days.
Less fine. We don’t receive mail at the camp address.
I looked around around to find another way to find out my PIN. I found none. I initiated a chat session with customer support. After I provided my account info and exchanged niceties, we went to the matter of the PIN.
I learned the following from a nice customer service representative.

  • Even though the message says that they can send the PIN to my email address, they can’t.
  • They can only send the PIN in two ways: by USPS to our camp address, where we don’t receive mail or to our Comcast phone number as a voice message. We don’t have a phone to plug into the phone jack on the router to access the voice service that we didn’t order.
  • They can’t send a text message with the PIN to my cell phone, which the phone number by which the CSR located the account.
  • When I said that I would have to buy a phone to be able to access my Comcast voice mail, she said that wasn’t necessary, that I could borrow a working phone from a neighbor.
    The CSR was very sad for me (her words) when I told her that I don’t have a neighbor from whom I can borrow a phone. 
  • I would have to go to the Comcast office 20 miles away to get real help.
When I got to the Comcast office 20 miles away, the nice customer service rep looked up my account information (based on my cellphone number) and then told me that the system could only send my PIN to the service address (the camp), not to the billing address. I quietly tapped my forehead against the glass that separates customers from service reps. She resolved to fix the problem. Twenty minutes later, she was able get the PIN sent to my home address (“in six to eight business days”).
That was two weeks ago.
In the process of testing the links for this blog post, I clicked the Send me a PIN links. I just received the following email:

I logged in, entered the PIN, and can now view my bill. Thank you, Comcast, I think.