We are reminded just how much we take technological wonders like the Internet and mobile phone service for granted when those things suddenly become difficult or impossible for us to conveniently use. Here in the Philippines, which is home to one of the world’s most well-connected populations despite the comparative poverty of the nation, it is a reminder that most of us are given regularly, much to our great annoyance. My wife and I are both Sun subscribers, and our household being what it is, “heavy” does not even begin to describe the level of usage imposed on our assorted Internet and cellular accounts. Sun’s services are, at best, adequate in keeping up with our demands on them; Internet connection speeds have never even come close to what is advertised and cellular coverage can at times be a little spotty. But compared to our experiences with the competing options—it once took Globe three weeks and four separate visits from technicians to figure out they had installed a broadband antenna aimed at a broadcast tower belonging to Smart—they work well enough, most of the time.
Most of the time, provided we are not experiencing heavy rain. Due to some technical issue in our area their engineers have yet to solve, Sun’s services behave like their namesake and disappear when storm clouds gather. Occasional technical problems with services that most people do not realize operate over networks that are actually quite fragile and at risk of collapsing entirely without warning should not really come as a surprise to anyone; in reality, it’s actually quite remarkable that they perform as reliably as they do. But inasmuch as technical issues cannot be entirely avoided human issues certainly can be, and this is where Sun’s performance utterly falls apart.
Back in March, I wrote a column praising Sun for their comparatively superior customer service performance; between then and now, unfortunately, something has changed, and not at all for the better.
A typical problem like a loss of Internet connection now requires multiple phone calls to “customer service” (provided, of course, the problem does not also include a loss of cell phone signal, which it sometimes does), each one of which follows exactly the same infuriating pattern: After being directed by an automated menu to a place where a cheerful woman’s voice promises that a “technical specialist will be happy to assist you,” you will then have an extended dialogue with the agent on the other end of the line to “verify the account,” and will be asked to provide information such as the account name and number, billing address, type of service, favorite color, your mother’s maiden name, the mobile number associated with the Internet account, and the name of your history teacher during your sophomore year in high school (it was Mr. Rothwell).
After all that, you will discover that you are speaking, not to a “technical specialist” in any remotely helpful sense of the label, but an ordinary persecuted call-center agent.
This nameless agent, who is undoubtedly doing the best he can with what he’s been given to work with, will apologize for your inconvenience, assure you that your concern will be forwarded to the technical department, and ask that you “kindly” monitor your connection for the next three business days. If you’re lucky, you might get to talk to an agent whose training is a step or two above the others and can offer some troubleshooting tips as a bonus, such as, “try turning the device off and then on again,” or “take the SIM [subscriber identification module]card out, wait a few seconds, then put it back in.”
Indeed, Sun—or any service provider, for that matter—faces a real challenge in fielding thousands of calls per day from an ever-growing customer base; a challenge that is even tougher when many of those callers are like me, and not inclined to simply “monitor” services for which we are paying but not receiving “kindly” or otherwise for longer than about five minutes before losing our tempers. And certainly, not every technical problem can be resolved immediately. What Sun does not understand, however—and it is a misunderstanding common to many service providers—is that the average customer is already well aware of those realities. A scripted apology and an instruction to “kindly monitor” the problem ourselves not only comes across as belittling and insincere, it suggests that the company is passing off the responsibility for seeing it resolved to the customer.
There is certain segment of the Pinoy consumer population that would say the answer to poor service by Philippine telecoms is to open the market to more—that is, foreign—competition, but most anyone who has had the discouraging experience of dealing with the “technical assistance” services of companies like AT&T and Verizon in the US, or T-Mobile and Orange in Europe can confirm the indignities are global in scope, and simply adding more of them here is probably not going to encourage improvements on its own. The problem is instead a basic flaw in management approach, forgetting that a “help line” is perceived as customers as something that should be just that, and not simply a black hole into which service concerns disappear without a trace.
Managing customer complaints can be difficult in human interaction terms—angry people are neither pleasant nor entirely rational—but the practical steps are rather simple. First, make sure the customer-facing front-line staff are fully informed about potential customer issues; this includes necessary technical training for solving simple problems that might arise on the customer’s end, as well as information on system or facility problems that could affect customers.
Second, be clear about what action will be taken, and provide a firm time for follow-up. If all the customer service agent can do is inform the technical department, then so be it; but instead of telling the customer that the problem will just be “passed on” (or ‘elevated’ as Sun likes to put it, as though that sounds better), the agent should inform the customer that “Your [specific problem]will be investigated by the technical department, and we will call or text you by [a specific time]to let you know what the progress is.” The problem may not be solved by then but letting the customer know that you care and are putting forth effort on his behalf—in other words, are taking responsibility for the problem rather than telling the customer to “kindly monitor” the situation—can defuse most ill feelings.
Finally, of course, the problem has to be solved as quickly as it can effectively be done so. Informing the customer that, “Our system shows that your account is connected properly on our end” is not a resolution if the customer is still telling you he has a problem—one way or another, you have missed a link in the failure chain, and you cannot stop looking until you find it.
Sun once had a solid grasp of customer service basics, but lost its grip somewhere along the way. The encouraging thing is the gap between good and bad customer service is not that great; with virtually no investment apart from honest effort, any company can bridge that gap and stand out from its competition.