Getting through when customer service doesn't serve - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Getting through when customer service doesn't serve

When you get frustrated with customer service, there are ways to work around the more common channels. When you get frustrated with customer service, there are ways to work around the more common channels.

Routinely handling insurance issues long-distance for an international rental company, Pat Haag of Huntsville has long depended on reliable phone and internet service, which made it confounding and frightening when both services went down earlier this year and her provider, Comcast, had trouble even diagnosing the problem.

"I have to have my landline because I do work for Canada," she said. "And I have to be in touch with our third-party administrator, attorneys, claimants, my home office in New Jersey, and when my phone line is down, no one can get in touch with me and when my computer's down, obviously, I can't do my work."

Haag said she was frustrated and worried. Her efforts to get her issues addressed through normal customer service channels underscored the importance that consumers are ready to go around those channels if necessary, consumer advocates said.

"Kind of override that initial calling center," suggested Belinda McCormick, Director of the Operations Division at the Better Business Bureau of North Alabama. "Oftentimes, we have the numbers here at the Better Business Bureau, or the correct name of the person to ask for which can help a lot of situations."

For Haag, it was obvious early on that her problems fell outside the purview of ordinary customer service issues.

"No one knew why," she said. "They thought I was at a different address. All the information was incorrect. And the bottom line is for the next three weeks, they'd get me up and running but then they'd found out that the number associated with my phone was a completely different number."

Experts list numerous ways to cut through the customer service maze and get real attention:

  • Bypass the "voicemail jail" of automated customer service to get to a human operator. Dialing "0" can sometimes help. Or listen to all the choices, then choose "other options" to speak to a representative. If the system lets you speak your issue, try saying gibberish so the computer sends you to a real person. If "tech support" is an issue, try that. A tech support rep may direct you better than the computer.
  • Once you do reach a live person in customer service, ask for a supervisor.
  • Get the name of the representatives you talk with, and the ticket number for your case. If you have to call repeatedly, that may help get the service reps up to speed instead of you having to start from scratch with every call.
  • Try non-customer service company numbers to reach real decision makers directly. Websites like Contacthelp and GetHuman list numbers for companies who frequently have customer service inquires. So does the Better Business Bureau which, independent of genuine cases of malfeasance, also tracks companies with whom customers simply have difficulties.

Pat Haag admits she was at her wits' end explaining and re-explaining her difficulties as her business lifelines repeatedly failed. 

"Every time I called, I had to start from scratch, had the same confusion," she said. "Most of the time you can't even understand them, so they can't understand you. You can't understand what they're saying and if you can't understand them and they can't understand you, they really don't know what the problem is. It's scary to me."

Consumer advocates also suggest social media, with many companies, big and small, embracing them.

"Companies nowadays have Facebook pages, Pinterest pages, Twitter," said McCormick. "You want to be able to document anything you're saying. You won't want to slander somebody. But it may be an avenue to get somebody to call you back."

A new option in recent years is the "executive email carpet bomb" to the most senior managers. Corporate websites seldom list top executives' email addresses, but it's possible to guess them by looking at addresses of company spokespeople or customer service reps. So if Acme's marketing manager John Smith has the address "," then it might be possible to extrapolate Acme's CEO John Doe is "" A carefully worded email to every single executive whose address you can correctly guess may get your complaint in front of people who can go outside the narrow customer service scripts.

And there is the nuclear option, blasting a business on a consumer website like Ripoff Report, potentially devastating but also playing with fire.

"Ripoff reports are really a keg of dynamite," said McCormick. "As a consumer, you really need to stick to the facts. If you end up with slander or defamation of a company, they could turn around and sue you."

Consumers aggrieved with intractable problems have the option of going public, as Pat Haag did by reaching out to WAFF 48 News.

"It oftentimes gets results," said McCormick. "It makes them look at themselves and they may take a different path, whether it be out of town or correct their wrongdoings."

In Pat Haag's case, WAFF 48 reached a contact at Comcast who was able to get her a new phone number, but also acknowledged that the original problem, confusion over whether the number she had before her service failed was a Comcast number at all, remained a mystery.

Haag said her phone and web service have worked smoothly since then, and she was grateful for the aid, but also disappointed that it took such an effort to get the problem corrected.

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