Customer Experience, “Being Managed Or Handled”

Every organization has (or should have) a process for “managing” customer problems. We all believe, that when a customer has a problem we have to resolve it, so we put in place resources, policies, procedures for managing the customer that has problems. And, with varying degrees, we “handle” and “manage” the customer problem. Within the customer service organizations, we chalk it up on our scorecards–another problem solved, another case closed, it took so many minutes, and the customer said “Yes” when we asked, “Have we solved your problem?” And, because it is so easy, we send surveys to the customers that have been handled and managed, asking for feedback about the customer experience. Those survey’s ask the typical questions about the performance of the agent, somehow they miss questions about the overall process, or the feeling of total emptiness we as customers get at the end of this process of being “managed and handled.”

We’re often left with the feeling, “Well, my problem’s been solved, but somehow I’m more unhappy than I was before. I don’t really feel I was heard and my real concerns were addressed.” At the end of the process we feel as though we’ve been “objects,” running through the problem management machine, being punched, folded, spindled and mutilated, eventually emerging at the end or the process with a “Problem Solved.” stamped on our foreheads.

Over roughly the past month, I’ve been through the process. I emerged from the machine, with my forehead appropriately stamped, “Problem Solved,” but I feel confused, drained, empty and unhappy–because my problem hasn’t really been solved and it’s created greater doubt, uncertainty, and far less confidence in the supplier.

So let me tell you the “story.” But I have to load it up with the disclaimers first. First, this is very long–but I think the story is important to capture the color and emotion customers feel in being “handled.”

Second, only once before, in the times I whine about customer experience, have I actually referenced the name of a company. In that case, the Chairman of the company, heard me, asked his people to contact me and we recovered. I subsequently wrote a column about everyone making mistakes, but it’s how we recover from them that counts. I applauded them for a great customer experience in solving the problems. So this will be the second time I will name a specific company, Microsoft. But before I go on, I have to admit–while it may be a little unfashionable, I am an unabashed fan of Microsoft products. While they may not be the sexiest or coolest around, Microsoft builds great products. As with any complex software products, I’ve had occasional problems–actually not many–and I’ve always trusted Microsoft Support to come through. They always have, and I have to admit, virtually every experience has been outstanding–though when your system’s crashed and it’s two hours before a critical presentation, sometimes it’s difficult to see it at the moment.

But this is not about Microsoft, it’s something too many organizations subject their customers to. So Microsoft is the example, but we can easily reference any other company.

Third, I have to admit that I may be a “difficult” customer. No I don’t try to take advantage or have unreasonable expectations about making my “problem” the center of attention for all of Microsoft Customer Support. I don’t want to buck the system, but I may be difficult. I have high expectations of how I should be treated, I have high expectations about customer service agents “listening and hearing me.” And I don’t like being “handled.” So I may not be the easiest customer to satisfy. But Microsoft Customer Support has always come through.

Until now……

Brief background. At the very end of the year, we found ourselves in the position of needing to buy two more licenses of Office. I knew a new version of Office was coming out, so I was really reluctant to spend the money and just a few months later spend more money for the upgrade (Yeah, it’s not a lot of money, but still it’s money.) But, Microsoft had cleverly anticipated the issue, and had an offer “buy Office 2010 in this timeframe and you will be able to get a free upgrade to Office 2013 when it is released.” Problem solved! I did have to make a phone call for clarification, Microsoft is changing it’s packaging and licensing process, it’s a little confusing, but I wanted to make sure that I was buying the right products. I ended up buying the two licenses of Office 2010–even better, they had an offer that allowed you to buy 2 licenses at a reduced price.

So in December, I bought the licenses, all my worries about spending more money to upgrade had gone away. I proceeded along blissfully, a very happy Microsoft customer.

In early February after Office 2013 was released, I get an email that I can upgrade. I’m directed to a site http://office.com/offer and there are all the rules and options for redeeming the free upgrade. Along the way, Microsoft has come up with some very interesting repackaging of Office (Office 365), but it makes the upgrade options a little confusing. In their normally helpful way, they provide a kind of flow chart that explain the options. I read it carefully, decided what to do and then tried to redeem my upgrades.

That’s when all hell broke loose and it’s taken roughly a month to resolve a simple problem of redeeming an upgrade offer.

I entered all the information to redeem my upgrades, enter the “product key’s which apparently determine eligibility, hit “submit” and immediately get an error code. I have to contact Microsoft. I try again, maybe I typed in that long code incorrectly, and got the same thing again. I don’t want to waste an agent’s time (or mine) so I quickly search the knowledge base to see if others have reported this and if there is a solution. Couldn’t find anything so I call Microsoft.

Most of you know the process, you get a pleasant agent collecting information to direct you to the right place. Then inevitably you get put on hold. But Microsoft offers you an option–”It will be 22 minutes until we can get to your problem, you can wait, or you can enter your number and we will call you when an agent is available.” I enter my phone number, go about my business, and actually a surprisingly short time later, I get a call from Microsoft. I remember thinking, this is really great, they had set an expectation about the call back, but actually called me back sooner. I’m anxious to talk to the agent and get quick resolution to this simple upgrade problem. I pick up the phone, am instructed that I am being directed to an agent, then listen to music for another 18 minutes…….. Hmmm……

I won’t bore you with the details, but the call went on for somewhere close to 2 hours, most of the time listening to music, as I am transferred from specialist to specialist. In the end, I’m told, “this is a known issue, we have no resolution, we’ll get back to you in 5 business days, here’s the case number.” I’m momentarily annoyed, thinking, how difficult can this be. But I do realize there are lots of people trying to take advantage of Microsoft and getting upgrades, that they must have to have security to detect only legitimate product keys. I put a not in my calendar that they’ll get back to my in 5 business days.

Toward the end of the 5th business day, a reminder pops up in my calendar. I call Microsoft, give them my case number and ask the status. “Oh, that case has been closed, the problem has been solved. Thank you for calling.”

“Wait a minute, I protest, no one ever called me, what’s the solution?”

With all the appropriate apologies, I get put into a queue to talk to a specialist, give them the case number, they don’t know what the solution is, so we start problem diagnosis again. This continues for 2 days (I had to interrupt the process because I had meetings to go to). I spent countless hours on hold, I’m transferred from agent to agent to agent. I explain over and over the same problem, “I am simply trying to redeem my Office Upgrade offer.” Several times people, say, I’m not eligible, I sent them my receipt from the Microsoft Store, I send them the link to redeeming the upgrade, they verify the legitimacy of the product key and try to do the upgrade, getting the same error message themselves. They keep describing my problem and what I am trying to do, they keep defining it as a different problem, never answering the question, “How do I redeem my upgrade?” I keep asking them, “Would you please go to this page, http://office.com/offer , and read it? I’m just trying to redeem my upgrade.” They never would, because they knew what my problem was better than I.

I’m transferred to more specialists. I allow them to take control of my computer and drive the solution through my system. Finally, I’m on a conference call with 2 specialist, who end up fighting with each other, questioning the competence of the other and whether they are following procedures. One specialist gets angry and starts to uninstall my Office implementation on my computer. At that point, I sever the computer connection, saying, “Before you uninstall anything, please explain what you are doing and why?” One specialist is agreeing with me, the other is impatient and disagreeing. The fight between them continues.

I hang up. At this point I’ve spent somewhere between 6-8 hours trying to redeem my upgrade and things are getting worse.

Now here’s another way that I can be a “difficult” customer. I give everyone the chance to solve the problem through the normal customer service channels. But once I’ve exhausted those channels, I escalate–I always go to the CEO.

So it’s late on a Friday afternoon. I call Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond and ask the operator, “Can I have Steve Ballmer’s office.” No, I’m not that big of a jerk, I really don’t want to bother Steve, he has lots bigger problems to solve. But I know there are always “people” in the CEO’s office that are tasked to do this (I was one of those once, way back in a previous career). I get the response, “We aren’t allowed to let people talk to him.”

Now I am stunned? I ask, “I’d really like to speak with someone in his office, can you please connect me.” The operator was very pleasant, “I wish I could, but I actually don’t have those numbers and we are not allowed to direct people to his office.”

I’ve never encountered this before. I know Steve is a busy guy. I know he gets 100′s of legitimate calls, 1000′s of crank calls (and perhaps I’m one of them), and they have to protect his time and access. But to literally not be able to speak with someone in the Executive Offices is stunning. (Got me to thinking, I can actually call the White House, perhaps not reach President Obama, but get some helpful aide to address my question.)

But the operator was very good–actually the single most helpful person in this process. She sensed my mood and asked, “What are you trying to do, perhaps I can direct you to someone who can help you?” I briefly explained my problem and asked, “Do you have an Ombudsperson?” She replied, “We have a group that is in place to manage these situations specifically. Let me put you in touch with them, but before I do, let me get your information, so that I can follow up to make sure you are being helped.”

Finally, someone who was actually listening and being helpful. ( I don’t know her name, but she was the single person who actually “listened” in this extended story.)

I contact the group she sent me to–it’s an email address. I send a detailed email, with the, by now, multiple case numbers–saying you can see what’s been done to date (about a week). I explain, what I’m trying to do. I direct them to the appropriate Microsoft web page and state: My preferred redemption option is this, my second is this, my third is this, my fourth is this.

Within a reasonable amount of time, I get a very nice response. “I am managing this situation, I will make sure it is resolved.” A day later, I get something from someone in the Microsoft Store, asking for my original purchase receipt. Forget, that I had supplied this earlier and the Order number was in my communications. I supplied it saying, “all I am trying to do is redeem my offer for the free upgrades.”

A number of days go by. We’re now into roughly day 10 or 11 of this process. I’ve heard nothing. I go back to the person managing the situation. “I’m curious, when will I get a response.” After the appropriate apologies, he says he’ll have people get in touch with me. I get an email from a technical support person saying, can I arrange time to speak with you about your issue.” I sent times back to that individual, but have not gotten a response–that was about 5 days ago.

The person from Microsoft Store comes back to me, saying, “I’m sorry, we are no longer selling Office 2010 and we can’t upgrade you to that product….” Has he read the notes in my case, has he read the emails I’ve sent? Has he looked at the purchase transaction–which he had asked for and which I sent?

I sent back, a note, “I’m confused, this is what I bought, when I bought it, this is what I am trying to do (I sent the link again), can you help me.”

I sent a note back to the person managing the situation, “I’m confused…..” I get a response, “I’m sorry, we weren’t clear about the ‘ask.’”

At this point the situation is so ludicrous, it’s almost funny. I’m exhausted. Do these people read their email, I’ve outlined the “ask” clearly, several times. “I’m trying to redeem my upgrade.” I’ve also explained and ranked the options–since there are some options. I’ve said I prefer option 1, but here is my 2nd, 3rd and 4th. (I’m just looking at the choices Microsoft gives me). Actually, the option top 2 options I’ve selected mean I get to give Microsoft more of my money, since I would like to convert from a license to subscription option.

Yesterday, I get an email from the guy at Microsoft Store. “I’ve arranged to provide you 2 free licenses to Office 2013….” I get further emails about how to redeem it.

But I’m still unhappy. His solution was my option 4. Steve–if someone gives this to you, I really tried to give you guys more money. I grant it’s a paltry $30/month, but every little bit helps. Sorry I failed to achieve that objective, but your guys didn’t read my emails and didn’t give me the opportunity to give you more money.

Emerging from this process, I feel “handled and managed.” Yes, my problem’s solved–not my preferred solution, but it’s solved. The tone of the communication was they have granted me the free licenses, rather than fulfilling the upgrade commitment I thought I had when I made the purchase. I’ve come out of the machine with a stamp on my forehead, “Problem Solved.”

So my problem’s been solved, chalk it up, close another case, add this to your metrics of problems solved. Let’s move on to the next one in line, solve it, get it off our plates……

Whew! I’m finished–sorry to have subjected you to such a loooong story and my tirade. But I feel better.

I do think the “story” is important–not because it’s Microsoft and I’m trying to use this as a bully pulpit with them. I’ll continue buying and using Microsoft products. Undoubtedly, I’ll enjoy them and get great value.

My point, however, is this is an example of what too many organizations do in their customer experience and customer problem management processes. They approach them from the point of view of “handling and managing” the problems, solving them, but not really managing the customer experience. We solve problems, but we don’t create great customer experiences.

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