OP-ED: Customer Service An OxymoronFor the Z Generation of Geeks

by Rene A. Henry

SEATTLE, WA (Special to HNN) Why is it the geeks responsible for the Internet technology have no sense of customer service?  You would think that anyone employed in social media would have basic communications skills and know that you return every phone call and answer every letter, email and fax.  

We’ve had baby boomers, the X generation, and the Y generation.  I’ve labeled this generation of geeks the Zgeneration: Z  for zero.  Zero knowledge of customer service.  Zero ability to communicate.  Their knowledge of customer service is comparable to the   Greeks being able to balance a budget.

Silicon  Valley is a crisis and disaster waiting to happen.  And when it happens, it will all go to the bottom line and impact jobs.  The biggest problem is a failure to communicate and be available to respond to the customer.  In scores of crises I have written about in the past, most have started and then exacerbated simply because someone did not respond.

When companies should be open and transparent, they have created Chinese Walls the customer has to penetrate to talk to a real live person.  Or even get a generic response.  The IT geeks who keep recreating new software when it isn’t broken are as responsible as senior management who approve the changes.

As a journalist, often I am working on a story and want to talk to someone in a company.  When I go on line these days for corporate information I am lucky to get a name, a telephone number or email address.  If you call a listed number you may go through a series of voicemails talking at you until you reach only a generic voice and then have to leave a message.  Even if the company lists phone and email contact information for its media relations department most of the time it is only generic.  

Don’t expect a response unless you tell the PR mailbox are doing a very positive story.  Several times I have tried to contact a company or organization through a generic phone or email address to applaud what they are doing regarding customer service or preventing crises.  By making it impossible for me to talk to someone in PR, they have lost positive media exposure.  In companies and organizations where I’ve worked during my career, this would be cause for termination.  

I believe the Discover Card has a great series of creative television commercials.  While the commercials mock the way Discover’s competition is doing business, unfortunately they are so true.  I keep thinking that “Peggy” is reading the emails I send to many companies or listening to the voicemail messages I’ve left.

Several weeks ago I opened an email from a close friend.  By doing so, a social media called Live Health Club stole my email address book and in turn started sending out their unsolicited sales pitch to everyone on my address book.  Some of my emails were confidential and restricted and this created a serious credibility problem for me as a writer.  It wasn’t until I filed a complaint with the Attorney General of the State of Washington that LiveHealthClub.com emailed me that an account that I never wanted in the first place “had been removed.”  Management of this social media is hiding behind layers of computer screens so it is impossible to ask a CEO why 1) there has not been an apology, 2) an explanation for the theft of property and 3) why she or he would not use the same email to apologize to everyone on my email address list.  Discover’s Peggy must be the CEO.

You would think I would get a better response from Yahoo.  The company has been in business now for 15 years and should have responsible management that knows how to communicate.  Over the past few years, I’ve written different senior managers several times and never once has anyone had the courtesy to respond.  In each letter I asked the recipient to involve public relations.  If they did, their PR office dissed me.  Two weeks ago I wrote Jeff Russakow, executive vice president-customer advocacy, asking him how Yahoo could allow anyone to steal my email address book, unless all of the companies in the social media business are in cahoots with one another.  

At one time Yahoo had email addresses that went directly to someone in customer service or another department such as “abuse” or “support.”  Try using those today and you will get a one-way, do not respond email that tell you to go on line and complete a form.  This requires more time of the customer to complete a litany of questions to submit to Peggy.  Even then don’t expect an answer to your question.  I asked Russakow why Yahoo is doing this.  Obviously he is at a loss for words.

An exception at Yahoo is the Web Hosting Service.  The 24/7 tech support team is one of the very best I’ve encountered and a model the rest of the company should be following, especially Russakow’s and the PR department.

For the past several weeks I received a number of junk spam emails from Southwest Airlines telling me I have a free ticket waiting for me.  Knowing there is nothing free today on any airline, I finally opened the email to say “stop.”  I asked that my name be removed from their list and then hit “unsubscribe.”  Immediately Yahoo blocked me from sending any emails from my account for 24 hours because they considered it spam!  What are the zees telling me that I don’t already know?

I tried unsuccessfully to respond to several emails today from colleagues or someone in a company where I needed information regarding an on-going story.  Each time Yahoo gave me a script of nearly unreadable jumbled words and numbers.  I followed their directions, entered the jumbled line, and then was asked to do it again with another line, and repeat it again, and one more time.  No luck in using that account today.

I then called the PR department of Southwest Airlines and got an immediate response from Nancy Heinz.  I told her of my dilemma and she said she would get to the person responsible at Southwest and have it taken care of.  This is what customer service is all about.  Nancy works for a very responsible and profitable company that is interested in serving its customers, future customers and shareholders.  The PR department at Yahoo should be required to take remedial training from Southwest.  As we go to press, I’m still waiting for the zees to return my phone call!  I would have liked to have given their side of the story.  Even from Peggy.

Unfortunately, we are all stuck with this new z generation for years to come.  The best we can hope for is that someone, preferably not a geek, will be in a leadership position before it is too late.  Maybe Carol Bartz, Yahoo’s CEO, will get this message.  However, I doubt if any Yahoo z-geek wants to deliver her any bad news.  I’ve seen situations where the only way change can happen is for a company to implode or self destruct and then rebuild again, the right way.  Perhaps this is our only hope in getting the message to the zees.

Rene A. Henry is a journalist who lives in Seattle and writes for HNN and other media on a variety of subjects including customer service, crisis management and communications, sports, and business.  His latest book, “Communicating In A Crisis” was reviewed by David Kinchen.

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