At Verizon Wireless, "Customer Service" is an Oxymoron

Here’s how bad customer service is at Verizon Wireless: I’m renaming The Answer Guy’s Customer Service Wall of Shame to The Verizon Wireless Customer Service Wall of Shame.

While we do lots of things for businesses here at Answer Guy Central, when I write these posts I always concentrate on either customer service, business change, or search engine optimization. I’ve just experienced customer service at Verizon Wireless that was so bad, I’ve found both a way to write about all three and a compelling enough reason to do so. And while it’s self-serving to weave the Search Engine Optimization part of things into this story, I genuinely hope I can help effect some business change at Verizon Wireless if I do that well enough to get Verizon Wireless’ attention.

Let me start by reiterating something I say all the time: customer service is hard. Doing customer service is easy; you just need to bend over backward to take care of your customers’ needs, and they’ll notice. But if you set your customers’ customer service expectations correctly and spend the time/money/effort necessary to fulfill those expectations, then it becomes just about money; empower your employees to provide customer service, and your customer service will rock, hard.

Verizon Wireless, please listen up:

Yesterday, I watched as a friend tried to exchange a black iPhone for a white one at a Verizon Wireless store. The (wrong) device had been ordered in a Verizon Wireless store, by a Verizon Wireless employee, and shipped to my friend’s home. Verizon Wireless, it seems, doesn’t keep this particular model of iPhone in stock at its stores.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that my friend was attempting to do the swap at a different Verizon Wireless store than the iPhone had been ordered at. But the Verizon Wireless “customer service” agents at the store we were in had no issue with that. None. At all. In fact, they were all too willing to acknowledge that they were making a Verizon Wireless problem into a customer service (read: “make the customer handle this”) problem.

We were in that Verizon Wireless store for over two hours. In that time, no fewer than five Verizon Wireless employees tasked with performing customer service spoke with us, looked at computers, walked off to take breaks (some McDonald’s was delivered; I watched our lead customer service agent take the food to a back room and stay there for a while), and one after another came back with the same response: we can either order you a new phone, but YOU will have to ship the old one back to the warehouse that sent it to you, or we can … I’m not kidding … open the phone, activate it, and then charge you a restocking fee because when we accept it that way you will have “returned a used phone”.

Think about that for a moment.

Not only did Verizon Wireless utterly fail to provide anything resembling customer service, but their idea of providing service to a customer was to turn a new device into a used one (and charge the customer for the privilege), all in the name of working with the poorly designed systems and supporting a broken business process they’ve put in place.

Now let me be clear: at a company the size of Verizon Wireless, “working within the system” is what has to happen. I worked for a number of years at Verizon (not the wireless division; the mother company), doing customer service, sales, and community affairs, and I can tell you that at that much-larger company there were so many hoops to be jumped through it’s a marvel that anything ever got done. But I can also tell you that we had the ability to work around our systems when customer service required it, and had the leeway to do so as long as we documented our actions. But at Verizon Wireless, if you don’t fit into “the system” nothing happens. There’s no customer service. In fact, customer disservice occurs.

I mentioned something similar just a couple of weeks ago; Verizon Wireless is in danger of losing me as a customer after fifteen years of loyalty, over a few dollars and “the system”.

Why not just call it what it is? “Here at Verizon Wireless, we sell you stuff and don’t do customer service. Period.”

Eventually, the Verizon Wireless Customer Service agents made a concession: they charged (and then forgave) the restocking fee, took back the device they had shipped incorrectly, and ordered a new one.

That’s right. It took two hours and a lengthy phone call to Verizon Wireless Customer Service by the store salespeople to get back $35 that should never have been charged for a customer who just wanted to do an exchange. And the original purchase price had to be refunded and re-charged, and there’s still the question of whether Verizon Wireless has handled the “which upgrade did we mark off against your account?” issue correctly.

And all during this time, the only explanation that Verizon Wireless was able to offer was that “their systems had to be adhered to”.

Systems are important. Business process needs to exist, even at small companies and especially at large ones.  But customer service itself is a business process, and as soon as you decide that customer service doesn’t matter, you’re on the way to a big, big problem.

“That’s just the way our system works”

Sure it is. And that means your system is broken. And the larger the company the less chance there is of getting broken systems fixed. In my time at Verizon I saw a computer system that I was told had cost $5 billion dollars to develop over twenty years scrapped. And it had never worked, and all the people using it knew that. But they had no ability to make business change happen at the levels where development and deployment were happening.

They did, however, have the ability to work around the broken system’s flaws. And did all the time, generally in the name of customer service.

All we wanted the people at Verizon Wireless to do was provide customer service. They failed. And they blamed their systems but refused to try to circumvent them. And that’s what’s broken about the United States. We blame our systems for the mistakes we make. We take no responsibility, even for things we’re responsible for and could fix.

Customer service is easy: just try to help your customers. Just try. Customers notice. And they notice when you won’t, too.

Verizon Wireless, thanks for a story, and thank you for giving me a reason to make you the namesake company at the renamed Verizon Wireless Customer Service Wall of Shame. I’m here if you need help actually providing customer service. And hey, I already know your systems!

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