Customer service from the other end of the line
December 5, 2011 10:13AM
Updated: December 23, 2011 8:21AM
In recent columns we’ve heard from demoralized customer service workers, who say the only thing worse than an insurance bill fiasco is a customer service call center that is dictated by numbers.
Numbers such as whether the workers meet their quotas for calls, whether they get customers off the phone in the allotted amount of time and even how many minutes they spent in the bathroom.
Those kinds of stats determine whether they’ll get a raise or be shown the door. Some call center workers told us of colleagues “accidentally” hanging up on callers with particularly difficult problems so they wouldn’t wreck their numbers.
The Fixer recently heard from yetanother customer service call center employee, M.W., who has worked in the industry for 18 years. M.W. considers his fellow agents — abused or not — the “unsung heroes” of the business world.
But he says that besides sometimes difficult work conditions, there are sometimes difficult customers:
“We are often underpaid, considering the verbal abuse we receive from customers (some, not all). I have heard everything from cursing to racial comments to humiliating or belittling an agent based on ‘perceived’ information. You really do need a thick skin to survive.
“That being said I will be the first to admit that there are people in call center environments that have no business being there.
“It is sad that there are supervisors and managers who justify their jobs by how fast we get the customer off the phone. It is all about the quantity of calls and not quality. (Most managers will say it is a combination of the two, but believe me, it isn’t. Numbers truly speak louder than words.)”
Number-crunching managers aside, M.W. has some advice for us consumers as we try to make the best of this situation.
Here are M.W.’s tips:
“Only call when you truly have time to talk, and please have the necessary information ready. Calling while driving, using a speaker phone, going to the bathroom, showering, doing dishes, vacuuming and engaging in ‘bedroom activities’ is not a good use of the call center agent’s time. (Yes, all of these have happened to me.)
“Be ready to take notes. It is OK to ask the name, employee number, extension, etc., of the person you are speaking to. Note the date and time of the call. It’s also OK to call back to check on what was documented.
“Please remember that the person at the end of your phone line is someone just like you, with bills and obligations. An agent should treat all customers as they themselves would expect to be treated.
“If you feel that the agent has done a great job, recognize them for it.”
M.W. adds: “It is amazing to me that in the 18 years I have been in this business, nobody has revolutionized the practice of call center customer service. Meanwhile, thousands of managers and CEOs scratch their heads and wonder where all their business is going.”
Get your credit report
Dear Fixer: You have listed info on where to get a free credit report but I can’t remember the name. Could you please let me know the best place?
Maxine Bealer, Lansing
Dear Maxine: You can order a free copy of your credit reports from all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — each year at annualcreditreport.com, the site set up by the federal government to provide free reports for consumers. Follow the prompts for the free report and don’t click on anything selling credit monitoring. (Avoid freecreditreport.com, which is NOT free!)
You’re allowed a free look at each report every 12 months. So, if you choose, you can look at one now, the second in four months and the third in four more months, to stagger it over a year. It’s up to you.
Please note: This is only to get a free credit report, not a credit score.
A score, such as a FICO score, is developed with proprietary information and is something you must purchase — unless you have been rejected for a loan. (A new requirement took effect recently requiring lenders to provide the credit score they used in rejecting a loan application or in determining a higher interest rate.)
You can get a good idea of where you stand financially — and make sure there is no erroneous information in your file — by examining your credit report.
If you want to know more about your credit score, Bankrate.com has a free FICO score estimator here: http://www.bankrate.com/calculators/managing-debt/worried-about-your-credit-try-our-fico-score-estimator.aspx.
Repaying for pills
Dear Fixer: I went in for surgery at St. Alexius Medical Center on March 16 and had to stay until March 18. I have to take medication for my high blood pressure.
I brought my pills to the hospital. When I was brought to my room, the nurse asked if I was taking any medication. I said yes, and told her I had brought it.
She took the bottle of pills and said the pharmacy had to examine it; she said I would be given them back in the morning when I normally take them.
The next morning, they were going to give me their blood pressure meds. I told the nurse they had my pills and that I was supposed to get them in the morning. She checked on it and came back later with my pills, which I took that morning and the next morning before I was discharged.
When I received my portion of the hospital bill after Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield had paid, it stated I owed $640.96. The itemized statement showed I was billed for their blood pressure medications, which I did not take.
When I questioned this, I was told to fill out a complaint form. Two weeks later, I got a letter from the auditors stating that the charges are accurate and I would have to pay for taking my own medication.
The charge for this was $32, of which the insurance paid $8.20 and I paid $23.80. The insurance company is not going to pursue the overcharge, so that is why I am writing you. I feel that I am owed a refund.
Gerald Juggan, Streamwood
Dear Gerald: When we got your letter, we thought: What’s next? Airlines charging for the sandwich we bring on board?
You told The Fixer that while this wasn’t a vast sum of money, you were still irked about paying twice for your medicine — once at home and again at the hospital.
We asked the folks at St. Alexius to look into it. They said the confusion originated because you didn’t have a doctor’s note stating that you could use your own medication at the hospital. You told us your doctor never mentioned this.
At any rate, they’ve agreed to refund your $23.80. A check should arrive in a couple of weeks.
Phishy phone calls
Dear Fixer: Your column is a must-read for me. It’s gratifying to read about the assistance you give to your readers who write in for help, and the advice about being cautious with sensitive information is well-taken.
Recently, I have been getting recorded phone calls made by a forceful-sounding woman regarding applying for a lower credit card rate. I have no credit problems and wonder how my phone number gets on their list. She says time is running short and you need to call now.
She says it has to do with the stimulus. Stimulus? That put me on alert.
I hang up the phone each time, not wanting to give an impression of interest. But the calls keep coming from (202) 367-9973. The caller ID says “SERVICEMSG.” They occur for a while about once a week and then stop. After a period of maybe a month they start again.
Virginia Fagan, Chicago
Dear Virginia: These days, anyone saying they’ve got stimulus money for consumers has got to be living in a cave. (Read the newspaper much?)
You were smart to hang up on these people. We found numerous complaints online from people who were being harassed by this calling operation. Consumers said they were initially pitched for low-interest credit but got suspicious when the caller wanted a Social Security number or other identifying information.
Overseas scam artists can use phone technology to route their calls through a domestic U.S. number, in this case the (202) area code of Washington, D.C. But that doesn’t mean they’re not sitting somewhere in Romania, the Dominican Republic or who knows where.
We hope you’ve already registered for the National Do Not Call Registry, which stops most harassing calls — though we admit, it won’t stop patently illegal calls. You can register at donotcall.gov. Harassing callers also can be reported at the FTC.gov website.
You can also minimize calls by not supplying your phone number on sweepstakes entry forms, like the ones found at summer festivals.
Help at the doctor’s
If you’re the type who gets flustered at a doctor’s office, realizing only after you’ve left that you should have asked an important question, here’s a website for you. AHRQ.gov, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has tons of great information to help you organize what questions to ask your doctor and what information to bring with you. Check it out.
Getting the runaround about a consumer problem? Getting the runaround on a consumer problem? Tell it to The Fixer at suntimes.com/fixer. If you don’t have a computer, you can mail a brief description of your problem, along with your name, address and telephone number, to: The Fixer, 13543 S. Route 30, Plainfield, IL 60544. Don’t send original documents. The Fixer cannot send personal replies. Letters are edited for length and clarity.