The last thing I wanted to turn into when I retired was a cranky old man. But that’s exactly what our so-called customer-service culture has reduced me to. It’s rendered my daily meditation useless, expended the energy and endorphins produced by my workouts and turned my never-voluminous store of patience into a hair-trigger temper. Is it me?

In the last few years of my career, the term “customer-facing” entered the annoying vocabulary of corporate life with a ubiquitous flourish.

I don’t think so. In the last few years of my career, the term “customer-facing” entered the annoying vocabulary of corporate life with a ubiquitous flourish. People who dealt with customers – those in marketing, sales, technical support and so on – were suddenly “customer-facing.” Is it any wonder that people who invent completely unnecessary words for dealing with customers would come up with equally annoying and human-alienating approaches, processes and language for dealing with customers?

Results Uber Alles!

What astounds me is that in the corporate world, which invents this lunacy, people are not rewarded for effort, but for results – results uber alles!  You can try hard, be polite and personable and have a good heart, but if you don’t produce, you’re gone. In recent years, our compensation system was adjusted so that even if you did make your numbers, you had to get positive feedback from the various people you interacted with in the process, who were obliged to offer their excruciatingly subjective opinions on HOW you got your results. If their assessments did not indicate that you had conformed to the desired norms of constructive, collegial behavior, you’d get a lower performance rating and could also be gone.

If I had to rate the performance of the “customer-facing” professionals I’ve had to rely on since retiring for the necessities of my life – my pension and health benefits, TV, phone and internet service, banking, and technical help starting a new business – too many, although thankfully not all, would fail miserably and summarily be “made redundant.”

Customer Service Report Card

In keeping with corporate requirements for objectivity, fairness and candid, honest feedback (HR’s idea of “a gift”), here’s my performance review of the customer service at several companies I’ve depended on over the past few months. I’ll list them from worst to best.

No. 5 (the worst) Mercer Employee Benefits

“Around the globe, sweeping changes are transforming the design and shape of employee benefits plans.” That’s the first line on Mercer’s web page. And it must be true, because around the globe, and especially the parts I’ve lived in, the changes are so sweeping, and transforming that I’ve had to spend countless hours, days, weeks and months to make sure I would get the benefits I’ve worked 35 years to earn. I’ve begun receiving my pension payments, mercifully, but not without an immense and multidimensional struggle, including inaccurate initial estimates, intractable problems gaining access to them online, recalcitrance on Mercer’s part about changing my address so we could correspond, and refusal to communicate with me by email. I have not been so lucky with my health benefits, which are still not straightened out after six months of assurances that my secondary coverage card would be in the mail last January.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am indeed a hybrid case. I began working at my multinational company’s main U.S. campus and switched to its European headquarters relatively late in my career, causing me to fall between a lot of cracks and making me eligible for benefits from two continents. But what happened to this global world we were supposed to be living in? Mercer is clearly not ready for it. Other employees in my situation tell me of the same headaches I faced: Mercer people can’t find them in the system; they’re not sure how to deal with the combination of current company benefits and so-called “legacy” benefits from companies that were acquired and integrated; or they’re stumped by the circumstances of people who started working for the company in one country and then retired, as I did, from a company site in another country.

I would have forgiven Mercer if they had gotten things right in a reasonable amount of time; if they had assigned a single point of contact with some brains and common sense who could help navigate me through my particular situation, rather than subjecting me to long waits listening to horrible music that I continue to hear in my sleep, before saddling me with a junior representative incapable of doing more than rote transactions before I exploded and ultimately got to a supervisor who seemed somewhat more but competent but little more effective; if they had agreed to correspond with me by email (what year is it?) rather than outright refusing because of rules they never explained; if they weren’t just plain positively impossible to deal with. So my CRANKY Award for worst customer service by a supposedly competent human resources company goes to… Mercer Employee Benefits of Boise, Idaho.

No. 4. Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum)

Where would we be without our telecommunications devices? How infuriating is it when they don’t work?

I’ll give Time Warner/Spectrum credit for always being fairly easily and quickly accessible by phone, having human beings on hand at all times and being willing to send technical support for home service when necessary. But my television remote controls have not worked right since the very beginning, and the company doesn’t seem to be able to correct the situation. All I ask is that the TV goes on and off when I press the Power button on the remote. But it’s more complicated than that. There are actually three remotes, each with a different on-off system. Sometimes the service representative takes me on a long technical journey to re-set everything and tells me to, no matter what, only use the System button to turn the set on and off. Other times they’ve told me to use only the Power button, no matter what, to turn the set on and off.

Neither works consistently, so I have to walk over to the cable box and press a button manually to turn the set on. (That defeats the purpose the remote control was invented for, doesn’t it?) So I’m periodically back on the phone, with my patience and civility long ago burnt to a crisp.

“Not a problem,” the friendly Time Warner/Spectrum service representative chortles.”

“Maybe not to you,” I snap. “But to me, it IS a problem, and none of your technical colleagues either on the phone or in person have been able to solve it after countless calls on my part. Check it out in your records. And by the way, your recording before we began said this call was being monitored for quality and training purposes. I hope it is because it’s gonna catch some prime profanity in this conversation.”

“I’d prefer to keep things professional,” said the customer-facing technician.

“I reserve my professional language for professionals and use profanity with incompetents,” said I.

To make matters worse, this guy turned out to be with the wrong department and had to transfer me to someone else. The very nice woman who took up where he left off told me that her grandmother had a similar problem all the time. But it turned out she was from the wrong department, too. But at least she didn’t say, “Not a problem.”

Unless Time Warner/Spectrum has a goal of keeping its home technical support staff busy 24-7 until kingdom come, I’d suggest they make their equipment more reliable. Customer service grade: Availability of technical-support personnel by phone and in person – Excellent. Technical competence and reliability of equipment – Poor.

No. 3: UBS

What’s more important than your bank? Without it, you’re hungry and homeless. When I returned to New York after my 16-year stint working in Switzerland, I needed desperately to reach UBS by phone to make sure they’d properly handled my change of address and the official close-out of my account that was necessary for me to receive my company pension payments in the U.S. I called two days straight, being kept on the line for 30 minutes at a time, listening again to bad music interrupted periodically to ensure me that “Your call is important to us and will be answered by the first available representative.”

In fairness, the UBS client representative we dealt with before we left, a charming and exceptionally competent woman named Maria-Mercedes Castro, was outstanding – a good listener, someone who felt like a true advocate and partner, a knowledgeable, helpful and reliable professional – she was absolutely great. Too bad the UBS customer-service phone system sucks, dragging down my rating of the bank to Fair.

No. 2: U.S. Social Security

Every time I hear misguided, compassion-challenged conservatives criticizing “Big Government” programs and denigrating “government bureaucrats” I want to stick my experience with U.S. Social Security in their smug, Republican faces. Every interaction I have ever had with U.S. Social Security and Medicare, across several different states, has been absolutely first-rate. Calls are answered in a timely way, or automatic messages offer the opportunity to schedule a call-back, which is followed-up on with the precision timing of a Swiss watch. The people you talk to are polite, professional, knowledgeable and helpful. They speak like human beings, script-free, and with the competence and savvy to make suggestions tailored to your particular needs. So U.S. Social Security, you get my highest rating for customer service: Outstanding.

No. 1: GoDaddy

When you’re starting a new business and trying to get off the ground in this digital age, that’s when you really need a knowledgeable partner. And that’s exactly what I found in GoDaddy, an internet domain registrar and web hosting company. They were readily available to help me by phone, registered my web URL without a hitch, had a recording that offered other services and a chirpy woman on a recorded message who whooped “Awesome!” when I pressed 1 to check out their web-building service. Knowledgeable, dedicated tech nerds responded to my calls day or night and talked me through issues, with the automatic call-in system offering me a call-back if customer-service traffic was heavy. Every problem I encountered, they solved. No canned scripting or annoying, cloying, phony politeness, either. That’s why GoDaddy is tied with, or maybe even edges out, U.S. Social Security by a nose. In my informal customer-service ranking, I give GoDaddy my extra-special, super-duper rating of, to use their word, “AWESOME!”

A Few Tips for Customer-Facing Call-In Systems

If anyone in the customer-facing field of dealing with people over the phone is reading this, take a few tips from a cranky old man:

✅ NEVER put a customer on hold for more than five minutes – 10 maximum.

✅ If call-in traffic is heavy and the wait is going to be longer than five or 10 minutes, provide the option of a call-back, and call back when you say you will.

✅ Think results, and don’t expect customers to be satisfied with effort or politeness, especially scripted, annoying politeness.

✅ Speak like a human being, not like a programmed robot, and NEVER ask customers if there’s anything else you can do for them today if you weren’t able to do what they asked you for in the first place.

✅ Enough with the surveys! Nothing sends me over the edge faster than the request to take a few minutes to fill out a survey after a totally useless and infuriating customer-service call. Everything in moderation, my mother used to say. That especially goes for surveys.

If customer-facers would just follow these few tips we’d all be a lot better off. And I bet their survey scores would go up, too.


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Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.
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