Sweating the Small Stuff

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 6:41am
Photo by Foam

Sweating the Small Stuff

An Avis rental car agent quotes me four different prices in a 15-minute telephone call, ranging from $441 to $672 for a week. I know Avis’ prices go up and down, but once I’ve started the booking process shouldn’t I be able to finish without the cost jumping $231 while I’m declining the additional insurance? No, the agent tells me, apparently clueless why this might annoy me.

I’m reminded of a parking ticket for several hundred dollars I'd received long ago, a ticket written while I was in the car with the key in the ignition. My offense, the meter maid told me, was that I’d yet to turn the key.

I ask to be connected with the agent’s supervisor, and am cut off (giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he hung up on me). Now I wasn’t merely angry. I was enraged, and prepared to take it out on some powerless person, an unattractive impulse but one I frequently indulge, despite knowing in my gut that this is a losing battle, and that it would waste time and energy and nudge my blood pressure up a few points.

Calling back the customer service number, I intend to make clear that I am a customer who is getting lousy service and could easily rent my car from Hertz. Instead, I’m put on hold, listening to Muzak and periodic announcements that someone would be with me in a minute. A minute turned into 93 minutes (yes, I timed it) before I gave up and hung up, still without a car rental and with no idea what the price would be when I called again.

Either customer service isn’t what it used to be or age has made me cranky. But these frustrating encounters seem more and more frequent. In between, I lecture myself for being uppity to people with awful jobs who are just trying to eke out a living. I mindfully slow down my breathing and wish I had the temperament of my fellow columnist, Sharon Salzberg, someone who has spent her life studying meditation. I resolve to find my better self.

Instead, within days of the Avis hoo-hah, a cash machine rejects my Citibank card, forcing me into a long line to inquire why. A bank representative tells me that the company has replaced all its cards, because new technology required the installation of a chip. Reasonable, we both agree, but for the fact that Citibank hadn’t warned customers in advance and had mailed out new cards in unmarked envelopes. I, along with many others, she said, must have thrown the mailing in the trash.

She kindly issues a temporary card on the spot, useable for a month, while a permanent replacement is sent to me, this time in a well-marked Citibank envelope. Even snail-mail, at its worst, would get the card to me within the week, and I would leave the bank happy.

But a week passes, then another, and eventually a third. The temporary card would soon expire. As with Avis, I’d been a loyal Citibank customer for four decades. As with Avis, I call, get put on hold, listen to more Muzak, get disconnected, and call again. This recorded announcement is almost endearing in its shifting specificity.

“Thank you for holding. Someone on our staff will be with you momentarily.”

“Thank you for holding. You won’t be on the phone much longer.”

“Hello. This is customer service. Heather speaking. Please hold.”

(Surely they jest.)

Then, oh my God, it’s Heather!

She says she’ll send me another new card, this time via FedEx. In the meantime, the temporary card will be deactivated, for reasons unknown and inadequately explained. The new card, she says, will have a different number, which means dozens of additional calls await me to give that new number to Con Edison, RCN, AT&T Mobile, and the list goes on.

Only a masochist would ask Heather for a supervisor to inquire why I should believe that this time a card would actually be delivered and to beg that the number not be changed, since none of this, after all, was my fault. But I do, and am relieved when the Muzak is blessedly brief and I find myself speaking to Monica.

She tells me the card number must be changed, whether I like it or not. I threaten to move my account to Chase and she counters with a few goodies. How about 5,000 airline miles if my card is connected to a frequent flier account? (It isn’t.) How about a $50 gift card at Home Depot? (There’s none in my neighborhood.)

All the fight drains out of me, and when she asks for my social security number and my mother’s maiden name, I docilely comply. She says, “I give you my word.” This time the delivery will arrive within 48 hours. If it doesn’t, she says, I should call back, although my head pounds at the prospect.

At the 48-hour mark, the card has not arrived, so I prepare for the next phone call by putting up a fresh pot of coffee. Before the coffee is done, the doorbell rings. FedEx! A new card! The delivery man gets an extravagant tip, which is nice for him, but hardly makes up for my previous rounds of unseemly behavior. I resolve, yet again, to find my better self.


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Jane Gross

is a retired New York Times correspondent, who spent 30 years there covering all manner of subjects from sports to autism, aging and major earthquakes and wild fires in California. She is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves and creator of the "New Old Age” blog, now defunct, at the Times.

Prior to joining the Times, Ms. Gross worked for Long Island Newsday and Sports Illustrated magazine. Post-retirement, she volunteers mentoring New York City high school students and is trying her hand at ceramics.

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Your piece, Jane, made me laugh and cry. I'm going through one of those times in life, like yours, when not much is going right or not going smoothly at all. When I find myself getting 'wound up', I stop, take a few deep breaths, think of some of the myriad things I have to be grateful for, and remind myself there are far worse things in life, such as living in Syria right now. Or such as being in Belgium today. (We gather the residents of Belgium -- and the terrorists -- in our hearts today).

ME TOO !!!

I am still laughing. You and your writings are so real, Jane. :-) A lot of us -- most of us? -- try to take the higher road, and I think we more often succeed than fail. But there are sometimes our personal puny and absolutely wonderful lives just plain s-ck, and no amount of 'lofty writings' are going to help at all. Have a great day! And thanks again.

What is your better self - the self that just takes it, the self that feels unworthy of respect and apologetic for being angry? You are completely within your rights to feel the way you do. Tell Avis to take a hike, you'll find a company that actually cares about your satisfaction (try Enterprise, we've had good luck with them). Citibank cares nothing for your loyalty, just how much money they can make off you. Find a bank that at least treats you better. Stand up, don't apologize!

What is your better self - the self that just takes it, the self that feels unworthy of respect and apologetic for being angry? You are completely within your rights to feel the way you do. Tell Avis to take a hike, you'll find a company that actually cares about your satisfaction (try Enterprise, we've had good luck with them). Citibank cares nothing for your loyalty, just how much money they can make off you. Find a bank that at least treats you better. Stand up, don't apologize!

Yes, but we can stand up for ourselves without being angry at the other person. [Not to mention that the actual real person we are dealing with probably can do nothing but follow company policy (and its phone script).] As I am learning almost too late in life, I don't feel well when I get angry, so, without being in denial about how I really feel, I try to talk myself down. If I'm going to get angry, I'm going to get angry about something that matters -- like young adults setting a homeless man on fire. And btw, yes, I get angry at things that Jane wrote about, but if I am and I can't talk myself out of it, I say to the person on the other end of the phone or in person, "I am angry but I am not angry at you. So if you don't like the tone of my voice, please tell me, and I'll try to do better." I do that often. More often than I want to admit (only because then I have to admit that I do get irked with everyday life's situations.)

I'm only 35 and I find that increasingly large corporations care little for true customer service or loyalty. We've moved to a local cooperative bank - where they actually know us! - and it's been wonderful. I think that much is to be said for graciously listening to the anger and abandoning those soulless, behemoth institutions for smaller, local ones that actually care.

The last time I yelled at a customer service rep, I accused him and the company he worked for of stealing money from me. The agent remained calm and offered to send documentation to clarify the problem. Not even one week later, the promised statement arrived and there it was: proof that I was wrong and he and his employer were right. That was over ten years ago. I now work as a customer service advocate. I often think of that call when I am working. It is a great reminder that the "noise" on the other end of my phone is a real live human being with a story of their own. And remembering the humanity of others, I hope, helps me maintain and celebrate my own.

Oh me, oh my. Where is our better self when needed? Seems you handled your Self very well under trying times.
I do not detect any curse words. Brava, Jane! Laugh it all off.

Oh, Jane -- all I can say is that I empathize! And you are correct: "customer service isn’t what it used to be"! Like you, I try not to vent my frustration on the hapless middle-people who work for these huge, increasingly understaffed, stingy entities that really don't give a hoot about what Leona Helmsley called "the little people." Forgive yourself, take your business to Chase (although I don't agree with some of their investment business's practices, I was happy with them for years until I moved upstate to a Chase-less environment), and bid Avis a mindful adieu. Deep breaths, and when put on hold, put the phone on speaker and do something while the Muzak grinds on. Thank you for your frazzled honesty!

Hello Jane!
After spending 30+ years as a leader in the Customer Experience business, I chose to retire early because of the continuing decline in companies that truly see customer service as an investment. I worked with companies who "got it", and companies who were totally clueless and saw service as simply a necessary cost.

The people we generally get to deal with today to resolve breakdowns in service are little more than "shields" to protect companies so they don't have to actually interact with the "pesky people" whose money keeps them in business.

Without naming brands, some have earned my lifetime loyalty because of the way they trained, empowered, and engaged their front line staff to actually understand how to deliver a customer experience worth remembering (for the right reasons :-) I seek out these companies and move my business there whenever possible.

Another terrific tool I've found to feel more empowered and calmer is Will Bowen's book, "A Complaint Free World". It creates an action plan to reframe our world into a more peaceful and positive one. I am not affiliated in any way with him or his site www.Willbowen.com, just a highly satisfied reader.

So Jane, if you would like a copy, I will send you one. just let me know where it should land.

I hope your ceramics work helps you get centered and brings peace!

Bob, I want to know who those good companies are! I want to keep relationships with those places, whether it's as a customer or employee.

Oh, and the idea of a local community bank where people know you? That sounds... just WONDERFUL - almost too much to ask for - to this thirty-year-old millennial who is happy with her credit union.

I'm in a cubical at a call center at this moment! I just finished a conversation with a customer that lasted an entire hour. I was explaining, and re-explaining the difference between a return and an exchange...for an entire hour! Despite how frustating the situation was he was one of my better callers because he treated me with the innate dignity that comes with being human, the dignity that in my eyes is increasingly cheapened by the Customer/Employee relationship. I'm staying 15 minutes after my shift is finished to share this because over the last few weeks I've been fighting a persistent lethargy that hangs over me while I'm on the phones. On Being has been a source of renewal for me since I started listening back in November, but Jane's piece speaks to a dilemma I struggle with on a daily basis: How to find Joy, how to practice Awareness when the very nature of modern life (particularly in customer service) seems to necessitate that I succumb to the impulses of my reptile brain.

This is SO Life these days! Very frustrating, time consuming and leaving one helpless in the clutches of technology and robotic communicating! I wish there were more real people to connect with, instead of endless time on hold, and also, the language barriers with some companies - I can't understand what they say even after multiple repeating. Is this me, am I inadequate to understand a foreign accent? I didn't think so, but with sometimes poor connection, background noise ( on their end), it appears that I am.
I, too, need to prepare myself better - doesn't look that circumstances will change anytime soon! Blessings to you !

Ah...yes. Reminiscent of trying to contact a human being at Google a couple of years ago when my domain name was about to expire because I needed to update my payment information, and Google had changed the way to do this without telling anyone. At the (seemingly) eleventh hour, a Real Person emerged, and the problem was resolved...at least, for the foreseeable future! I don't meditate, but I do find that in instances like this the mantra, "Help me, God, help me!" in tones ranging from quiet desperation to outright frustration can, when accompanied by deep breathing, help a great deal indeed!