'Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us' Frustrating customer service stories are commonplace. For her book Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us, Emily Yellin looked into the history and future of customer service. She thinks it's possible things will improve.

'Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us'

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You have reached TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Please stay on the line. We'll take your call in the order in which it was received.

All right, all right. Calm down and try to stem the flashbacks from those bad customer service calls, the 40 minutes you spent trying to cancel an account, that tangled phone tree which stranded you in bad saxophone music, the moment you realized the person you were speaking with wasn't really on this content. There are few people who have not experienced a nightmare involving that more and more oxymoronic term customer service. But climb far enough up that phone tree, and there's a story there about the relationship between people and industry. And deep within that story there's even a kernel of hope.

Emily Yellin's new book "Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us" takes a comprehensive look at the history and the future of customer service. And yes, we promise there is a prospect that things may get better, so stay on the line.

Later this hour: Some call it Conficker. Some call it Downadup. And a lot of people worry about the deadline tomorrow - questions and answers about the latest cyberworm, and your letters.

But first, infuriating customer service stories are unfortunately all too common. So save that tale of woe for your friends. But we do want hear from you if you've received any customer service that attacked the problem in a particularly interesting way. We also want to hear from those hapless souls on the other end of those calls, people who work in costumer service. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Emily Yellin is a long-time contributor to the New York Times, among other publications. Her book is called "Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives." And she joins us today from member station WKNO in Memphis. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. EMILY YELLIN (Author): Great to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to get that kernel of hope that we promised, but first, the rage. One of the first things you learned in this is that 70 percent of Americans who have problem with a business are not just annoyed or irritated when they pick up the phone to get help. They have a sense of real anger.

Ms. YELLIN: That's right. There is a customer rage study, and that's one of the first things I consulted when I started doing this book. And it has found a way to quantify all of the exasperation we feel. And I think that's important, because companies look at numbers. And so here are some numbers: 70 percent of people who have a problem with a service or a product feel rage, and 28 percent of them yell at a customer service agent. Eight percent of them curse. My favorite is 15 percent want revenge, but only one percent report getting it.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there's problems on the other end of the line, too. And this is an email we got just now from Sean: I worked for more than a decade in the customer service division of a large high-tech company, and I can attest that not only is your call not important to us, we also hate you. We hate you because you do not read the manual we worked so hard to produce. We hate you because you don't know the simplest thing about computers and don't want to learn, and we hate you because you suck all the profit out of the product we sold you. It's no wonder that fee-based service is growing in the United States.

Now, well, there's two sides of the coin, where rage and hate are the two most important words.

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah, it's there. It's all there. And, you know, it's kind of a microcosm of the way - this is how I see customer service now. It's a microcosm of the way that we treat each other in public. And it's not always pretty. I hate to break it to you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YELLIN: …but - yeah.

CONAN: I was just going to say, but nevertheless, it is the future of business. One of the interesting things you write about is that the Internet has enabled customers to be in contact with each other, realistically, for the first time in history - it's made it much, much easier - which makes some people think advertising is almost superfluous at this point. Your customer service, your relationship with your customers, their word of mouth amongst each other, that's going to be vastly more important.

Ms. YELLIN: That really is where the hope is. I think even in the time I've done this book the last couple of years, the Internet has become such an important tool for customers, and it has caused companies to wake up and see there's a new idea around customer service is the new marketing. And that is really an idea that's taking hold in a lot of businesses, the idea that, you know, marketing always was trying to get focus groups and people to tell them what they think - customers to tell them what they think of the company, when meanwhile, they had a call center where the customers were calling and begging to tell them what they thought of the company and they were keeping them at bay. And somebody figured that out and realized that the information coming into a customer service call center is the kind of information that companies need, that companies can use, and it really benefits each, you know, both ways. It works both ways.

It helps the company become more responsive, be better at what they do, and it helps the customer get heard and have their problems solved. And it really has come out now that customer service is a financial indicator. It's a leading indicator. Often, people in customer service know about problems in the company way before the stock price reflects it. So that's the hope.

CONAN: Yet, in all too many places, the suggestion box, if you will, goes straight into the wastebasket.

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah. I mean, it definitely has been marginalized in the past, customer service. It was something that companies saw as an afterthought, something they had to do. It was a necessary evil. And that kind of thinking is what has lead to so many of the frustrations that we all have. But it is changing.

CONAN: It's interesting. You go back into history and you tell us about, well, the telephone company, when it first started said, well, who's going to be the switchboard operators - the equivalent of customer service. And they said, well, the same teenage boys who were, in fact, running the telegraph service that preceeded the telephone.

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah, that didn't work out too well. When they didn't have to actually talk to customers, it was fine because the boys could run, and they - it was actually a physical job. They had to plug in things and run. Well, when they started dealing with customers, they started cursing. They threw spit balls. They had fights, and the phone company, way back, realized that this probably wasn't the best plan, even though it was probably a pretty cheap way of doing the work. So they brought in what were called hello girls, and those were the early operators, and it was women, because they felt that women had the nicer quality on the phone and were able to handle it. What it really was was women were given this job as an opportunity that they hadn't had in the past, and, you know, they were able to work and make money. So it was an interesting equation.

And I also found, looking back at the past of the telephone, that back around the turn of the last century, it turns out that cursing at an operator was outlawed. And…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YELLIN: …in 1902, a doctor in St. Louis was arrested, put on trail and found guilty of using abusive language towards an operator, and he was fined $5.

CONAN: I wonder if, you know, if they just monitored the muttering on the phone while people are on hold and taxed you for every curse word, well, I think we might solve the budget deficit. Let's see if we…

Ms. YELLIN: That could be. That could be. Yeah, and, in fact, I was at a call center in - at FedEx, and it turns out they do actually record you on hold. So they can hear what you're saying.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah.

CONAN: Oh, I'm glad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YELLIN: And I heard somebody saying, you know, a bad thing, because she was having a bad experience - which FedEx did handle, and it was a really interesting process to see.

CONAN: Well, if you've had an interesting experience with customer service - we're not talking about the horror story, but an interesting approach you've seen a company use - or if you've worked in customer service, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Jerry, Jerry calling us from San Bruno in California.

JERRY (Caller): How you doing? Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JERRY: I ran customer service in North America for Hitachi for 13 years, and I always ended up being the call of last resort for those angry customers, regardless of what the product was.

CONAN: So you were the supervisor's supervisor.

JERRY: That's right.

CONAN: Okay.

JERRY: Yeah, that's right. I was the last phone call before the CEO.

CONAN: And how did it work?

JERRY: Well, we found that we needed a device like that, because the CEO over in Japan didn't like to get phone calls, and he wreaked havoc if he got phone calls.

So I've dealt with doctors and lawyers and average consumers for everything from excavators to televisions. And at one point…

CONAN: Well, forgive me…

JERRY: Go ahead.

CONAN: Forgive me, Jerry, but haven't the electronics companies like Hitachi pioneered the use of voice recognition and that sort of thing?

JERRY: Well, we did, but we ended up ash-canning voice recognition because it was making customers way too angry.

CONAN: Really?

JERRY: Yup. And so we went back to real people.

CONAN: That's interesting. In your book, Emily Yellin, you talk about this exact point and careful research to get that customer voice-recognition phrase exactly right.

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah. It's amazing. The people who create these voice - it's called Interactive Voice Response Systems, IVR, and the people who create these - I went to Nuance Communications outside of Boston, and they're one of the largest.

And they have an amazing team of people. It includes linguists, you know, PhDs from MIT who specialize in artificial intelligence. They have theater directors. They have a voice actress. And it's a real production. And it's, you know, there are so many ways to say something, and they really look at what has the best effect.

And then the computer has to be taught to understand us. And one of my favorite quick stories is they designed a system to Bell South in the southern part of the United States, and these were Boston designers, and they did this great system. It was state of the art. And they put it into action, and it had a woman's voice who was doing all the talking for the company, and it didn't work.

And the problem was they had taught the computer to learn all sorts of ways for saying yes and yeah and uh-huh, but they didn't teach it yes, ma'am. And so the Boston designers had to go back and teach it to understand yes, ma'am from the Southerners.

CONAN: Jerry, in your day, was the work on the voice-recognition system that sophisticated?

JERRY: Not that sophisticated, but, you know, the problem is you have to balance costs, and if you end up paying more for the VRU than a real person, you know, indeed, it does suck up the profit you made from selling the product in the first place.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate your experience.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. If you're holding on our phone line, your call is very important to us. And yes, here comes the hold music. We're talking with Emily Yellin about customer service and her hopes for the future of our relationship with businesses.

If you work in customer service, this is your chance to give us a call: 800-989-8255, or zap us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Stories about difficult customer service reps are not new. Remember?

(Soundbite of TV show, "Laugh-In")

Ms. LILY TOMLIN (Actor): (as Ernestine) Ms. Crawford, this is Ms. Tomlin from the telephone company with an annoying problem that only you, as vice president of the Pepsi-Cola Company, can help - hello? Hello?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOMLIN: (as Ernestine) Hello?]

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOMLIN: (as Ernestine) Put me through again, Venetia(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOMLIN: (as Ernestine) Hello? This is Paris, France, calling Ms. Joan Crawford. Is she there? Merci.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOMLIN: (As Ernestine) Ms. Crawford, this is Ms. Tomlin. Don't you hang up. You've angered me. And when you anger me, you anger the phone company and all the power necessary to tie up your lines for the next 50 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOMLIN: (As Ernestine) Do I make myself clear? Good.

CONAN: Lily Tomlin, reprising her famous "Laugh-In" role as the telephone operator, Ernestine. Emily Yellin delved deep into the labyrinthine and world of customer service. Her book is called "Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us," and she joins us today to take your calls.

Not more horror stories - we hear plenty of those. Instead, have you received customer service that attacked the problem in an interesting way?

We also want to hear from those of you who work or have worked in customer service. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Emily Yellin, that Ernestine sketch, well, that dates back to the days when people had many fewer choices. Customers had fewer choices to make, and people with a monopoly like the phone company had in the old days, well, they might be able to afford a little less customer service.

Ms. YELLIN: It's true. And, you know, the modern-day equivalent, I think, is maybe a cable company, and that's even changing. So cable companies have had a monopoly, and I'll name one name because I spoke to them in the book, so I can be fair.

But Comcast has had some pretty public incidents that ended up getting them really bad PR, and it really caused the company to take a look at itself and recognize that customer service was something they had dropped the ball on. They said that. And they're working to change it.

They have somebody now who monitors the Internet for mentions of Comcast. They have a whole team of people. They also have - the head of customer service has gone on listening tours to towns around the country where Comcast is the cable provider. And they're also becoming one of the largest telephone companies in the country. So competition and the end of the monopoly has helped, as well.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Victoria, calling from Charlotte.

VICTORIA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me today, Neal. I just had a general comment. I'm a customer service representative for a company here in Charlotte. We're a national customer service provider. We have two large retail clients here in Charlotte. We service the Charlotte area.

And it's just a general comment about I think the lack of understanding in the general public about the type of training and education that customer-service reps have.

I take calls all the time. I also train employees to take calls, and it's very common for them to misinterpret the type of education that we have and the extensive training that we go through.

CONAN: Not to put too fine a point on it, Victoria: Do they think you're an idiot?

VICTORIA: Very much so. Oh, yes. Many of us have bachelor's degrees, and we're taking phone calls, because I - you know, we service retail finance cards. So, you know, we have to understand a great deal about credit cards and how they work and how to, you know, service those types of calls.

And so I feel, in general, just a general lack of disrespect for the customer-service rep, no matter how hard we try to service the customer and do what's right for the customer. And we have a very do-what-is-right type of attitude for the customer, our company does, and, you know, they automatically think you don't know what you're talking about because you're a customer service rep. How could you?

CONAN: Emily, she's got a point.

Ms. YELLIN: Oh, very much so. I went to a number of call centers. I went to call centers in this country and overseas. I went to Argentina. I went to Cairo. I went to Britain, and I met some amazing professionals who do this.

And you know, I went to Jet Blue in Utah, where the customer-service agents are trained. They have a reputation of great customer service, and I sat in. I happened to sit in on a training session where they were training the agents how to deal with irate customers, and it was fascinating.

And, you know, these are people who actually care. And, you know, I think what happens is we make 43 billion calls a year to customer service, and that boils down to about 143 calls for every man, woman and child in the United States. And I think we remember the bad calls. But what's amazing is how many calls actually are sort of uneventful, and we don't even really remember them.

I've kept track of my own calls for the last year, and I realized there are about, you know, six or seven that stand out. But I've made far more calls than that.

So it really is a - you know, meeting the people behind this who actually are the ones we talk to on the phone was a great experience, and I hope it comes through in the book because they have some great stories, too.

CONAN: Victoria, thanks for the call.

VICTORIA: Thank you. Love your show. Good-bye.

CONAN: Thank you. This email from Lisa in Denver: If you call Comcast, the phone tree and knowledge of the staff is lackluster. If you put a notice out on Twitter about having a problem, you get a nearly immediate response and very knowledgeable service.

When I asked if the two organizations were connected, the folks servicing customers via Twitter said no. We're just an experiment.

Ms. YELLIN: Well, Comcast has set up a group that just monitors, as I said, the Internet. There's also another site called getsatisfaction.com, and that's a place, it's a social network, and it's where companies and customers can come together and there are company representatives, as well as the customers. Everybody has to use their full names. Everybody's accountable. And it's sort of new idea of how to, you know, interact between companies and customers.

CONAN: Let's talk with Laurie, Laurie with us from Alatha(ph) in Kansas.

LAURIE (Caller): Hi, Neal. My comment is just that I've worked in customer service, retail and a call center, and I have noticed, working with a lot of technical people, I come from a retail background. So I came with it with a real customer-service attitude when I went to the call center.

A lot of the people that are in technical support, I don't think the same part of your brain works for technology as works for customer service. I don't think necessarily a lot of the people are geared mentally towards giving customer service.

They just think let's get to the root of the problem and let's fix it. They're not thinking about, you know, patting this guy on the hand and walking him through each little step.

I worked for a very large GPS company, and so many of those people that I worked with came from an IT background, and I coming from this customer-service background, I could take an 80-year-old man that didn't know how to turn on his computer and teach him how to use a GPS.

Some of these guys, they were constantly getting their calls sent to managers and stuff like that because they didn't know how to do that. They just simply did not know how to give that type of customer service.

CONAN: They had all the technical expertise but not the people skills, if you will.

LAURIE: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right.

LAURIE: Exactly, and I think that happens quite frequently. So people get frustrated. You know, the customer gets frustrated with the customer service person, and the customer service person gets frustrated with the person for not knowing - you know, they know so much, they don't understand this person is starting at the bottom. You know, so it goes both ways.

CONAN: Laurie, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

LAURIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Rod: I work for a phone company. When we started selling this feature, menu trees, to businesses, it was so the caller would be on hold less.

They were supposed to be routed to the department they truly needed. We trained these businesses how to make sure this happened. What we found out was businesses used this to wear the caller down so they would hang up. They would tell us they did not have the budget to hire people to do customer service, and this was a way to pacify the callers.

And Emily Yellin, if that was the idea, it didn't work.

Ms. YELLIN: No, it didn't work. And, you know, I think this all, both of these questions come down to how a company prioritizes and whether customer service is a priority. And you can see that in the way that they design the customer service.

So, you know, what I've now learned is that the way that a company treats its customer service agents, the way its customer service function is the way it treats its customers.

So, you know, the training is really important. I think the way to see it is that customer service is both an art and a science. And I know that's a cliche, but I think what's really happened is the art of it - as that caller was talking about - has been sometimes, you know, is behind the science of it, and science was really driving it.

And the best companies are the companies that see it not just as a department. There's a company called Zappos.com, and the CEO there, Tony Hsieh, says it's not a department. It's part of their whole company. It's everything they do.

And I spoke to Fred Smith at FedEx, and he said customer service is baked into the organization. He's the CEO of FedEx. So that's really the way it has to be designed, so that the customer's experience, the entire experience you have with a company is thought of as customer service - not just a problem, and you call on the phone and you get somebody who's not well-trained and doesn't know how to handle your problem and also maybe doesn't know how to handle people who are upset, which is also an art.

So, you know, it's an amazing kind of complex thing, but it's also pretty simple. It's common sense.

CONAN: I also wanted to ask you about some of these more technological solutions. You write a lot about Julie, who, if you've not called Amtrak, is the lady's voice who answers the phone there and takes you through the usual phone tree, but does it in a pretty engaging manner, though she can be pretty frustrating at times.

Ms. YELLIN: Can I do my quick Julie impression?

CONAN: Oh, please.

Ms. YELLIN: Hello. My name is Julie. I'm your automated agent. Let's get started. Is that good?

CONAN: That's not bad.

Ms. YELLIN: Do you think I could…

CONAN: That's not bad. That's not bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YELLIN: She - I met Julie. She's a voice actress in Boston. And they took her name, actually, for the name of the Amtrak system. And part of that, I think, was that people do feel a little uncomfortable talking and interacting with a computer system, so they were trying to humanize it by giving it a name. And it is amazing, the technology that goes into that.

But, again, in that particular - that's a very good example of a voice response system, even though it's not perfect. And that technology is not perfect. And -but they have really worked hard to design it so that it gets the job done. And she answers about 50,000 calls per day. She's their system. And that ends up being, I think, 18.3 million calls per year are answered by Julie.

CONAN: There's also these devices or, well, I guess, computer algorithms that will listen to your voice to try to pick up certain phrases because your call may be monitored. Well, people don't do that. There's too many calls involved. Computers do that so they listen for certain key phrases, the same way intelligence services look for a phrase like I want to bomb the White House. And in this case they might mention the name of the rival company. And others that will look for emotional levels in your pauses and your decibel levels.

Ms. YELLIN: Yeah. It's kind of amazing the way that the data mining, it's called, and emotion detection systems can monitor customers. And if you think about it, you know, as a company, if a company has, say, 43 million customers and they're all calling all the time, it is impossible for human beings to monitor all of that.

So, the best companies are the ones who use it for good, not for evil, you know, but to really recognize patterns in the calls and see if, you know, there's a real problem. And they can search for hate, the word I hate, you know, whatever company, and then some of them get even more sophisticated and can judge the emotion of someone speaking by the tone of their voice and, as you said, you know, the decibel level and all of that, and really judge how many customers are angry, that sort of thing.

It's very, again, it's pretty sophisticated. And if you see it from a company point of view that's trying to do well, they can use it in a way that helps them provide better customer service, better training to their agents, that sort of thing.

CONAN: "Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us," it's the name of the new book by Emily Yellin. She's our guest today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Amy on the line. Amy with us from Rochester in New York.

AMY (Caller): Hi. I work for an internationally known customer service provider. And I think that the expectations of customers in recent years have really changed. I remember 50 years ago, my grandfather, he had a small corner store in a small town, and he always took the approach the customer is always right. And that was really good for business. But now, it seems that customers expect to get whatever they want, right or wrong.

And, you know, if I walked into a grocery store and I said, I'm going to fill up my cart full of groceries, and because I've been a customer of this company for so many years, I expect to walk out and not pay a penny. I think people would think that was ridiculous.

Yet I think customers, when they call into a lot of these customer service centers, they figure if they raise enough of a fuss, they'll get whatever they want, in fact, they might even get paid for doing it. And I think that as a customer service representative, that can be extremely frustrating and it wears you down. And before long you become a little jaded.

CONAN: Is there a sense of entitlement that you found amongst customers, Emily Yellin?

Ms. YELLIN: I think that's definitely something that we, you know, that I saw, is that customers can be extremely difficult. I think that a lot of customers do it out of desperation because they've tried being nice, or they've tried being patient and it hasn't worked. So it's really - this really shows that there has to be a conversation that's constructive, a conversation where we really talk about how we talk to each other as businesses and as customers.

And, you know, there is one idea that maybe customers need to look at this more as a business transaction, come to it with a factual base. It's hard to do. We've all been there, as you've said. But then companies need to look at these as less as business transactions and more as personal interactions. And if we can sort of meet in the middle and really - because this has an impact on everybody's lives.

You hear these people who were trying to answer our phones and trying to help us and how frustrated they are and how hard it is for them to do their jobs well even when they really want to help you. So I think that that is a useful place for us to start as we look at this as a really serious issue.

I mean, we laugh, but it is a very serious issue because it has an impact on the way we live our lives and the way we have to function. And it can be pretty upsetting.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Bruce in Oakland, California. My utility provider, PG&E, has a great solution to answering calls. The computer gives the option of being called back and tells you how long that should take. It confirms your number, you hang up and when the phone rings, there's a real person on the line.

Ms. YELLIN: That's a great thing. That's, you know, those are the kinds of innovations that customer service has started to look at and do. You know, just the smallest things are so important. The fact that if you're on a line and you're holding and they say to you you're the sixth person in line, someone will be with you in the next 10 minutes, that's a lot better than just hearing a looped tape and not any consideration for your time.

Because one of the things I realized as I was doing this, you know, we don't get paid for that time we're waiting on hold and whether, you know, the people who answer our phones and the people who - these businesses do. In fact, we're paying them for the privilege of waiting 45 minutes to get our problem solved, our simple problem. So, you know, I think it's important for customers to realize their value, as well.

CONAN: Emily Yellin, thanks so much for your time today.

Ms. YELLIN: It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Emily Yellin's the author most recently of "Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us." She joined us today from the studios of member station WKNO in Memphis.

Up next, why you should worry about the Conficker computer worm, but maybe not - tomorrow. Plus, your letters. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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