Saturday, April 4, 2009

I'd Like a Confirmation Number. Seriously.

Annnnnnnd, we're back...

Lots of stuff to work through. First off--non-repudiation for customer service calls.

I'm told that I may not be alone in being annoyed by service fees my bank charges. Yeah, really.

When I launched my consultancy, I had to do lots of stuff, including choosing a bank. Living in the Bay Area, you truly only have a couple of options. I've been with one of the big boys since I moved to California in 1993; The Wife has been with the other guys since she arrived in '96. Realistically, we had two choices; we ended up going with my bank. As part of the sign-up process, and despite vehement protests that I neither wanted nor needed them, I was "offered" a few services I needed to opt out of after 90 days.

Which I did. Except, they claim I didn't.

When it's my word against their word, guess who wins? Not The Little Guy (me), at least not immediately. The Wife and I have now called five times to cancel one of the services--including while sitting in a branch last week, where a personal banker even dialed the number for us. He sat there while I canceled (for the fifth time) a service costing $30 a month, one which I never wanted in the first place, one which I've been trying to cancel for way too long. Lo and behold, I'm getting onto a flight at IAD the other night, and in comes an e-mail--informing me of my monthly charge for $36. Yeesh--trying to cancel a service I had no use for costs me an extra six bucks for no longer wanting to have it.

Or something like that.

The last couple times we've called the bank, we've specifically asked for a confirmation number. When we've asked, we've been told "Oh, just check your statement to make sure it's canceled." I'm checking, and it ain't.

Similarly, I called my video service provider last night to cancel my MLB Extra Innings package. Lest you think I've suddenly found wisdom and renounced my beloved Cubs, I'm in no way giving up just because they're now into Century of Futility Numero Dos. Nope, nothing that insightful. No, I simply chose to cancel because A) the package costs $179.95 for me to watch many (but not all) games at (nowhere other than) my home; and B) the MLB.TV Premium package from MLB (at $109.95) has a sweet suite of capabilities this year, including HD, every single game on both video and audio, multi-game viewing options, and much more. Since I have computers hooked up to multiple TVs here at home, and since I'm on the road a fair bit, I figured I should the save $70 for a couple of bottles of Veuve for when the Cubs win the World Series.

A guy's gotta have hope, right?

I hopped on the service provider's portal last night; I've been with them for eight years, and have conducted the vast majority of my transactions over the Internet, so I figured this should be a no-brainer.

Not so much.

After logging in, I promptly went to my programming section, where I tried to uncheck the MLB Extra Innings option. No love--the site said I needed to call to cancel. So, I dutifully picked up the phone and dialed. After dealing with the interactive voice response tree, I was given the option to speak to a human being, or allow the IVR to help me. I like humans. In fact, much of the time, I am one. I figured I'd help somebody justify their job, which is why I said "AGENT!" to the IVR until she listened.

I was summarily transferred to a recording informing me that operators are only on duty from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time, and that I should call back during regular business hours. That's annoying--my friggin' TV's on at 1 a.m., and I'm working. To me, that's normal business hours.

I hung up and called back.

This time, I chose to let the IVR help me. She was such a cheery little chipmunk, I figured I should give her a shot. Once again, no love--she claimed that she was having trouble understanding me (when she'd told me on the last call that she was definitely able to help me out with my problem). I felt like I was trying to get into a European airport lounge that I knew I had the right to be in, but that the concierge/door guardian had decided that Americans didn't belong. I mean, I'm not trying to shop in Germany on Sunday. I'm just trying to cancel one component of my programming.

After she gave me the Heisman, I set a reminder to buzz them back this morning. I called around 10 a.m., and had a very nice conversation with a real, live (I think) customer service representative who said she'd be happy to help. While we were speaking, she told me that I should be able to see the charge reversal in real-time. I didn't, but I figured, hey, she knew what she was talking about. I asked her for a cancellation number so I had some kind of record of our conversation, but she said I wouldn't need one, since she'd taken care of everything.

Except that she hadn't.

Having learned from my experience with the bank, I watched the service provider's website like a hawk. All I saw was an $.80 credit--not really what I was looking for. I called back around noon; despite the IVR lady's protests that really, she could help me, I again chose to speak with a human being. I told him about my earlier call, and asked him to have a look at whether I'd been successful at canceling my MLB programming.

I hadn't. Which pisses me off.

I mean, this isn't rocket science. Customer service agents exist to provide, oh, I don't know, customer service. I acknowledge that the absolute vast majority of CSRs I've dealt with over the years range between competent and outstanding; dealing with the United 1K desk for the last dozen years has been particularly smooth, save for their short-lived foray of shipping the 1K desk offshore. Marriott's and Hyatt's top-tier desks are awesome, too. As a mega-frequent traveler, it's easy to be spoiled, but the regular line-level CSR desks at most places are staffed by really good folks--who sometimes suffer from horrible training (or a total lack thereof), as well as systems that aren't exactly cooperative.

I'm not sure the culprit in this case...I'm willing to blame it on the computer system, based on the fact that the first CSR I spoke with seemed very competent. During my second call, the CSR was extremely apologetic, and asked me to stay on the phone with him until the website updated to ensure (with my own eyes) that the service had been removed and a credit issued. Despite the fact that the process took 10 minutes, I was more than willing to do so, particularly since I didn't want to be forced to make a third call--or further calls, as we've done with the bank. While the bank issue didn't necessarily have any urgency (aside from them charging me for a bunch of stuff I neither wanted nor needed), the television issue did--if I hadn't been successful in canceling MLB Extra Innings before the first pitch of the regular season, I'd've been stuck with paying for the entire season.

Which brings me to my point.

My time's valuable. Every consumer's time is valuable. When CSRs go home from work, their time is valuable--not to denigrate the value of their time when they're at work, but when the shoe's on the other foot, I think they end up as frustrated as me. Being forced to make multiple phone calls to resolve an issue isn't productive for anyone. And, when it's the consumer's word against the big company's, it's pretty tough for the consumer to prove his case.

In the travel market, it's easy to do so, since a canceled transaction comes with a cancellation number. Why can't the bank or the TV guys give me one, too? When I make a financial transfer online, I receive a confirmation number from the bank, which I save as a PDF so I have proof of the transaction. That's my validation that what I said actually happened, happened.

When I call the bank or the TV guys, I have to confirm my name, my address, the last four digits of my social, All of these are in the name of non-repudiation--a mechanism for them to validate that I am who I say I am.

Why should non-repudiation stop there? When I execute a transaction via any method--online from my computer, from a mobile device, over the phone--why don't I receive a transaction number (whether for a confirmation, cancellation, change, you name it) every single time? If the system is designed properly--and that's a big if, in the truest sense of garbage in, garbage out--the CSR shouldn't be able to confirm that the transaction is complete until a transaction number is issued. Give it to me. I'll write it down. Then, when I call back because Big Company hasn't done what they said they'd done, it's no longer my word against theirs.



  1. Dang well time you came back - I've already seen all the Apple movie trailers....

    I'm not a conspiracy guy - in fact I'm pretty skeptical. But why would they want to allow cancellation? Let's say they "accidentally" don't cancel even 10% of those who request it. How much cash is that? And if you're a cable company or a bank, how likely is it that the customer is going to leave due to a few "whoops - the computer system screwed up"? And you're saavy enough to be able to check things right away. Many probably look at their paper bill and then they'll call and get lost in the automated tree and give up. There's a reason why it isn't simple....

  2. In Feburary (Jan bill), a $14.95 charge showed up on my AT&T phone bill from Orbit Telecom. For an ANSWERING MACHINE SERVICE.

    Since it's a third party (from their accents, I suspect China), ATT can't help. All they can do is put the charge in dispute.

    Then I called Orbit Telecom, knowing full well that this was not going to be over, and told them that I never signed up, cancel the service and credit me $14.95.

    This month, I got a $14.95 credit, but they billed me AGAIN. Net effect - zero. Call AT&T, dispute the charge AGAIN. Call Orbit Telecom, where I have an extremely frustrating coversation trying to explain basic accounting and try to convince them that I need ANOTHER credit, even though there is "already credit on bill".

    Did you know that you can submit complaints to the Attorney General in Illinois online?

  3. All of the databases behind these transactions has a record number at the very least, and normally some type of transaction/ticket/confirmation ID number. The tool may not display it to the tool-user, but the numbers are there.

    It may be that the tool doesn't display that ID number to the Customer Service Rep, and so they may not be able to easily find it. Maybe they then need to go into another screen or tool to try to find their just-finished transaction, and THEN they can see the number. (So, what we should do is to press them to finish the transaction, and then FIND their transaction, to prove it has happened, and THEN ask them for the confirmation number...or their employee ID number, so you can tell the rep next month who you talked to (and then call back 10 minutes later and ask another CSR to find the record).)