By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/31/2006 4:47:17 PM ET 2006-12-31T21:47:17

We’ve all been there. You have a problem and you want the customer service agent to make it better - right now! But first, you have to wait on hold listening to that #$#!* recorded message that says, “Your call is very important to us. Please hold for the next available customer service agent.”

You’re already frustrated and the wait just makes things worse. So when your call is finally answered you really want to vent. You’re going to let the customer service agent have it.

Maybe you yell. Maybe you curse. Neither approach is very smart if you really want some help.

Brent has been in customer service for 25 years. He read my column of October 19 “ Whatever Happened to Customer Service ?” and wanted to share a few thoughts from his side of the phone line.

Cursing really doesn’t get you a better response, he says. “All it does is prove you have a limited vocabulary.”

Brent says some people start by saying something like “I hate your company, and I will never buy anything from you again.” This is not the way to get that service agent to go the extra mile for you.

So what do you do?  Brent says explain the problem “logically and calmly.” Don’t go on forever with a lot of minor details. Even the best agent will lose interest. Just give the “Reader’s Digest” version.

If you’ve been a customer for 20 years, let the agent know that, especially if there’s a way to verify that with an account number.

Then say what you’d like. And keep it reasonable. Do you want a new product? Do you want a refund? Do you want compensation for your inconvenience? 

In his e-mail, Brent made an interesting observation. He said the managers at his company were often “too busy concentrating on getting more sales,” to deal quickly enough with customer service issues. “New sales look good,” he wrote. “Money spent on existing customers is just overhead.”

I received a number of comments from MSNBC.com readers about my thoughts on the sad state of customer service today. I’d like to share a few of them with you. I’ve done some minor editing for clarity.

Peter said it seems like many companies want to make it difficult for customers to reach them.

Many of the help-line systems now seem designed to actually keep you from ever talking to a real person or writing a letter or e-mail.  I once received a letter from an executive of a major bank — there was no return address on the letterhead.

Peter described what it’s often like when you call a customer service center — if you can find the phone number. “After fifteen minutes of negotiating menus, you might be lucky enough to talk to someone who basically just reads from a script.”

'The other side of the counter'
Terri, who says she works for a major clothing retail company, wanted to share what it’s like to be “on the other side of the counter.” She said she felt the need to “defend customer service.” “The truth of the matter is we do much better than we are given credit for,” she wrote, “but the bad experiences are so easy to point out.

We strive to provide the best customer service possible as that is what drives our business, but there are limits on what we should tolerate from customers.

I will bend over backwards to make it right if you are polite and explain what outcome you are expecting. I have been yelled at, cursed at and had my lineage questioned by an angry customer. I can tell you that experience is actually quite common. That type of customer can take their business elsewhere and I will not consider it a loss.

'Customer service is just about dead'
Gary in Vernon, Conn. feels “customer service is just about dead.”

The lack of indispensable service is appalling today, but we have allowed people to give us poor service for so long that many people do not even try (or possibly even know how) to provide even the basic good customer service.

Gary had kind words to say about Nordstrom and McDonalds. He says the counter person who waits on him most mornings will always have his medium black ice coffee waiting on the counter “before I even get in the door.”

'We're technicians, not magicians'
Leta handles tech support in North Carolina. She says she constantly deals with customers who use “loud, abusive language.”  She also gets calls from people who expect miracles from her. “We’re technicians, not magicians,” she wrote.

But as a consumer, Leta has some issues with customer service.

I am REALLY annoyed that it takes me 10 menus (press one for sales, two for customer support) to finally get to a warm body, only to find that the warm body not only doesn’t speak English well enough to understand what I’m saying, but they are even more ignorant of the product than I am.

Big business needs to be willing to hire knowledgeable customer service representatives that thoroughly know the company’s product, and can talk to the consumer in everyday ENGLISH that is UNDERSTANDABLE!!! 

PLEASE, on both sides of the conversation, a little common courtesy goes a LONG way!!!

Customers vote with their wallet
David owned a camera store in the Seattle-area for 36 years before retiring. “Where is customer service?” he writes. “The consumer voted with his/her wallet and opted to shop box stores, catalog sales and the Internet.”

David says people would come into his shop to “pick the brain” of his trained salespeople before they ordered online or from a discount store. (That’s a common practice that I think is totally wrong.)

As long as the customer is price driven he will not have the service of the corner gas station, men’s or women’s clothing store, shoe store, bookstore, etc. The old saying “price is forgotten long after value is received” is still true today.

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