Customer Service: A True Story


It had been a distinctly miserable morning.

For more than two hours, I had been on the phone with a series of six Verizon customer service reps, trying to reestablish my internet connection. Nothing was working.

To make matters worse, I felt like I was caught in a circle of hell worthy of Dante. One by one, each Verizon rep greeted me with a syrupy salutation, asked “how can I help you?”, and proceeded to insist that I reboot my computer and router, clearly following a script on the screen in front of them. When that never worked, each passed me off to another rep, in a separate department, who started the routine all over again.

By the time the fifth rep, “Todd,” placed me on hold, promising to transfer me to “our specialized tech support team,” I had chewed through the end of my blue Bic pen. But I managed to contain my rage when a new, faintly foreign female voice came down the line.

“Hello,” the voice said, “this is Mary. Thank you for calling Verizon. How may I help you?”

“Thank God,” I said, struggling to keep my sarcasm in check. “I’ve finally found you.”

The voice on the other end hesitated. “Thank you for calling Verizon,” it repeated. “How can I help you?”

“You said your name is Mary?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” the voice said, but it didn’t sound convinced.

“Then you must be my lucky charm,” I said. “My wife’s name is Mary, too.”

Another hesitation. “How can I help you today, sir?”

“Listen,” I said. “I run an Internet business from my house, and my internet has been down all morning. I need to get back online–like now, right away. Otherwise I won’t get paid today.”

“I’m sorry you are having this problem,” she said. “Let’s start by rebooting…”

“Here’s the thing,” I interrupted. “I’ve been on the phone with you people for over two hours, and I’ve tried rebooting five times already. It never works. And every time it doesn’t, the person I’m talking to transfers me on to someone else.”

“I’m sorry your experience has been less than satisfactory today…” the voice said.

“Thanks,” I interjected. “But I really need to know if you’re going to do something else to help me, Mary. Because if you just ask me to reboot again, I’m going to cancel my service faster than you can ask ‘can you hear me now?'”

Mary hesitated one more time. Then, when she came back, her voice was different, almost conspiratorial. It was also lower pitched and clearly accented: Mary, I could tell, was Indian.

“All right,” she said. “I think we should try something very different.”

For the next 35 minutes, she walked me step-by-step through the process of remotely reconfiguring my wireless router. She helped me navigate screens, fields, and codes I had never seen before, leading me step-by-step down through the bowels of that morning’s hell and back out the other side.

With each instruction she gave, her voice became a bit less phony American and a bit more obviously human, individual, unique. There were moments when we struggled to understand each other–mostly because I didn’t understand the technology stuff–but we muddled through.

When we got to the end of the process, she asked me to reboot again. “I know you have already tried this before,” she said, “but now we have really changed things.”

“Okay,” I said. “Hold on.”

As the router restarted a series of yellow lights came on. Then, one by one, they turned green.

“Green lights,” I said to Mary. “Green lights on the router!”

“Yes, yes,” she said. “This is good!”

Then, as quickly as it had gone down, my internet connection came back up.

“It worked!” I exclaimed. “I’m online.”

“It worked?!” Mary said. “We have done it?!”

“We did it!” I said. “It works!”

“I am so glad,” Mary said. “So happy for you.”

And she actually was. I could hear it in her voice, as surely as she could hear it in mine–despite whatever accents we had for each other.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “There’s no way I could have done this without you.”

“I am so very pleased to have helped,” she replied. “So very pleased. To tell the truth, I was worried this would not work.”

“Can I ask you something?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” she replied.

“Is your name really Mary?”

She laughed. “No,” she said. “My name is Amaira. I’m a university student, and I work nights at a call center in Mumbai. They ask us to use American names to help the customers.”

“I wondered if it was something like that,” I said. “For the record, you helped me a lot more after you stopped pretending.”

“Of course I did!” she exclaimed. “Just don’t tell my boss about it. We’re not supposed to spend so much time with just one person!”

I laughed. Then I thanked her again–twice–before I let her go.

We haven’t spoken since, of course. But I haven’t forgotten Amaira–or the lesson she helped to teach me: Our best chance to actually serve each other is to drop the scripts, listen, and muddle through together.

It might take a little longer, but it has a chance of actually working. And it beats the hell out of perpetual rebooting.

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