Complain, Complain

In Emily Yellin's new book, it's a matter of call-and-response.

According to the numbers, 43 billion calls per year worldwide are made to customer-service agents. (Yes, 43 billion.) In America alone, that breaks down to roughly 1,400 people every second calling an estimated 3 million agents — agents working for financial and insurance institutions, agents for communications and utility companies, agents for any number of goods and services. You call for information. You call to ask about your account. You call to place an order. And you call to complain. You know the drill. You probably also know the meaning of "hold." So does Memphian, journalist, and author Emily Yellin. . . . >>>

"Everybody," she says, "has their stories."

She means the horror stories of frustration bordering on rage when it comes to customer service by phone. Here's one of those stories — Yellin's own:

It started one Tuesday when Yellin called Office Depot's 800 number to order free, next-day, home delivery of paper and toner for her printer. On Wednesday, her order hadn't arrived, so on Thursday she called again and spoke to an agent named Nick, who couldn't guarantee when her paper and toner would arrive. So she asked for a supervisor, who turned out to be an agent named Pablo in Buenos Aires. Yellin and Pablo got to talking. She mentioned she had a niece living in Buenos Aires, and Pablo promised delivery of the order the next day — a free order because of the trouble Yellin was going through. Her order arrived at her door two hours later. But on Friday, another driver arrived with another delivery of the same order, which she refused. Then she realized that the order she'd accepted was the original order. The second delivery was the free order Pablo had promised. So she tried reaching Pablo again.

She dialed the 800 number, and this time she talked to Michelle in the Philippines, who couldn't connect her to the call center in Argentina. Nor could Natalie (in the Dominican Republic), Andrea (in the Philippines), Jen (in the Philippines), Stephen (in the Dominican Republic), or Sarah (in the Philippines).

The agents — all of them, Yellin says — were courteous and willing to help, if only they could help. But it turns out Yellin's niece could, and she did. A friend of hers in Buenos Aires just happened to be dating a guy named Eduardo. Pablo, it turned out, was Eduardo's boss at the TeleTech customer-service phone center in Buenos Aires, which handles calls to Office Depot. End of story? No, because in the course of researching her enlightening, entertaining new book, Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives (Free Press), Yellin met Pablo, whose first words to the author were: "This is amazing. I've never met a customer before." More amazing: the fact that in a city of 12 million people, Yellin had managed to track down the agent who'd been so kind.

She's now met many agents face-to-face — agents not only in Buenos Aires but in Zurich, Cairo, Salt Lake City, and Memphis, where FedEx, we learn, has one of the best customer-service departments on the planet. "From the start . . . the focus on customer service has been one of the critical success factors of FedEx," founder and CEO Fred Smith told Yellin. "It was baked in from the earliest days."

The earliest days. That's where Yellin begins her book, with a return to the 1880s when it took an average of five minutes for a phone caller in Chicago (with the aid of an operator) to reach another caller in the same city. Yellin also returns to the days of the "hello girls" who'd connect you, and to Mark Twain, who complained in a letter that the Hartford phone system was the "very worst on the face of the whole earth."

Things, of course, improved technologically over the decades — from operator-free calling to WATS lines to touch-tone dialing – but she really brings us up to date when she discusses the latest in "speech analytics," "audio mining," "emotion detection" programs, and "voice biometrics" — advancements in the rapidly evolving techniques that companies use to expedite and monitor customer handling.

She tracks the world over for trends in call-center outsourcing (e.g., India), nearshoring (e.g., Nicaragua), and homesourcing (e.g., Salt Lake City). She meets with the real, live Julie Stinneford, the woman behind the interactive voice response persona "Amtrak Julie," who knows 16 ways to say, "I'm sorry," and she quizzes "Anna," the avatar at Ikea's website, who can steer you to items in the company's catalog but apparently cannot deal with questions of a more personal nature. Yellin even references the popularity of online customer-complaint forums such as,,, and, but she also includes, a blog that explores "the mind-numbing insanity and childish corporate culture of an unknown call center employee."

She quotes dissatisfaction figures in the Customer Rage Study. She talks to consultants on the "disconnect" between bottom-line managers and helpless customers. She sits alongside a retired couple who work out of a spare bedroom, fielding calls from JetBlue customers (one of whom demanded a round-trip refund after claiming that passengers had been sucked out the door of a flight she'd been on). Worse are the examples of customer abuse directed at agents — abuse that often translates as not only xenophobic but downright racist.

What does all this say about the state of customer service and "what it reveals about our world and our lives"?

"As individuals, we practically have post-traumatic stress disorder when it comes to customer service," Yellin says. "We're isolated. We think we're the only ones these things have happened to. It brings out our paranoia. Our dignity, our rights aren't respected. But as it stands, customer service is a barometer of the way we as a society communicate across all sorts of barriers: race, gender, class, nationality. It's all in there. It's an amazing way to look at the world."

Her immediate prescription for the state we're in? Patience with those faceless agents.

"We need to understand that customer phone service isn't going away. Outsourcing isn't going away," Yellin says. "The trick is how to do it right and for companies to make it a priority and not pay it lip service. I know from writing this book that it's made me a better customer. I know I've got more empathy for that agent on the other end of the line."

After meeting the folks in Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us, you too might discover some empathy you never knew you had.

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