3 New, Annoying Ways to Ignore Customer Complaints

If you've heard about the new Netflix pricing plan, you probably only know half the story.

Earlier this week, the online movie rental company effectively raised its prices for customers who wanted its streaming and DVD rental option, from $9.99 to $15.98 a month -- a 60 percent increase.

That provoked an outcry from customers, who saw the $5.99-a-month hike as nothing short of a money grab.

It was a predictable response.

What you might not know is that Netflix knew customers wouldn't be happy. So it reportedly hired extra customer service representatives to deal with the fallout.

As Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey told our sister site CNET earlier this week,

We tested, we researched, we analyzed. We knew what the reaction would be. We are not surprised. We knew that there would be some people upset by the service and with the price being adjusted.
This use of a call center is problematic, not just for the Netflix employees who had to endure hours of abuse from angry movie fans, but also for customers. And it's hardly the only time a customer service department has been used in a creative â€" and, at least to consumers, maddening â€" way.

Defending an indefensible policy. Companies routinely use call centers to articulate policies that they don't bother explaining to customers, or that they couldn't be bothered to explain. I'm not just talking about this week's Netflix dust-up. Consider the poor reservationists for the St. Regis Bahia Bahia, which charges an outrageous $60 a day resort fee, as was reported today. There's no way those agents can justify a rip-off like that â€" heck, there's no way the hotel can. But why should the frontline agents have to? Shouldn't they be taking reservations, instead?

Divert customer inquiries. Call centers can serve other purposes, including funneling more customer requests through a website or online chat. How so? A long "hold" time, with a message that encourages customers to "try our website" for faster service repeated several times, is enough to make even Job give up and log on to his computer -- if they had computers 4,000 years ago. Also, a heavily-scripted call center (where the representatives are forced to answer any questions with pre-approved responses) can force customers to seek help elsewhere. Of course, nothing makes them hang up faster than threatening to charge them for a call. But is that really what the customer service department should be doing? Shouldn't they be, you know, helping customers?

As a firewall. Let's be honest: Many call centers aren't really there for customers, but to protect the business from customers. Netflix understands that. A foreign call center with rigidly-scripted employees, and a hundred ways to say "no," can protect the home office from nosy customer inquiries or complaints, leaving the business to count its money. The call center employees don't take kindly to this. After all, they signed up for this job to help, not be a hindrance. But where does a call center employee go with a complaint?

Look, customer service departments should be serving customers. And if you need me to tell you that, you probably shouldn't be in business at all. Companies need to explain their policies â€" unpopular as they may be â€" communicate with their customers and not give them the cold shoulder. Certainly, they shouldn't misuse their call centers for that purpose.

If you're a customer and you suspect a business is using its call centers to one of these nefarious ends, maybe it's time to take your business somewhere else.

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Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Mr. Thomas/Flickr