Between September and last week, I was embroiled in an exhausting dispute with my cell carrier, Bell Mobility. Everyone has been there: You go in with a deep breath and a vow to be patient, only to end up broken and angry after hold music, a parade of service representatives and unfulfilled promises of resolution.
By the new year, I was refusing to talk to anyone but managers. I was also forcing my friends to listen to the boring details, when one of them gave me a present. “I have an e-mail for you,” he said, texting me an address for “executive client relations," a secret handshake that he’d similarly been offered in a moment of telecom distress.
I sent a note to this mysterious address explaining the issue – again. Within hours, I was contacted by a rep who gave me – wait for it – her direct phone number. The problem vanished in two days. She told me to get in touch again if I had another concern.
I was relieved, of course, but also annoyed. Why wasn’t I invited into this club before? I’ve been a Bell customer for a solid 10 years. Even so, marketing professor Detlev Zwick said I may not have spent enough money over that time for the company to consider me a VIP.
“You probably were an intruder, in some ways,” said Mr. Zwick, an associate dean at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University. “An intruder into a level of service that they wouldn’t necessarily market at you.”
Mr. Zwick was amused that I didn’t consider this “fair” – this is capitalism, after all – and even that I was surprised. Airlines have been offering what he calls “tiered” or “personalized” customer service for years, and we wearily accept that the less often we fly and the cheaper our seats are, the less likely we are to get room for legs or luggage.
Credit lenders have also been on it for a long time, hence the staggering number of different cards, fees and benefits. In the age of Big Data, said Mr. Zwick, other companies are starting to follow the lead of these industries, analyzing long- and short-term spending habits to finely parse just how valuable individual customers are to the bottom line, then offering service accordingly.
Bell may need such an office for the customers it deems worthy because its baseline service is the pits. According to the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS), the country’s second-most profitable telecom company is the one it hears about most often; complaints about Bell account for 33 per cent of its intake.
In comparison, the most profitable company, Rogers, receives just 10 per cent of the commission’s complaints. Maybe that’s because it’s had an ombudsman to help solve client problems since 2009. I asked Bell to let me know who exactly the executive relations e-mail address is for. They sent me a link to the same complaint resolution page that’s been driving me up the wall for months.
The CCTS, by the way, is an independent body that all Canadian telecommunications and television providers are federally required to work with. It’s where you’re supposed to take problems that you can’t solve with your carrier.
More than 90 per cent of the 14,000 complaints it received last year were resolved. Most of the time, said Commissioner Howard Maker, carriers just bump problems up to higher-service tiers as soon as the CCTS gets in touch. It seems a bit frustrating to have to involve a middle man, but it’s also good to know.
The current era is a bridge between the old service model (where the customer is always right) and the new one (where the customer is as right as the data show is profitable). That provides gaps customers can sometimes sneak into: The Bell rep I spoke with may have decided my tenure was valuable, but she also may just have been being nice. Humans genuinely want to help, said Mr. Zwick, but increasingly companies are telling them not to if the customer in question doesn’t contribute enough to their paycheque.
And soon, he said, customer service at big companies will be handled almost entirely by artificial intelligence, which won’t have to be given that instruction twice. So seize the moment: The internet is full of message boards and blog posts where people share executive customer service contacts for companies such as Apple, Best Buy and Amazon. Use them quickly, because there’s no way to sweet-talk a robot.