On customer service (and how SCE is dreadful at it)

Just the same way that VC-backed rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft offload corporate cost centers and burdens onto their employees (which they’d otherwise like to call independent contractors), most customer service phone trees are meant to save time for their paid employees while offloading that same burden onto their customers all while wrongly calling it “customer service”.

I’ve just had such a painful experience with Southern California Edison (SCE) Power Company that kept me on hold for 31 minutes (a dreadful dark pattern in its own right) to offload the dreadful work of their call center costs onto me. The reason for my call? A simple request to literally flip one bit in their database–something that, if they really cared about customer service, should have taken two minutes from start to finish via phone or even under one minute online. Yet here I am bearing their miserable burden. 

I found a phone number that should have taken me directly to a point in their phone tree that should have asked at most one question, given me a representative and taken less than a minute. Instead I get dumped into the beginning of a larger tree that gives me options for the 5 other phone numbers and options I’d seen online. Why?!

Naturally they ask me to input my account number, which I do, but what’s the first question the representative wastes our time asking? My account number!

But guess what, that customer service representative can’t help me with the lowest level request to flip one bit from a yes to a no. They send me to a special department and make me sit on hold for another 20 minutes. I’m sure it wasn’t because they were so busy, but more to discourage me–otherwise the first customer service person would have been able to help. The design of their system not only isn’t set up to help them lower costs, it’s designed to actively make things worse for me. 

Screw you Southern California Edison! Your system should be designed just to minimize your direct cost for supplying customer service, it should be designed to minimize the cost on both sides.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

2 thoughts on “On customer service (and how SCE is dreadful at it)”

  1. I can’t speak for every company, but as someone who has worked in a Call Center, the purpose of phone trees is not to offload the burden onto the caller. It is to route the caller to the right people. Everyone who answers the phone at an organization isn’t identically skilled. If you press 0, as so many people do, you could end up going to someone who isn’t qualified to do what you want, which means a poor experience or being transferred again. So, phone trees have callers do the work of telling the company what you want. Now, from your description, it sounds like their setup could use some improvement. I’ve been involved in the past in discussions to change the one at my employer based on the data we have on usage as well as feedback from the employees on how people are confusing the options.

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