A few thoughts on customer service

As a product guy, I’m always looking to improve products and experiences. Much of my thinking is driven based on more than a decade of creating online products and focusing on the integrated product experience. This includes brand, marketing, sales, product and customer service. But some of my thinking is driven by my own experiences using other people’s products. A few from the last two weeks stood out.

Quirkiness and Virgin America

I was flying home from Las Vegas on Wednesday night. After we boarded, the pilots came out and introduced themselves as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The captain even did a Bush accent (including pronouncing America the way W does.) He encouraged everyone to vote Republican. I like Virgin America a lot, but this was just a bizarre experience. (It wasn’t even funny.) If that’s where it was left, I’d chalk it up to quirkiness gone bad.

But our flight was delayed on the ground and the pilot came back in his Bush-like drawl and explained that we were being held on the ground because the guy who beat him out was on Air Force One near SFO, and we had to wait for ATC to give the go-ahead. As far as I can tell, Air Force One wasn’t near SFO. (I check the White House’s published schedule for that day.) That, in my mind, is not acceptable. If the reason for the delay is known, passengers should be told it honestly.

Disclosure: This flight was part of a trip to interview Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Virgin America covered travel for part of the trip.


I ordered a new iPhone. When I ordered it, I was told that it would be delivered on April 12, the date of the launch. Because I was traveling, I had it sent to where I was staying that day. For whatever reason, it didn’t arrive. I was able to get UPS to re-direct it to my apartment, where I finally received it on April 25. I received my first bill before I received the phone — and the billing began on April 14.

T-Mobile knows when I first used the phone. I couldn’t possibly have used it from April 14-April 24, because I didn’t have it. That’s more than $20 worth of service. They know I didn’t have my phone because 1) they monitor the UPS tracking information and sent me an email when it was finally delivered 2) they know when my phone first connected to the network.

Shouldn’t they be able to automatically start billing when I have the phone? Yes, they can get an extra $20 out of me. But it’s not the right way to start off what could be a multi-thousand dollar relationship. I called customer service and the agent, while friendly and nice, took a long time to understand the issue.

Having worked with wireless carriers in the past, I know that part of the reason is likely that their billing systems are ridiculously complicated. But that doesn’t change my expectation as a consumer to be treated fairly and not to pay for service I didn’t receive.

Update: T-Mobile did post a $20 credit to my account. But they didn’t credit the corresponding taxes. On my most recent bill, the taxes and fees tacked on 27% to my base bill. Such things should be automatic; if you’re refunding monthly billing, you should automatically refund corresponding taxes.

This isn’t to blame the CSRs. It’s about poorly designed systems (best case) or systems designed to maximize revenue (worst case) by skimming undeserved revenue around the edges. If we make it enough of a hassle, people won’t complain about really small dollar amounts and we can boost margins.

My next task with T-Mobile is to get them to unlock my iPhone, which I paid upfront for, so I can use it on my trip to Turkey with a local SIM. The original CSR promised it would be taken care of, but I got a rejection notice from T-Mobile’s SIM Unlock deparment. And every CSR since has refused. As part of T-Mobile’s new “uncarrier” strategy they have claimed that they will immediately unlock phones that have been paid for; somehow that hasn’t percolated through their organization.


I arrived at my hotel in New York and found that the Starwood social media team had left a gift for me. It turned out that it was a guidebook for Kauai — the destination of my next Starwood hotel stay.

That’s using data (my upcoming reservations) to deliver a personalized experience. Well done, Starwood.

There was a fire alarm at 2:30 a.m. during my stay. The next morning, I woke to find an apology letter from management explaining the situation and offering free breakfast. Because I already had breakfast plans, I asked if they could credit my Starwood account with a few bonus points instead. No problem.

American Express

I’m going to be traveling to Europe in a few weeks and I’d heard that AmEx now issues Chip-and-Signature versions of the Platinum Card.

I called them up and asked for a new card with the EMV chip. The CSR knew exactly what I was talking about. Immediately, she asked me when my trip was, just in case they needed to overnight the card. I said to go ahead and send it standard mail.

I immediately received an email saying that a card replacement had been initiated. (Important fraud prevention technique.) The next day, I received an email that my replacement card had been mailed. (No need to call back to check.) Proactive notifications are one way that companies can deliver better customer service and reduce operational expenses.

When I received the card, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t see the EMV chip. (When I previously requested a replacement card from Citi for the same purpose, they sent me another card without a chip.) But I peeled off the activation sticker and sure enough the chip was there. I activated the card online (more convenient for me than a phone call, less cost for AmEx). I received an email confirming the activation as soon as it occurred. (Security.)

My only persistent complaint about AmEx is that they still require cardholders to deal with their annoying IVR — even those who pay $450 a year for the Platinum Card. Chase and Discover have products that are cheaper that allow you to talk to a human immediately. This is especially annoying because I do everything online — e-statements, online bill pay, etc. I even have AmEx connected to my iPhone’s Passbook. If the task were automatable, I wouldn’t be calling.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
This entry was posted in customer service. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A few thoughts on customer service

  1. Jordan says:

    The number of negative customer service experiences I have with retailers and other venues seems to be increasing. I stick to the service I need and am very confident about getting what I want. It seem to be the only way to get past the lack of knowledge or skill being shown. Good customer service is really important and poor service can drive customers away.

Comments are closed.