October 5, 2012

Customer Service…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:52 pm


For he had learned some of the things that every man
must find out for himself, and he had found out about
them as one has to find out — through error and through
trial, through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood
and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and
wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful
and believing and confused.

—Thomas Wolfe

The customer is always right. Of course, we all know that. It’s, like, written in the Constitution or something. At least, one could think that, from the incessant recitation of the phrase. The customer is always right. No exceptions.

In the past month or so, I’ve checked out that little truth from both sides. As a customer dealing with a vast faceless company. And as a vendor dealing with an irate customer. And from those two experiences, I guess I’d reword the phrase into something a bit longer and more cumbersome. But more true. Your customer is always right. Except when he isn’t. But even when he’s wrong, that doesn’t necessarily make you right, either.

Way back in 2007 when I launched this blog, my only home computer connection was through the phone line. Dial up. I shudder when I think of how it was. Ancient, slow, decrepit. Within weeks, after much frustration, I realized something would have to be done. So I called Verizon, and chatted with a friendly sales lady. I signed up. A nice man came out and installed DSL service and connected it all to a little modem under my desk. I felt very liberated. This was cutting edge stuff.

Within months, though, there were issues. Whenever it rained hard, I lost the internet. Verizon sent out a tech now and then, after much hollering from me. And they always got the system cobbled back together. I needed new wiring in the basement, one of them told me. And that service wasn’t included in my contract, so there was nothing he could do. Hm, I said. You know, I’m seriously thinking of calling Comcast. And he suddenly located some “old” wiring in his van and installed that in the basement for me. The connection was saved. As was my relationship with Verizon, at least for the moment.

They were mostly good guys, the techs. Cheerful. And so it went, mostly OK, for the past five years. But about once or twice a year, the modem had a temper tantrum. Its little green eyes would blink balefully. Open and close at random. And my connection opened and closed with the evil little eyes. I grumbled at Verizon. And now and then, they sent out a new modem, and things would roll along again for a while.

Lately though, the connection has been abysmal. Even when the modem eyes shone bright. I’d click on a link, and the little connection wheel sat there and spun and spun. Increasingly the service got worse. Then about a month ago, the modem went haywire again. Kicked off on a great fit of random blinking. And one night late, as I sat there seething, I googled Comcast on my iPhone and called the number. A nice man from another country seemed very excited to hear from me.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “We can fix you up with high speed internet and cable. For much less than you are paying for Verizon and Dish Network combined. And yes, you can keep your phone number. No problem.” It’s very important to me, to keep my old number, I said. “No problem at all,” he reassured me. OK, then. I’ll bite. The nice man from India congratulated me with such elation that I figured I’d won the lottery, almost. Then he signed me up. Soon the vile little green modem eyes would mock me no more.

And two days later, an installer showed up. An energetic guy in a tiny little pickup sagging under racks and great long ladders. “I’ll have you hooked up in an hour,” he promised cheerfully. Oh my, how cool, I thought. An hour. That’s fast. He strung up a long extension ladder on a nearby telephone pole, climbed up and opened a mysterious box and fiddled around with whatever was inside. I watched. He then came inside and strung cables and wires throughout my house. Drilled a hole through my floor into the basement and yanked up a cable from below. He smiled and chatted right along. And then it was time to hook everything up. But strangely, nothing worked. The guy seemed perturbed. Yeah, that’s how it goes, I thought. It won’t work here, at my house, because, well, that’s just how things tend to go.

He walked outside and called his supervisor. They talked quietly and seriously for a few minutes. Then he approached me. They’d have to give me a temporary telephone number, to get the internet hooked up. But it wouldn’t be a problem. My old number would be transferred back within a few hours. Uh, I’m dubious here. That was a promise, I said. That I could keep my old number. He smiled. “Yes, yes, you will keep it.” OK, then. Hook it up with the new number. And he did. Within minutes, I had cable TV and high speed internet, right on my PC. Right in my house. Woo, Hoo. I thanked the guy. Shook his hand. And gave him a signed copy of my book. He smiled some more and promised to read it and tell all his friends. And then I went off to work.

And, of course, when I called in later that evening to get my phone number switched back, it all morphed into la la land. I dialed 1-800-Comcast, like they had told me. Punched in my account number, the last four digits of my social security number, my life history, and so forth. And then stayed on hold. On hold. On hold. Then, a lady’s bright voice. From India, I’d wager my house. I told her what I wanted to do. Switch back to my old phone number. She was very sympathetic.

“Oh, I am so sorry you are having a problem,” she said. Yes, yes, keep reading the script, I thought. All I need is someone who can speak to me and help me. “Let me see what I can do about that.” Great. She punched around on her keyboard, checking her list for more wide open, generally asinine questions. Finally, she conceded. “I’ll have to transfer you to the next level. I’ll put you on hold.” Music. For minutes. Another lady’s bright voice. “Oh, I’m so sorry you are having a problem.” Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you are. I appreciate that. Just get me some help here. I didn’t say that, just thought it. “I’ll transfer you to the tech department,” she said. Music, then. For minutes. Then, suddenly, deadness. Nothing. I was disconnected. Gaaah. Now I’d have to jump through all those hoops again.

The next day, I jumped through the hoops and spoke with a nice lady from York, PA. Practically next door. She told me she wasn’t sure I could keep my old phone number. “That’s now a Leola number, and you live in New Holland. It might not be possible to get it switched back.” It was a promise, I said. “I’ll see what I can do, I’ll fill out the request,” she replied. I’m leaving for the beach for a week, I said. When I come home, I want it to be fixed.

It wasn’t, of course. And I decided to unlimber the big guns. I called again, the Tuesday after returning from the beach. This time, the call went overseas again. A lady answered in almost good English. Almost good, but still from India, I figured. I need to get my old number switched back, I said. I’m an attorney. I was promised I could keep my old number. It’s important.

I rarely, rarely play the “attorney” card. Almost never. Only when it’s absolutely necessary. As this now seemed to be. The lady from India stuttered a bit, then said she’d transfer me to the right department. Music for a minute. Then two. Then a clear American English voice. “John speaking. How can I help you?” I didn’t mention anything about being an attorney. Just told him I’d like my old phone number back. It’s important. I got it printed on my business cards. “That should be no problem. We can port it over,” he said. “Give me four business days.” That’s great, I said. Can you send me an email to verify our conversation? Yes, he could. And he did.

It took more than four days. But after a nudging email from me earlier this week, in which I did mention the word “attorney,” John got it done. My old phone number is still my phone number. It took a bit of work, but I can’t complain much about Comcast’s customer service. It’s a labyrinth, sure, and you have to figure it’s going to take a while to get anything done. But I can’t complain. Not much. Not so far.

Back a month or two ago, I saw it from the other side. Well, I see it from the other side every day, really. But not usually from an irate customer. The situation just slipped in on me, totally unexpected. And it spiraled right on down into a dimension I had never seen before.

Graber is a quality company. We take pride in our identity, take the extra step to ensure customer satisfaction. We always have. If I can’t work it out with you, well, that’s not an option. I will work it out. Somehow. And then, that day came a test.

It was about twenty til five. Almost closing time. It had been a hectic day. Dave and Eric, the other two sales guys, had already left, for one reason or another. Rosita and I were winding it down. The phone rang intermittently. And then it rang again. I listened as Rosita talked to the person on the other end.

“No, Eric’s on the road.” A pause. “All right. I’ll transfer you.” And my phone beeped. I answered. “Some guy wants to talk to someone in management,” Rosita said. A red flag waved in the distance, in my head. Management. He asked to speak to someone in management. OK, I said. And she transferred the call.

“This is ‘Ray’.” The hostile voice came through my headset. “What’s your position at Graber?” It was an attack, the way he asked the question. I’m a manager, I answered politely. What can I do for you?

And Ray explained, fairly coherently. He lived in upstate New York. A few weeks back, he’d bought some metal roofing from us. A small order. His friend, who lived in our area, had picked up the order and delivered it to him. Good so far, I figured. But we had sent only half enough screws to attach the metal. He had half his roof on. Now he needed some more screws. His friend was coming back up this weekend.

Well that’s no reason to get hostile, I thought. I chuckled into the phone. That’s no problem, I said. Just have your friend stop by, and I’ll gladly sell him another bag of screws. He can bring them right up to you. No problem at all.

But it was a serious problem, in Ray’s mind. “I ordered the metal. You didn’t send me enough screws. I want you to give them to me.” He sounded old, cantankerous and mad. I shouldn’t have done it. But it was late, almost closing time. And I couldn’t stop myself. Or wouldn’t. I flared. Look. I’m not sending you any free screws. That’s not how it works.

Ray was a practiced hand at harassing customer service reps, that much became very clear in the next few minutes. “I ordered the metal. You should have known how many screws I needed,” he said. “I want you to send them to me free. You owe them to me.”

How dense could the guy be? Look, I said impatiently. I didn’t take this order, so I don’t know what was said or wasn’t. But even if we figured the amount of screws wrong, had we figured it right, you would have paid for them. You would have spent exactly what they cost you. So you’re short right now. But you will have to pay for the screws. It’s one bag. 250 screws. That’s fifteen bucks. That’s all I can do for you. But you aren’t getting them for nothing. I will not do that.

He was an old practiced hand at this game. He’d gotten away with a lot, in his lifetime, harassing customer service people. With oily ease he shifted, like he was reading from a script. “I want the name of your supervisor.” Smugly, like he expected me to wither.

This is as high as it goes, here, for you. I shot back. “Then I want the complaint department,” he said next. I am the complaint department, I said. And back and forth we went for another minute. Then, “I want the full address of your corporate office, and the name of the public relations person.” I’m sure he’d sent many a customer service rep dashing for cover in the past with that demand. But not this time. This is the corporate office, I replied. Like I said before, this is as high as it goes for you. Look. It’s almost five, and I got things to do. And again he came back, hedging for time. “Then I want the mailing address for your office.” It’s on your invoice, I said. “I don’t have that with me right now.” Find it, I said. The mailing address is right there at the top of the invoice. Feel free to write.

Silence, then, as he absorbed my words. He wasn’t done. One more shot. “I don’t like your attitude,” he huffed. Nope. I’m not going down that bunny trail. I was done. Suit yourself, I said. And then I did something I have never done before. Ever, to anyone, in all my life (except the occasional pesky sales person, but that doesn’t count). I hung up on the man. And I sat there, seething and drained.

The next morning, I checked it out with Eric at the office. Ray had called, I told him. And I told him how it went. It turned out that Ray’s local friend had ordered the metal and the amount of screws. Eric had just taken the order over the phone and written it up. Ray may or may not have known that. Chances are, though, that he had tried to pull a fast one on me.

But still. I was highly irritated at myself. I don’t lose my cool like that. Don’t lose control. Not like that. Not to where I hang up on a customer. That’s not my heart. I could have handled it calmly. I should have. Sure, it was late in the day, and I was frazzled. Not prepared to be attacked. But my reaction was wrong. Way, way wrong.

The problem is, you have to be prepared, mentally and emotionally, all the time. You can’t ever let your guard down. Because you never know when the doors will open and the crap comes pouring in. When some irate person will come at you, right or wrong. That’s just how it is. Not just in sales, but in life as well.

Some “Ray” will assail me again, for reasons that make no sense to me. That’s a given, and it’ll happen soon enough. And I don’t know if the outcome will be different. But I think my attitude and my reaction will be. I can’t know for sure until it happens, I guess. But I know where my heart is.

My book talk at Grove City College came down last Friday evening. And, in retrospect, the whole trip was one of those experiences that will always stay with me. My good friend from our Bob Jones days, Dr. Mark Graham, got me into the place. I mean, how many authors get to go to any college and talk about their book? Mark and I were classmates during my two years at BJU, and I last saw him and his wife Becky eighteen years ago when I was a groomsman at their wedding in Rhode Island. I wore a tux for the first time ever that day.

Mark always spoke and breathed history, back in those days. A doctorate in history is kind of like an English degree of any level. With it and a couple of bucks, you can buy yourself a cup of coffee at most gas stations. Mark is one of the very few people I know who pursued his passion and is doing exactly what his heart always called him to do. What he’s always known he would do. Teaching, breathing and writing history.

Mark met me when I arrived at the campus, and we picked up right where we had left off, way back. I could still see the eager young student in him, back in the classroom. We talked full speed as he showed me the college grounds. Beautiful place, Grove City. Had my life taken a slightly different curve along the tracks, I could easily have attended there as a student. Mark proudly regaled me with the history of the place.

And later his wife Becky, looking young as ever, smiled and greeted me with a hug. Introduced me to their three well-mannered daughters and their youngest child, four-year-old Ira. No, I wasn’t his namesake, his great-grandfather was. But I told the boy, who has an orator’s voice if I ever heard one in a child so young, to always be proud of that name. There aren’t many of us out there.

After dining with Mark and a small group of his colleagues and friends, we headed on over to the hall where I would speak. A beautiful, brand new building. This was the first such event to be held there, Mark told me. They had set up 150 chairs. I seriously doubt that many people will show up, I said. A crowd of 25 or 30 is more than respectable.

I didn’t have much time to get nervous. A few outside people trickled in, including an old law school friend from way back. Kelly Tua Hammers and her father drove the two hours from Latrobe, over close to Pittsburgh. Kelly and I were in the same study group through three years of law school. We became close friends. Such bonds are never forgotten. She hugged me and showed me pictures of her husband and two beautiful children. And I seated her and her Dad right up in the front row.

At about 6:25, the doors opened and students poured in by the dozens. All the chairs were grabbed in about two minutes. Standing room only. And still they came. After 250 people crammed the room, the doors were shut. No more were allowed in. My friend Mark must have really harassed his students to show up, I thought.

Then it was time. I’m not a public speaker, not used to talking to packed rooms. But somehow, after a few nervous moments, it all came down OK. I spoke for 20 minutes, read a scene from the book, and then took questions from the audience for the remainder of the hour. The students asked thoughtful, intelligent questions. It was a lot of fun. And then it was over.

Turned out there was a reason the students had flooded my event so enthusiastically. It’s just funny, really. At Grove City, you have to attend a certain number of chapel services each semester. Fourteen, or some such small amount. Which would just appall the Bob Jones people, but seems perfectly sensible to me. Anyway, somehow my book talk was credited as a chapel attendance. So it was an easy credit to any student who wandered in. Which they did, in great numbers. So that’s why the room was so full. But hey, it was all just part of a great experience. I’m grateful for any audience of that size, even if a little “coercion” was applied.

The next day I headed east and south for Carlisle, PA, for the fifteenth reunion of my law school class. The first such event I’ve attended in fifteen years. I don’t usually pay any attention whatsoever to what’s going on back in the schools I attended. It’s not that I have anything against the schools, or against such events, it’s just that I don’t want to be bugged by Alumni Associations. First you attend, next thing you’re being dragged onto some committee, and of course, there’s always the delicate matter of raising funds. It’s all such a wearying of the mind. It’s better to just make a clean break.

But this year it worked out, because I was on the road anyway. So I went. And it was great. I reconnected with friends and classmates, many of whom I had not seen since graduation. There was a reception, a brief speech, and a nice banquet. Then a bunch of us headed over to The Gingerbread Man, a local watering hole, and hung out until the wee hours. Shooting pool and just generally having a grand old time. Some things never change.



  1. Imagine using the amount of screws. He could at least claim the steel had fork damage.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — October 5, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Once again I loved your writings. Keep up the good
    words and may God richly Bless you.

    Linda Morris

    Comment by Linda Morris — October 5, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  3. I thought you handled Ray very well, considering the time of day and his overbearing obnoxiousness.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — October 5, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

  4. My take on the whole “customer is always right” thing. The customer might not always be right but they need to be made to feel like they are.

    Comment by Linford — October 5, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  5. Great blog addition!

    Comment by Rhonda — October 5, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

  6. Being in business I identified with your frustration completely. We have a “No Trespassing” sign to put up when we close the outside part of our business. Invariably people ignore the sign and jump over the rope. My husband once said “What part of that sign don’t you understand?” but felt so bad because he was rude. Customers are definitely not always right but must be treated with fairness, firmness and politeness. After that hasn’t worked, I think there is a time to “hang up the phone”. Could say much more but this is your interesting blog, not mine.

    Comment by Helen — October 6, 2012 @ 8:17 am

  7. I feel for you… Working with the public, I run into difficult types often. I’ve never hung up on one, but I’ve been tempted. I have given responses that I’ve regretted later, though. Keep up your writing.

    Comment by Mark Oliver — October 6, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  8. Ira, I could moralize and analyze. But it is just fun to read what you write. Thanks for doing it.

    Comment by LeRoy — October 6, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  9. I agree with LeRoy. Your writings are so fun to read. Thanks for writing and sharing. I’m glad Ray had to pay for the screws. “I am the complaint department” haha. That is awesome.

    Comment by Liz — October 6, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  10. Oh, Ira! Really? “You can’t ever let your guard down.” Ira…..you have to let your guard down. Here’s a story- When I was in zombie zone after having my second son….. This is going to take up too much space. I’ll e-mail you.

    Comment by Francine — October 7, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  11. Dear Mr. Wagler,

    I am 80 years old and have read many books. I found your book great, sad, and very interesting. I loved it and cried as I read it. But….please write the rest of the story. We know where you are now, but how did you get there?

    I am an accountant and still run my own business after stumbling around for many years. I am an 80 year old lady and now, of course, realize and see how I should have done different. But unfortunately one can not redo. Things turned out OK but I could have done better.

    I will continue to read your blog, but really would like to know “the rest of the story”.


    Comment by Claire — October 8, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  12. Yeah, what Claire Said.

    Comment by Paul — October 10, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  13. Ira, I have spent 40 years in the construction business and never hung up on anyone, but have lay the receiver down on the desk and left them go on. The customer is “always right” is a myth, no one on this earth has ever been “always right”, unless you consider JESUS. We all do things we may regret, but we must keep on going.

    Take Care

    Comment by Warren — October 16, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

  14. I would have sent the man a bag of screws for free. Word of mouth travels fast, and The irate customer can tell one person about your store, that one can tell two more people, and on and on. As a nurse, I get so angry with rude family members, but I have to bite my tongue and stay calm. Anyone, we all lose our cool at times. We’re only human. I look forward to your blogs– keep them coming.

    Comment by Bev B. — October 28, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  15. I just finished your book and thoroughly enjoyed it! I didn’t want the book to end. I was so drawn to your writing; it’s so engaging, heartfelt, and sincere. I too would love to hear more about what happened in your life from the end of the book until now. If you ever write another book, I will definitely read it. Until then, I will enjoy this blog!

    Comment by April Jonassen — October 31, 2012 @ 2:46 am

  16. If attending a book talk would have been a way to earn chapel credits when I was at Malone, you can bet I’d have been in the audience!! :)

    Comment by Eileen — February 28, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

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