May I help you?

Let’s face it, at some point in your life, whoever ‘you’ may be, you are going to have to call customer service. And, given that I have worked at three different call centers to date and seem doomed to retire from some call center or other at some nebulous point in the future, you may very well talk to me. But even if you don’t, my experience would seem to qualify me to offer you some advice as to how to maximize your customer service call center experience. So, a small list of tips on Just How To Get The Best Service When You Dial That 800 Number:

1. Try to speak in a heavy and all but incomprehensible accent. Working at a call center, regardless of who you are actually working there for, basically boils down to one thing: telling putative adults of all age ranges, cultures, religions, and general social strata over and over again, “I’m sorry sir/madam, but you are not the Monarch of the Universe just yet, and therefore, things do not work to your maximum convenience at this juncture. You will have to do the same things everyone else has to do and comply with the same restrictions and physical laws as the rest of us.”

Details, of course, vary. Sometimes you may be being told that yes, whether you like it or not, you will have to pay your phone bill and you will have to pay the exorbitant rates for your international calls that you get charged when you do not want an international plan because the international plan has a higher monthly fee and you only talk to your sister who lives in Berlin once or twice a year so that’s ridiculous. Other times you may be being subjected to the unwelcome knowledge that you do have to actually fill out a claim form and attach an honest to god itemized receipt for the services you are seeking reimbursement for, instead of simply scrawling ‘gimme $600 I bot a Waterpik’ on the back of a Hershey’s candy bar wrapper and faxing it in to our processing department. Whatever the case may be, the essential message – “the universe is not at this point being run to your specific convenience” – remains the same.

Now, those of us who work at the other end of that 800 number love a challenge, of course, of course, and while communicating to our callers that we do not have the ability or even the authority to deform the laws of God or man in their favor is often a difficult and demanding task, there is nothing we like more than making such a process even more arduous and grueling. So, by all means, when you talk to us, try to torture the English language as much as you possibly can. Whether it is because you are Southern, urban, hail from New Jersey, or you just finished the arduous journey from Shang Hai or New Delhi and can't wait to get started on your new life as an American, your heavy, nearly indecipherable accent will immediately endear you to those of us forced to attempt to decipher your labored attempts at communication and convey complex information in response to you.

Because we love that. And you will definitely get our best effort that way.

2. Be very confused when you call us. Starting out the call with “I’m very confused” is actually optional, but if you want to get the best out of us, make sure you are the biggest, most spastically disorganized clusterfuck imaginable before you call. Be drunk. Be wasted. Or just really really stupid. Optimally, if you can manage to be all three at once, you're golden. If you have documents you want to question us regarding, make sure that you left them somewhere else that you do not have access to from the place at which you are calling us. If you saw something on our website that puzzled you, by all means, do not be looking at our website when you actually decide to talk to us about it. Rely on your memory, because relying on your memory of something you don’t understand anyway is always a great idea. If you think you actually remember whatever it is you want to ask us about, then for God’s sake hit yourself in the head with a hammer several times before you dial that phone. In fact, this last tip is such a wonderful one I cannot stress or repeat it enough; the next time you decide to pick up your phone and call customer service, by all means hit yourself in the head with a hammer several times first.

3. Make an effort to find out when the call center you want to reach closes. Then call five minutes before that time. This is an especially useful tip, because there is nothing we customer service agents love more than getting a call in the last five minutes of our shift. It guarantees that you will get our absolute optimal service, especially if you call within that time frame and say something like “On February 12 I called Bangladesh and you charged me $3.17 a minute so I called you guys and you put me on an international plan and said you would back date the charges which was fine but on March 27 I called New Guinea and spoke to my uncle the headhunter for 117 minutes. Now I asked when you put me on the international rate what that call would cost me and you told me 27 cents a minute but you actually charged me 29 cents a minute and I don’t know why plus on May 11 I called and said to take me off the international plan and I am still being charged for it plus I think you charged me wrong for all my calls to my boyfriend who lives just across the river in Queens which is supposed to be in my free dialing area.”

We love that. Honest, we do. We can’t get enough of calls like that, even in the middle of our shift. Coming two or three minutes before quitting time, let me tell you, they just light up any customer service representative’s life.

4. Open your call with “I just have one quick question”. Ask that question. Then, after we answer it, think of another question. Say, “oh, I just thought of something else, while I have you on the phone…” Keep doing this. Forever. This is a great way to make sure you get a quality customer service experience. There is absolutely nothing we love better than someone who calls up, promises us a quick bit of the ol’ in/out, and then turns the whole thing into a marathon b.s. session that eventually devolves into a discussion of metaphysical quandaries that have haunted mankind since the dawn of time and that even the Gods Themselves couldn’t lucidly answer, like “Did you know your 800 number spells out SATAN SAYS HI?” or "Don't you think it's innately biased that you do not offer the option of receiving bills written in Tagalog?"

5. Yell at me for asking you for your Social Security number. This is especially fun. Because, you know, all we do all day long is write down your Social Security number along with your name, address, home phone number, and email addy in great big notebooks that we then take home and sell to professional international identity thieves for gigantic amounts of money. It is this lucrative side line that makes working in a call center worthwhile. Please never once consider the concept that maybe we ask for your Social Security number because, you know, we are told to by our bosses, because all of our programs work using that one specific unique number, and if we don’t ask for it then we can’t find your file or do our jobs and then authority figures drag us into little rooms and berate us at great length, which you honestly wouldn't think would bother us given our insouciant natures and the fact that we know our bosses are all hapless miserable tools of The Man, but which still, nonetheless, considerably harshes our buzz.

None of this could possibly be the reason we ask for your Social Security number, and it’s not like we aren’t forbidden by company policy and actual law to write your Social Security number down anywhere other than on Post It notes we have to shred at the end of the day. Oh, no. It’s all about identity theft at our call centers, so by all means, give us ten or twenty minute lectures on the illegality and inherent fascism of us demanding your Social Security number over the phone. Because that's endlessly fascinating to us, and we really, really appreciate it.

6. Require endless repetition of the same fairly simple facts before you begin to vaguely comprehend what we are talking about. When you ask us for our mailing address or fax number, continually read them back incorrectly. Confuse "PO Box" for "BO spots", assume we are insulting your personal hygiene, and become shrilly defensive. Insist on transposing digits, or putting extra digits into, the fax numbers or zip codes we provide you. When you finally get the information straight, marvel over whatever city our call center is located in. If we are in the south, or the southwest, put on a fake southern accent and say "Shore thing, pardnuh!" This is all great fun for us, and will really enliven our day.

7. Always call customer service when you are really really pissed off. This is the best idea ever. This way, no matter how we open our phone call to you, we are wrong, and you will be able to easily discern any number of things in our greeting that were clearly intended to do nothing except annoy you. Open with "it's about goddam time a real person picked up the phone". When we say "how can I help you?", respond belligerently that we can "tell you what the hell is wrong with your account". Surlily contradict anything we say from that point forward with wonderfully eloquent phrases like "No, that ain't right" and "your computer is completely fucked up" and "that isn't what I remember" and "look I don't even know anybody in Tibet so how could I have placed that call" and "you people have been screwing me ever since I started doing business with you and I'm sick of this". Demand that we tell you our names. Get pissy when we only give you our first names, because honest to God, what we want more than anything is people like you being able to do Google searches and find our home phone numbers and addresses. Tell us that your time is valuable and someone should be paying you to waste so much of it getting this straightened out. Whine because you highlighted the receipt you faxed in and it came through our fax machine as a solid black scribble we couldn't read and now you'll have to mail in a legible copy and that's very inconvenient.

After pissing and moaning and bitching and being insulting and offensive and using invective and implying that we are all retarded and we hate you and there is some sort of conspiracy against you for ten or fifteen minutes, sigh heavily and say "I'm sorry, I know this isn't your fault, it's just you happened to be the one who picked up the phone, I'm really sorry, I'm just frustrated". Because that really helps, and maybe if you're lucky, we will then be able to get back into the system and cancel the disconnect orders, or pull out the denial commands we have coded onto all your accessible claims, or even pull out the "this customer is an asshole give them NOTHING" notes we have hung all over your account for future csr's to read.

8. Wait until the very last minute and then get really aggravated with us when things don't go perfectly for you because, you know, you waited until the last possible minute and somehow that's our fault. If it's open enrollment and it's been open enrollment for the past month, by all means don't call up and enroll until the very last day, and then have a set of questions like "If I have a chronic bone condition and I have to take a $200 vitamin pack every month and vitamins are normally ineligible and these aren't covered by insurance, can I claim mine anyway on my reimbursement account, because it's my money, dammit?" And then when we tell you that the only way it would possibly be reimbursable is if you submitted a letter of medical necessity from Dr. Nick Riviera and even that might be rejected, get very upset with us and demand a more specific answer than that and say it's not fair, you don't have time to submit a letter and Dr. Nick Riviera is just a cartoon character anyway and besides you need an answer because it's a lot of money to put into your flex spending account if you're not going to be able to use it for your vitamins, and somehow, again, this is all our fault.

Even better than this: wait until the very last day of your three and a half month close out period. Then mail us a 43 page claim. Then wait seven months before you begin to dimly realize you never got a check. Start sending us emails at that point saying things like "I just wanted to enquire if you had ever sent me reimbursement for plan year 2004 because I am not sure I have any record of receiving it". When no one responds in any kind of meaningful detail to this, finally call us up and say "This is about the 2004 plan year. I've been emailing you and emailing you and all I get are these vague replies. Now my wife and I are fairly sure we mailed out our claim for 2004 towards the end of February or March this year. That's the time we always mail our claims out. And neither of us remember you sending us a reimbursement check. Also, I'm looking at your website and I can't be sure but it's possible that we sent our claim to a different address than the one I am seeing there. Can you help me with this?"

Because, honest to God, we live to answer questions like that; the sheer transcendant joy of taking a call and hearing someone like you asking a question like that on the other end of the line is enough to send shivers of bliss throughout the entire call center and transport us all into a whirling Buddhist loop of euphoria.

Because, more than anything else in the world, we love having to restrain ourselves by actual physical force (usually with our mute button pressed while we bang our heads over and over again on our desks whimpering no no no for the love of christ no please someone just kill me now repeatedly and shrilly, like some mantra of the damned, until we can regain some shredded, tattered semblance of self control) from saying stuff like "You know, you frickin' retard, if you wait until not only the very end of your plan year, but the very end of the 105 day close out period following your plan year, and then you mail off every claim you have for an entire year in one package, and you don't bother to call first and make sure you have the right address, well, there is a discernible chance things are going to go badly, badly south with that unbelievably fucked up plan, and when they do, guess what? Not only is it not our fault, it should by no conceivable stretch of rationality or justice be our problem, either. YOUR CLOSE OUT DATE IS LONG PAST, DUCKIE. YOU BLEW IT. GET THE CHRIST OFF MY PHONE LINE."

Of course, when you work in customer service you never, ever get to say the stuff you actually would LIKE to say to a customer, and perhaps at some point I will entertain you further by providing you with examples of the things we hear over and over and over again every day, and what we would really LIKE to say in response, as opposed to what we in fact choose to say because, you know, while we hate our jobs, we prefer working in this absolute hell of a customer service call center to, say, fighting with Laundrybag Joe for the last bunk at the Salvation Army shelter on a really cold night, and then having to sleep with one eye half open in case Aqualung wakes up early and decides to steal our torn plastic garbage bag full of recyclable cans.

So, by all means, let's all look forward to that.

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