It was the best of customer service, it was the worst of customer service, it was the age of legacy thinking, it was the age innovation. Charles Dickens did not have the opportunity to live in both London and Paris. That did not stop him from writing about Paris. I have the misfortune of having experienced legacy and startup customer service. This compels me to share my experience via this short post.
Convinced by the solid arguments for privacy and security which Facebook, Google, Cambridge Analytica et al. have pushed forth into the public arena recently, I embarked on a quest to find an email service more fitting of the quiet, introspective and private life I yearn for. After much searching, my gaze rested on a particular service which I longed for in a manner similar to Chimene’s eyes when conveying their love for Don Rodrigue. I promptly signed up for the new email service, firmly hoping my new epistolary tool would not tragically betray me the way Don Rodrigue ended betraying Chimene.
Armed with a newly functioning email address, now was the time for me to start switching the plethora of newsletters, digital newspaper subscriptions and other services of importance which I patronize and which held my old email address – the one whose provider scans and reads all I send and receive. Having not undertaken such an exercise in many years, I was immediately struck by how extremely diverse the workflow involved in changing an email address associated with an account is. My friends, let me be clear, the experience can be positively scarring and scary. May I dare say, in the grand scheme of things, changing an email address runs from the most picayune to the most anti-picayune, and that both extremes brings one one step closer to how it may feel upon returning from the heart of darkness, barely unscathed.
It is decidedly rather scary to change an email address after having logged into one’s account without being asked to prove one is oneself at all (this did happen more than once). It is decidedly rather frustrating to attempt changing an email address and try as one might want to, with all the preternaturally placid energy nature as bestowed upon oneself, to barely complete the task in less time than it would take to read Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will, all 27 volumes. Several days and many more gray hair later, I can declare the state of identity management to be barely better than that of fallow land. Fertile, maybe. Productive, no. Further, the state of customer experience and service may lead one to utter madness.
I selected two experiences for your edification and entertainment. One while interacting with an incumbent bank of Gallic disposition (“the Bank”). The other while interacting with a fast growing fintech startup specialized in cross border payments (the “Startup”).
I was expecting a rigorous process when changing my email address with the Bank. I was not to be disappointed. I first logged into my account, which I had done so to check my balance just a fortnight ago. Alas, I was denied on my first try. Not knowing which of my password or username was incorrect, I prudently typed both anew. No dice on the second try, or the third or the fourth. No message either, alerting me to my mad ways and brandishing the menace of freezing my account after a certain number of errors. I was left on my own, trying to navigate the Bank’s web site, which I did post haste. After wasting several hours, I finally located a page the promised me a swift and online procurement of a new password. I filled all the fields but was thwarted by the last one, the “phone number” field, which to my greatest astonishment only accepted Gallic formatted numbers. Being a US resident, I found this narrow formatting fiat particularly galling and try as I might, could not complete the task.
I then chose the next best option, that of chatting live with a customer service employee. I quickly realized the errors of my ways as, after having clicked on the chat link, I was redirected to the the log in page. Yes, indeed, one can only chat with customer service to resolve login issues if one is logged in. Brilliant. Lest I be accused of not searching the Bank’s site thoroughly, I spent more time hunting down other points of contact, or nuggets of knowledge the benevolent Bank ux luminaries may have left for us poor users. Alas, lady luck did not fancy me and all I could find was a few toll free phone numbers only usable when located in Gaul. My blood was boiling and I clearly enunciated several swear words which Captain Archibald Haddock would have approved of had he found himself in similar circumstances. Stubbornly denying defeat its due, I trucked along and wondered if I could find a more welcoming experience on Twitter. Three Gallic Bank twitter accounts later (this Bank has over a dozen Twitter accounts I believe) I had found someone who provided me with a customer service phone number which I could use while in the US. The help desk was closed for the day when I called – the 35 hours work week is a cruel mistress.
The following morning, having forgotten my Quixotic adventures of the previous day, I called the help desk again, and was greeted with an array of options, explained in the modern Gallic language but lacking in the clarity one expects from modern businesses. It took me six tries until I finally reached the right option – the system hung up on me twice, I chose the wrong option three times as I misunderstood the instructions and the UPS man interrupted me with an Amazon delivery the fifth time around. (By then I needed a shot of bourbon to steady my nerves and stiffen my resolve.) Have no fear, I had finally reached my destination and was soon to unite in Hegelian discourse with a human being on the subject of my login credentials. (We are not even talking about changing my email address at this time, let’s be modest with our goals here.) A robotic voice, mellifluously tinged with anthropomorphic tones, informed me many other users were calling at the same time and to expect a lengthy delay. I was given the option to leave my name and phone number so someone would call me later. I wised up and I declined the option while musing about the reasons all other users had in calling the help desk. Were they all properly worked up with how Gallic quality of customer service, were they secret shoppers testing the system to improve it? My musings were interrupted by the same robotic voice which informed me the wait would be 3 minutes. Victory at last! 3 hours and one cat nap later, I finally was talking to someone.
The conversation was short and pleasant. I was informed not to worry as my account was still active – a relief. I was also informed the software system did sometimes “hiccup” and in so doing would fail to recognize proper credentials. I wondered for a second if this was a feature rather than a bug. All one had to do, the customer service rep told me, was to wait a day or so and try to log in again. I felt validated, at least, my case was not one of user error. I gently pointed out the incongruity of such state of affairs. What if one was facing an emergency such as paying for the subscription renewal of Crypto-Soldier of Fortune to avoid interruption of service? My query was met with soothing approval. Yes, of course, such things are an inconvenience, but time will help, have patience, and we will solve the issue eventually. After reading through her notes the customer service rep informed me the only way out of my misery was for the bank to initiate a new password which would be sent via express snail mail – I humbly ventured other options such as changing the email address over the phone but was quickly and gently denied and chided for my straightforward and simplistic ways.
As of today, I expect receipt of said mail within 5 business days, at which point I will, if all goes to plan, be able to log into my account and change my email address. I am in the hands of the Gods, or those of the Bank’s mail delivery group, whoever is more omnipotent.
The Startup experience could not have been more different. First, this is not your garden variety startup. This startup has experienced strong growth, survived the slings and arrows of outrageous entrepreneurial fortune and is now a vibrant and, one can assume, well structured startup. I logged into my account – no system hiccups – found my account profile and was instructed to call the help desk for a change of email address. I called, waited for two minutes, talked to a customer service rep gave my credentials, answered a few identity questions, gave my old and new email address, received an email to my new address which asked me to verify said address, clicked, verified and logged back into my account. All in all, the entire process took no more than 5 minutes. Wait for it, wait for it, the rep called me back 15 minutes later to make sure everything was ok. A marked improvement compared with the Bank experience. Here is a startup, raised on free-range digital land, weaned off digital milk, knowledgable and nimble enough to create sensical customer experiences. The identity management paradigm is still imperfect mind you, what with talking to someone and answering various questions to ascertain if Pascal is indeed Pascal. Still, an experience which I came out of rejuvenated, with faith in my fellow woman restored.
Prior to this episode, I had recently interacted with various bankers game fully employed with other incumbent banks. The great majority of them are convinced innovation and disruption are oversold and over-hyped and that their august organizations know how to get the right answers to address change in an internal fashion. On the face of my recent customer experience, it is the right questions one should be more preoccupied with.