A few of us were talking last week about our worst customer service experiences. The discussion included the frustrations of working for a large corporation where you’re encouraged to use a certain lingo, specific turns of phrase when dealing with customers.

Especially angry customers.

It gave me pause to look back on my none-too-brief career in customer service with Bell Canada (I know they felt the same way!) when I was behind a telephone taking orders for people who were moving, building new places, adding phone lines to their homes, or opting for one of Bell’s exciting, new, dramatic colours in telephone sets. This was the early 70’s... we offered green, blue, yellow, beige, and white along with the traditional black.

Anyway, one particular day I took an order for a new installation in a Gravenhurst cottage from a Mr. K. Mr. K lived in Toronto and wanted to get a telephone put in his summer place. I dutifully took the order, using my very best (and believe me... I was trained even in voice modulation!) voice, offering the full range of colours and pushing Bell’s brand new contempra model. You might remember it, rectangular in shape, receiver flipped around to rest in two ways on the base of the set, wall mounted or desk features. Or... if the customer preferred there was the dainty, oval Princess model, whose dial pad lit up. Several pastel colours. I can still do the whole spiel.

Anyway, because this was considered rural territory, I had to get directions, measure distance, quote a per-quarter-mile charge and check with another department to make sure there were no problems. This done, Mr. K and I set up an appointment schedule. Now, Bell was pretty abusive with installation appointments in those days. Mr. K had to be there from 8 am to 5 pm and wait for the Bell installer. Lord knows what time he had to leave Toronto in order to get to his cottage for 8 am. I didn’t want to think about this because I had absolutely no control over it. And of course installers only went out during the week.

This poor man took the day off work, drove to his cottage, waited all day and guess what? Yup! No installer showed.

He called me back. I checked with the installation department only to be told there was an overload of orders and because he doesn’t have a phone at the cottage they couldn’t call to let him know that nobody would make it.

He and I re-negotiated another installation date.

This poor man took the day off work, drove to his cottage, waited all day and guess what? Yup! No installer showed. Again.

I don’t want to take you through the whole ugly mess, but poor Mr. K did this three times. Three days off work. Three long days waiting for a truck that never came.

Mr. K drove right to the Bell office in Barrie, walked in the front door and boomed my name. Of course, the front desk never brought its service reps out to meet with the public. Good thing for me. But I could hear Mr. K on the other side of the partition separating us from the general public. I got on the phone with him.

He was absolutely, justifiably angry. I called the installation office again. “oh, there is no service in that area,” was the response.

“What do you mean, no service.” We were polite to each other, customer service and installation departments.

“No service. There are no poles. The people on that road can’t have telephones.” The voice was polite. The tone was more like ... “No service. No poles. Bimbo.”

Now, please remember that at this point I am Bell Canada to Mr. K. He doesn’t know, understand or care that there are other departments, that this should never have happened, that whoever looked on the map in the first place could have saved him three days of misery, never mind all the phone calls. He just knows that every time he calls, I talk to him and promise that an installer is going to show up. And now I’m telling him that Bell is never going to show up. No poles.

And also please remember that I am a trained, customer service professional. I know the lingo. I also know there’s a good chance that one of the quality control supervisors is plugged into my telephone set to monitor my call. (we never knew when this would happen... I think it was supposed to guarantee that we were consistently excellent)

Anyway, I wanted to yell at Bell with Mr. K so it came as no surprise to my young ears when the man bellowed that I could take my telephones and shove them up my ---. He was really loud. He was really angry. And he had every right when you considered the days off work, the long drives, the long waiting, the no poles/no service situation.

However, I practised what has become my lowest moment in customer service. Keeping my voice sweet, removed, carefully modulated, I responded: “Well, Mr. K, you have three choices, really. We have the black, traditional telephone set with its square shape, bulky for sure. Or there is our rectangular, flattened Contempra set. But, perhaps the tiny, oval Princess phone would fit the best.”

He hung up.

I felt like I’d been hung up.

I don’t belong with a corporate lingo as my only line of defense. But Mr. K has crossed my mind for 30 years now. I want to look up in the Gravenhurst phone directory and see if there’s a listing. But it’s better, I think, to just hope that everything turned out okay in the end.

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