SYNDICATED COLUMN: Customer Service is a Right

Congress Should Mandate Minimum Number of Phone Reps

I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg suffers from agoraphobia, but his company seems to have missed the jet age.

If you’re like me, you travel a lot. And if you’re on Facebook, odds are that you’ve been locked out of your account—even though you entered the correct password—because you logged in from an “unfamiliar location.”

Facebook’s test to make you prove you are who you say you are is bizarre: they show you randomly selected pictures of your Facebook “friends” and ask you to identify them. But most of my “friends” are readers and fans of my cartoons and books. I don’t know their faces. Moreover, not all of my “friends'” photos are of themselves. One Facebook test—I kept failing—presented me with pictures of potted plants.

It’s an idiotic test, one that trips up a lot of people. David Segal, who writes The Haggler consumer advocacy column for The New York Times, quotes Bryan Dale of Toronto: “Given that I use Facebook for networking and had never met most of my ‘friends,’ [Facebook’s ID test] was difficult. It was made impossible, however, because most of my Facebook friends are connected with pit bull advocacy and many of their pictures presented to me were actually pictures of their dogs.”

Why does Facebook freak out when I log in from San Diego while Citibank allows me to move thousands of dollars using no more than a password—from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?

During my third week of Facebook Lockout Month I tried to call the company to ask that question and plead my case.

I couldn’t.

Facebook doesn’t have a customer service telephone number.

This, incredibly, is normal in the technology sector. A transnational corporation valued at tens of billions of dollars, with hundreds of millions of customers, has no way to get in touch with them in a hurry. Even if you’re a would-be zillionaire investor, you can’t call. You have to know someone inside.

What if someone is posting pornographic photos of your child via Twitter? What if someone has hacked into your account? What if you’re in San Diego and can’t figure out which of your Facebook “friends” owns that white pit bull with the black spot?

Some tech companies have phone numbers, but there’s no way to talk to a live human being. “Twitter’s system hangs up after providing Web or e-mail addresses three times,” Amy O’Leary reports in The Times. “At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook’s system explains it is, in fact, ‘an Internet-based company.’ Try e-mail, it suggests.”

Tried it. Repeatedly. Never heard back.

This is standard practice with tech companies. I’ve left customer service request messages for Apple, Adobe, Google and countless other firms over the years. I heard back maybe one time out of ten.

“LinkedIn’s mail lists an alternate customer service number. Dial it, and the caller is trapped in a telephonic version of the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ forced to work through the original phone tree again and again until the lesson is clear: stop calling,” writes O’Leary.

It was easier to get in touch with Osama bin Laden. Still is, probably.

This screw-the-customers crap began in the 1970s, when America began falling apart. First they made us pump our own gas. Then they made us bag our own groceries. The Better Business Bureau stopped accepting complaints. Finally, corporations started charging us for services—the phone company’s automated 411 information, automatic teller machines, electronic airline tickets—that, even before fees, had saved them money, increased their profits, and put thousands of workers out of work.

Still, when tech companies worth $10 billion don’t have a working phone number, you know they’ve taken “drop dead” to a whole new level.

“A lot of these companies don’t have enough employees to talk to,” Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, told The Times. “Facebook, for example, has just one employee for every 300,000 users. Its online systems process more than two million customer requests a day.”

Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the Internet revolution is that the new tech sector employs far fewer workers per dollar of capitalization than the older industries, such as manufacturing, that it is replacing. Big banks like Goldman Sachs may be profit-sucking vampire squids bleeding American dry, yet they’re not nearly as destructive as high-valuation, low-payroll leeches like Twitter and Facebook.

General Motors, a company with $39 billion in equity value, directly employs 207,000 people, plus many more indirectly through its suppliers. Facebook has nearly twice the market capitalization ($67 billion) but employs a miserly 1,400 workers. On Wall Street, Facebook is worth more than GM. On Main Street, GM is worth 250 Facebooks.

It should be obvious to everyone that companies have a moral obligation to be responsive to the public, and that their duty to provide high-quality customer service increases exponentially as they grow in size. It should be equally obvious that companies that extract billions of dollars in profits from the American public have a moral responsibility to hire members of the American public. We’re not talking “make work”—but the minimum number of employees needed to conduct business in a responsible, professional manner.

Clearly the big tech companies are refusing to meet these minimum standards.

We should demand, Congress should pass, and the President should sign a law that sets clear standards for customer service by large corporations. For every x number of customers and/or every y million dollars of capitalization, there should be one U.S.-based, native English-speaking, professional customer service rep waiting to take our calls and help us.

Right away.

No phone tree.

No waiting.

It isn’t free speech, or habeas corpus, yet surely the Founding Fathers would agree: hard-working Americans have the right not to be driven crazy because boy billionaires are too cheap to hire some help.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com.)

(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

8 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Customer Service is a Right

  1. It amazesme how content providers hardly listen to their users.

    One the other hand, people who provide content to the content providers as a rule are very responsive. Lunatics like myself will ask them questions or make comments and will get a human response from them. Even if they are busy folks like Mr. Rall.

    From personal experience, getting one of the monoliths to respond is a massive undertaking. Google had a mistake when people searched out a particular local court’s phone number. We would get call after call at work wondering when such n such trial was coming up, wanting to speak to a judge, etc. We had the correct number to call but it added time and frustration to the user.

    The mistake was reported to Google, via e-mail, repeatedly and it took over a year to get the problem rectified.

  2. I’m amused that you think of yourself as Facebook’s customer.

    You are what they’re selling.

  3. I am complete agreement, especially the part where a customer service rep should be US Based and speak English.

    I would not put too much faith in Face Book’s Market Value. It’s just another bubble waiting to be pricked.

  4. Thanks for posting this. It’s been true for a long time now. Big corps know they have a monopoly over industry, so they no longer need to care about their customers’ needs and requests. We customers don’t have a choice where we shop anymore & the so-called “elites” know this.

    I don’t like FB because of my own experience but am forced to use it as all my friends are on it and it’s hard to network and keep up w/people otherwise. I’m hoping that more people will recognize FB for the corrupt company it is (the Walmart of social networking, really) and gravitate back to other sites such as Myspace. At least that would weaken FB’s monopoly over the Internet.

    BTW, I have my own FB horror story. Had a stalker who (among other things) infiltrated my FB account, started labeling my wall posts as “abuse,” and FB started censoring me. Yep, FB sent me messages saying they were deleting my wall posts because someone was reporting me for posting abusive messages. They also threatened to shut down my FB site completely! I tried contacting FB several times but they refused to respond. Even the police told me they had trouble getting help from FB for another harassment case. FB told the police that they were protecting the harasser’s “civil liberties,” which of course is a joke when FB spies on its users and censors them regularly. I have a police report and lots of evidence against this guy but can’t present it to FB ’cause they won’t respond.

    So I had to conduct my own investigation, and I later discovered that this psycho had set up several aliases, pretending to be several people, in order to make it appear that several people were reporting me to FB. (In fact, he uses aliases and changes his physical appearance a lot out in the real world too–creepy!) Apparently, this guy has harassed other people before me who have filed police reports against him. And, thanks to FB’s help, he’s probably stalking and harassing lots of other people via FB right now. He’s a serial stalker. Oddly, I was able to reach other social networking sites to report this guy though. FB was the only site where I was unable to reach anyone, present my evidence and file a report.

    It’s amazing how much someone can hurt you by stalking you on the Internet. When all your friends and even businesses you work for are addicted to these social networking sites, it becomes impossible to avoid them. FB knows that and, like Walmart, they think they’ll just stay in business anyhow. My guess is, though, that eventually more people will have experiences like mine and start boycotting FB. B4 this happened to me, I thought cyber-harassment was rare, but I learned that it’s quite common these days.

    I was on Myspace when they first launched (yep, the old days before Murdoch), and their customer service was abysmal. They’d actually send you back angry emails for daring to write to them about any problems you were having with the site. Lots of Myspace users posted complaints about it on Internet forums, and look where Myspace is now. Just about everyone’s left it for FB. I still use it ’cause at least they don’t allow cyber-harassment the way FB does but can’t convince my friends to go back to Myspace.

    So poor service does eventually catch up with these guys.

  5. Good column, thanks for writing it! Hope you’ve enjoyed Sandy Ego. I’ve avoided FB for all of the reasons mentioned, though it’s getting tougher to hang in there for it. And meri, I’ve had a stalker in real life, so I can only imagine what it was like for you on FB.

    I think Gateway may have been one of the original problem companies in terms of customer interaction. It was a good machine, but…

    And then there was the refinery I used to work for. When you called their main phone number, you couldn’t actually get a person on the phone, even if you knew who you wanted to speak to. There was a so-called directory that wouldn’t actually let you connect to a live person, even though you knew the person’s name and they were still working there.

    I don’t think government is the answer in this case. I can only just imagine an agency that enforces the requirement for how many live bodies you need to have on staff. Or who would determine what that ratio should be. You know, of course, that the actual number wouldn’t be set by law (or at least I hope it wouldn’t). Instead, it would be set by a bureaucrat in a windowless office in or near the District of Columbia, dreaming up some “rationale” for how many are needed per… per what? Per the number of customers? Per the revenue generated? It would just turn into a way of penalizing companies that actually turn out a product that works as advertised, right out of the box.

  6. I know this is an “old” thread, but I just thought I’d add that there are places to file complaints against Internet companies that won’t let you directly interact w/them. If anyone wants to fight back, you can contact the below agencies. If enough people write to them about FB and other companies then something will probably change. (Sorry, Bruce, they’re gov’t mostly.) :

    ftccomplaintassistant.gov
    ic3.gov
    naag.org (Your state Attorney General’s Office)
    stopthinkconnect.org