Abandon Hope, Ye Seekers of Customer Service!

by Jas Faulkner

Here’s the thing about me and customer service:  I know there are wonderful people who work the phones and chat lines.  They manage to make the experience of correcting someone else’s mess up as painless as possible.  Most of the time, I am lucky enough to get one of those hardworking people who are filling a position that is often thankless and hideously underpaid.  I love those people.  In fact, I usually send letters to call centers and compliment people who make it a point to not provide me with fodder for articles like this one.

However, there are times when I get people who have turned contrarian ineptitude into a piece of performance art that would send Diamanda Galas into a corner to weep softly and wave away a fit of the vapors so she could get back to terrifying unsuspecting music lovers.

  • There are customer service representatives like the person who answered a road assistance line and insisted that Kentucky and Tennessee do not share a border.
  • There are those benighted souls who decide that they do not like my very common non-kreatifly spelled name and either correct me when I spell it for them after they act as if they’d never heard  it before or ask if they can use a diminutive.   No.  And no.
  • There is the precious soul who works in support for the company I use for my website who refused to just answer my question because he wanted to share his views on web design aesthetics and  creative writing. Every answer to my attempts to get him back on task started with, “Well, this is an aesthetic choice on my part…”
  • There was Brie, er, Bree, who was the source of my tension headaches for about a week in 2004.

What all of these people actually have in common other than a shared vocation is the need for a boot to the head.

As of this past week, I have to add the dot com sector of  Brick & Mortar books to the roll of customer service infamy.   To

Revealed! A schematic drawing of a corporate IVR.
Revealed! A schematic drawing of a corporate IVR.

steal a phrase from Taylor F. Swift- I will never, ever deal with them again.  This is a shame, because I have visited various retail locations.  They’re lovely places and every bookseller I have met has been a delight to deal with.

If I’d exercised a lick of sense, I would have used my gift cards at a store. However, I was warned against this by seasoned B&M shoppers who reminded me that they charge full cover price if you don’t have a membership card and then even with the membership card the dot com is still much cheaper.

Okay, fine.  I decided some online book shopping would make for a nice break from trying to meet deadlines and laying out magazine pages.  Then I found out I could make my gift cards go even further by buying used books from their site.   Helping even more people while getting some new (to me) books sounded great.

I found some much wished-for books and proceeded to the checkout screen  It was there that I found out I was a penny over.  My choices were 1.) Use Paypal or 2.) Use my bank card.   Here’s the thing: either one of those institutions would have choked at the prospect of a one cent charge.  So I went back and found a slightly cheaper copy of one of the books and placed my order.  My balance at that point should have been  ninety-four cents.  It was zero.

“Are you sure?” asked Kevin, who was skyping with me (and expressing his contempt for any bookseller who did not carry Nathan Lyon’s cookbook.  I have to agree that it is a very unfortunate omission.)  He took a look at the site to be sure I was using the correct screen to check my balance. I was, and the same site that balked at a penny, cleaned out the remaining  handful of change.  Even though it was not much, it was still galling.  Since I am in my crankypants time (weekly and monthly magazine publication deadlines hitting on the same days) I knew double checking my work  was a have-to.

They really kept my 94 cents?  What the…?  I wrote them a grouchy note and then let it go.  I was getting some books I was dying to read.

Only, it turned out I wasn’t.  One of the sellers didn’t have the book and cancelled the sale. The email mentioned that I was not charged since they only charge when an order ships.  Oh, well.  I went back to the site, picked out another book,  started to check out, and found out I had a balance of 94 cents.

I sighed, brought up all the appropriate screens and tried to use their online help chat.  All of the options except their e-book support and sales were grayed.  Fabulous. I tried to call their customer service number, which led to a game of digital round robin with their IVR system.   Feeling even crankier, I left messages on Facebook expressing my dismay.

The next day, fortified with righteous indignation and a cup of coffee the size of my head, I sat down, prayed to the dark gods of my ancestors, and logged on the Bricks & Mortar’s online help chat.  There were still no live options for order or billing issues, so I contacted an E-Book rep who transferred me to representative.

What can I say about Raul? First he informed me I bought from third party sellers.  There was a tinge of reproach in his response as he told me Bricks & Mortars’ policy and how this was not the policy with the third party sellers.  Then he told me I wasn’t charged.

We did the math.  He sat for a few minutes, possibly praying I would go away.  I didn’t.

Poor Raul.  This turned into a pattern during our long chat.  He would tell me something was so, I would present him with facts. He would repeat himself.  Then he would sit for a few minutes and wait for me to go away.

After some manful guesses at what the policy was, he put me on hold and came back with the the final word from his boss.   Then he  begged me to call the voice service.  To his credit (and the person I complained to at the Facebook page) they told me how to by-pass all of the IVR nonsense.  Boys and girls, anything that cuts through an IVR menu is gold.  For those of you playing along at home, I am counting this against the chat angst.

Intermission:  I call Sam and Tab, my indie bookseller buddies, for Moral Support

Sam:  You bought from Bricks & Mortar?  What the pho?  I can’t even…

(Sam can be heard telling Tab I am in the Bricks & Mortar customer service maze.  Tab says “Fudge me!”* and takes the receiver.

Tab:  Really?  Why?  Is this for a story?

Me: It was a gift card from my nephew.

They listened with a mix of sympathy and schadenfreude, offered advice on how to handle the people at Bricks & Mortar, and wished me luck.  As I hung up, Sam had the last word.

Sam: Jas?  If you ever get another card from Bricks & Mortar, I would strongly suggest you sell it on eBay.  Barring that, sprinkle it with holy water and keep it wrapped in kevlar in the garage until you can find it a new home.

Back to work.  I called their customer service line and spoke with…Well, I’m not sure who I spoke with.  I thought he said his name was Nels, but then he corrected me and told me it was the same as the 12th letter of the Danish alphabet. Then he asked me my name, told me he just couldn’t bear to call me Elizabeth and asked if he could call me “Leezie.”  I think he might have said it sounded friendlier.

I gave him my order number.

There was a pause, then he came back.

“I see you bought from third party sellers.”

(Insert “whamh whamh whamh” trombone sound.)

Once we got past the misunderstanding that I wanted a book that was not available, (Was it now part of my permanent record at Bricks & Mortar?) I managed to communicate that there had been many, many conflicting bits of information about the charge and I just wanted to know that I would get my money back so I could order a book, thus closing off my relationship with Bricks & Mortar.

“Ah!” he said.  “I’ll fix!  Give me a moment!”  He even checked back to be sure I was still there while he arranged for the refund.

Oh, Twelfth Letter of the Danish Alphabet Man, I love you most of all!

My refund arrived in my email two  hours short of the start of the twenty-four to forty-eight ETA.  I went online, ordered a book, and then resolved to give the card with its remaining 94 cents to my sweet nephew so he can put it towards a cup of coffee the next time he is inclined.

The Denouement

While I was writing this, I happened to check my email.  There was a note from Bricks & Mortar.  The subject line?

“What would you do with $50.00?”

I’ll let y’all take a wild guess what I would do with a $50.00 gift card at this point.



*Well, not that.  You get the idea.