Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Customer dis(ervice) – a tangled tale of moving

Posted by shannonclark on September 1, 2006

Today I have dealt with paperwork (and via proxies people) from 4 different mortgage companies, a title company, lawyers, three different banks, one brokerage, one utility, one airline and one phone company.

Of all of those firms TWO firms and two alone had the right attitude and complete competance to serve me quickly, rapidly, professionally and logically (The brokerage, Charles Schwab, and the airline, Southwest. A couple of the mortgage firms were neither good nor bad, all of the other firms were uniformly so bad as to be laughable.

Most tellingly as an observer of business I see a ton of places where these firms are so bad at customer service that, were it possible (and it may be) I will not only cease being a customer of those firms but will actively seek to dissuade others from using these firms. Further, these experiences which I will document (only in part – service this bad really needed to have been recorded for posterity) show some really fundemental flaws with how many big businesses are structured, flaws that I think will seriously cripple them in the future.

When I start investing the money recently deposited at the brokerage, in fact, I may take a serious look at how to play my negative expectations of these firms (and their sectors).

On to the dis(ervice)…

My first experience of the day was very early, on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority)’s El train headed into the city, we had just passed the stop before my stop, the Chicago Loop was in sight, and I was ready to get off, stop at a café and get a coffee, and arrive at the Title Company’s offices with plenty of time to spare. Instead, the train ground to a halt and stopped, we stayed motionless for about 15 minutes, then moved about 100 feet only to stop again for another 5-10 minutes, when finally nearly 25 minutes late we arrived at the station. Not, as I had planned before 8:30am but at nearly 8:50am.

This morning I, finally, sold my condo in Chicago. At the closing, which took far too long due to various changes and waiting on hold that was required (mostly on the part of the buyer’s two mortgage companies) most of the closing went relatively smoothly, if not entirely as I wanted (ended up with more fees than I expected to have to pay and various other factors that combined to result in a few thousand less as my net than I anticipated, but all in all I did make a very real profit on my first sale of real estate (nearly 10 years after I bought it). However, as I went to decide how I would take my payment I faced the following options.

Option one, a check from the Title Company (a regular check, not an “official” or “certified” check as I probably should have insisted upon).


Option two, a wire transfer for which service they would charge me a further $25 fee.

I called my bank, trying to determine how long they would take to deposit my check (the title company kept insisting that some banks would treat their check as a certified check – as indeed they probably should as the money had indeed that morning been made available). My bank informed me (at least the phone service person I finally reached) that there was a FEE for RECEIVING a wire transfer (she couldn’t, however, easily tell me WHAT that fee was – just that there was a fee). So given that I had just spent the morning paying lots of fees for services I really didn’t want to pay for, I chose the check.

However this meant that walking out of the office I was carrying the second largest check I have ever held, made out to me, in my simple messenger bag (the biggest check was the initial angel investment in my startup, and that wasn’t made out to me). Now came my next bit of “fun”.

I had to find a branch of my bank, and, I thought, make a simple (if very large) deposit – followed up with a conversation about what options I had with that money (cd’s, money markets, etc). I tried to remember where the bank branch was, called a friend with easy access to a phonebook and she informed me that there was a location nearly next door to the title company (however on entering that building the guards clarified for me that it was only a mortgage/home loan office and the nearest office was a few blocks away. However in that building was a second bank that I also had to visit to run yet another errand (closing an Illinois account for a non-profit I started).

So I went in, signed my name to the sign-in form for the customer service. And I sat down. And waited. And waited. Waited some more. Watched the depressing example of terrible parenting a too young mother was displaying (I think she was the mother, but the mother could have been the other woman in the group who was the one opening up a series of accounts). The toddler, not yet walking, wanted to crawl around and explore the bank floor and waiting area – perfectly natural, even healthy urges for a child of that age. Instead the woman would stop the child just as he was getting ready to crawl and indicate to him “chill”. repeating this frequently as I watched. Periodically giving the child a cell phone to look at, only to take it from him equally quickly. Then the child, not surprisingly started to make noises and almost cry. So the woman fed him, first a bottle then later when he was crying some more a sweet sucker (all the while commenting that he was getting fat – wonder why…). A bit later he was allowed to crawl a bit and came over near me, happy to entertain him and hoping that some engagement might quiet him I indicated that I didn’t mind that he was crawling towards me. Just as he was near me, however, she let him briefly engage – then quickly picked him up and sat down again. Sad. I’m not a parent, but I hope that when I am, that I will recall this poor example and find ways to allow my children (boys or girls) to be engaged by the world from a very early age, not to discourage them from exploring (while still teaching them what they can/can’t do) and I hope, to resist the easy way out of overfeeding.

So after a long time of that, I stood up and stretched a bit and finally caught the attention of one of the bankers. He then proceeded to be pretty helpful, gave me the forms to close my account, looked up the balance and gave me the form to change the mailing address. And the other banker then happily helped me get a cashiers check for the balance. So once engaged the service (in person) was good, but very very slow.

Confident (foolishly) that the next bank stop would be even easier and faster, I called a friend with whom I had tentative plans to meet for lunch, and we set up a time to reconnect of around 1pm (or about 45 minutes later, plenty of time I thought. But now I had to find the bank branch. I tried to follow the guard’s directions, got to the right street, but having misheard him I thought the address was an odd number (not the even number it turns out to have been) so I walked around in a bit of a circle not seeing the branch.

I then had my next, of many more to come, phone tree experience. Winding my way through my bank (Washington Mutual)’s phone tree, I tried to find the “locate a branch” option – getting first a computer that took me repeating myself three times with each step to figure out that I was in Chicago, looking for a financial services branch, only to fail when I entered the intersection I was standing at, it then transferred me to a woman. I spoke with her quickly, telling her what I needed, and she replied with two options, neither of which were, in fact, in the Chicago Loop. I then asked her directions to one of them and she proceeded to quote (from MapQuest per her statement) directions which started by turning down a street that as a 23+ year Chicago native, I had never heard of or encountered before downtown (and I’ve walked, literally, up and down every street in the loop at least once). I gave up and finally asked her to transfer me to the branch directly. She did and when I spoke to the branch, they quickly told me the correct address of the branch (which didn’t show up on the “mapquest search”) and which was just a few blocks from where I was when I called.

I entered that branch, waited in line behind five other people, and approached the single teller who was working at that point. I had two checks to deposit, for a combined very, very large amount. However, while one was a certified check and would be credited to my account overnight, the other much larger check would be considered “out of state” (though it was an Illinois check and the branch I was in was an Illinois branch) since my account had been opened in CA the check would be out of state for my account. She then told me that the funds would take 7 days to clear (and even at 4% interest this would mean a very real loss on my part, not to mention the funds would be in limbo until they cleared). Uniterested in this, I decided to not deposit that check at WaMu and instead just deposited the one check and was out of there.

I next tried to find a location for Charles Schwab (as the branch I used to use has since closed – more on Chicago’s downtown office/store closings in a different post). While I searched I walked and entered into a branch of Bank of America. I figured, Bank of America has a strong presense in San Francisco, so perhaps I could open up a new account with the proceeds of my sale and get better service than I was getting at WaMu.

Here, I encountered my next piece of absolutely crazy (bad) customer service.

We are the Illinois branch, if you open up an account here you won’t be able to access the funds in California as our CA bank uses different account numbers and we’re not yet integrated so we can’t open up CA accounts in Illinois”

Yup. A national bank, Bank of America, told me that internally they can’t deal with customers of their bank from any state for any state. Instead if you want to, say deposit almost the FDIC limit into a new account, but happen to be doing that NOT in your (new) home state, you are just out of luck – they can’t figure out how to handle their divisions (all with the SAME branding mind you) as one, merged entity. Needless to say, I didn’t take them up on this rather shocking display of completely horrible service.

Finally I reached Charles Schwab, first on the phone, then in person. On the phone the local (they published their local branch phone number on their website where my mom was able to look it up and relay the local number to me) agent was able to very rapidly explain to me what they would be – I could deposit the check, start investing with it immediately, but couldn’t write a check against it for 5 business days. But yes, I could immediately sweep the funds into an interest earning investment and that wasn’t a problem – heck they expected me to do it.

I found the branch and walked in. No line for customer service and the representative at the front was able to immediately establish who I was, look up all three of my accounts, and as quickly as I asked start handling my requests – change of addresses for all of my accounts, the deposit, change of my contact phone numbers etc. He was quick and highly professional (which makes some sense, as he noted as we spoke, everyone at that office was a licensed stockbroker – so though he was at the front reception desk, he was able to immediately and professionally help me.

With my check deposited, addresses changed, new checks ordered, and identity verified (and then any written documents with private data immediately shredded) he asked if I wanted to meet with someone for some suggestions and offered one immediate suggestion of a money market fund that would earn nearly 5% interest and be price stable and easy to enter (and exit when I needed cash). As I sat down, he asked if I would like anything to drink and then got me a cold can of coke while I waited. I then sat comfortably and met with a broker who will be getting back to me with some suggestions for how to balance my various accounts (retirement, personal etc) to meet my short and long term goals for these funds. My funds being transferred tonight into the money market fund where they will earn 5% interest until I decide what other investments I wish to make.

This is how customer service SHOULD work. One person for the customer to deal with who, empowered by training and great technology, is able to handle the multitude of requirements for a given customer (i.e. take a deposit, change some addresses and contact details, order new checks, make investments etc). All done in a professional manner which conveys how much the company wants my business (and noteably in this case a deposit that was about 1000x what I had in my personal account at the moment). All also done immediately, but discretely and securely (verified my identity through photo id as well as requests for information etc.)

Unfortunately until a few minutes ago when I changed my flight home details on Southwest (which took all of a few minutes on their immediate and quick website – a truly painless process to pick a different flight and flying home date – highly recommended) this would be my only good customer service experience of the day.

Next was cancelling my ComEd service. ComEd (an Exelon company) is the primary power company in Illinois. I had my bills, so rather naively I assumed that by calling the customer service number I would be able to reach a human being and take care of my two tasks – one, pay what I owed them and two, cancel service to prepare the service for being started by the buyer. Simple, yet not simple at all. First came the over 10 attempts to navigate the phone tree from hell.

No way to go back to the previous menu.

Countless times when it asked for data points (like account numbers) or in one case “payment amount” (withou reference to, say, how much I owed) and at no point was the behavior explained, anticipated or clear. Some times when I entered my account details and confirmed my address I would be directed to still more phone prompts. But finally on about the 10th attempt, I found a path through to a human being (after the dance of my billing phone number and address being confirmed).

He was, in fact, able to cancel my service and even update their billing address for me.

But, when I asked “can I pay you as well” he said “nope, that’s a different phone number, which he then gave me” and, oh yes, he informed me that for the “convienance” of paying on the phone I would charged a $3.50 fee. Yup, I had to pay more to pay them quickly and easily. At this point I gave up, I’ll wait for the final bill and just pay that.

Next was AT&T (or what I still want to call Ameritech, then SBC, now AT&T).

Quick – guess what detail is MISSING from the “Customer Support Page” at The one for “Residential Help and Support”? (hint, they are the PHONE company – see for yourself)

If you guessed, a PHONE number – you win.

I finally, after much poking and searching (which turns up nothing useful for a search such as “cancel phone service” btw) found a phone number to call for customer support.

I called it.

A machine asked whether I was calling about the number they detected (my CA Cingular phone number), I said “no” and then it asked me for the number I was calling about, which I gave it after much pain. It then asked what I was calling about, I said “cancelling service” and finally got it to understand that.

At which point it transferred me to a representative, however not until I had wated on hold for well over 10 minutes. That rep, once I got her on the phone, asked what I was calling about (so much for telling the phone tree) and then informed me “oh, this is the CA support, we can’t help you with an Illinois number, let me transfer you.”

I was then asked which of three Midwest states I was calling about, I told the system, and I then waited for a little while before speaking with someone.  Who, it turns out ALSO couldn’t “cancel” a phone – instead she had to transfer me yet again to another group. Which, as I waited was described as the “transfer a number” group (which I did not want to do). When I spoke with this group, after a wait of about 5+ minutes, I was, in fact, able to cancel my Chicago home number.

However, when I asked, can I pay my bill (and can I change the mailing address) I was told Nope, we don’t take payments here but when we’re done I can transfer you to collections…

I declined. Again, I’ll just pay them when the final bill(s) show up next month.

More when I’m rested – but needless to say, a crazy, tiring day.


2 Responses to “Customer dis(ervice) – a tangled tale of moving”

  1. Hi Shannon! Very sad. And sad you’ve left Chicago. That makes me that much further from Chicago. Andrius

  2. Bill said

    Shannon – a great account of some horrible customer service. A lot to learn for the likes of Wamu and BOA.

    BOA grew so quickly through M&A that it’s not surprising to me that they are still having issues.

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