Get Smart, Not Mad

If you’ve been frustrated dealing with the customer-service departments of some big American companies, just imagine trying to resolve a problem with them while you’re living on a modest budget halfway around the world.

I’ve come up with a method to do this effectively, which I’ll describe in a moment so you can use it, too — a break from my usual narrative about our Peace Corps activities. First, though, let me set the stage by sharing two examples of excellent long-distance customer service we’ve experienced while serving as volunteers in Moldova.

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The first was with Harry & David, which sells gift baskets, fruit and other goodies online. In December, Champa and I ordered a holiday gift for our younger son and his family. They had recently moved to a new house and I inadvertently entered the old address. When the package didn’t arrive, I realized my mistake and sent the company a message explaining the situation.

Their response amazed me. They sent a replacement gift to the correct address at their expense, even though I had caused the problem.

I made the same mistake when ordering hands-on science kits for our grandsons from KiwiCo. That company also responded immediately, sending a replacement kit to the boys, at its expense. I was so impressed.

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I am now a loyal customer with both Harry & David and KiwiCo. Not only do they sell great products, but they responded quickly and generously to my problems.

I wish I could say the same about Best Buy and The New York Times.

Both of those companies were initially unresponsive, ineffective and maddening, at least with me. I had to slog through tweets, online chats, e-mail messages and long silences before finally resorting to my special trick to get my situation resolved. I didn’t call them because I expected they would put me on hold even though I was calling internationally.

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With Best Buy, I was receiving annoying daily “do you want to resubscribe?” pop-up messages on my laptop. They came from a virus protection program I’d purchased from Best Buy a year earlier and, at their suggestion, had replaced with new software when the subscription ended. Best Buy told me I could only end the pop-up messages by resubscribing to the original software, for a fee, even though I’d uninstalled it and bought the new package.

With The New York Times, my online subscription suddenly stopped working. (The problem turned out to be that it was still connected to my previous job, even though I’ve been paying for it.) I sent numerous e-mail messages to find out what happened. No answer. I sent a series of Tweets to their customer care account on Twitter. No answer. I had an online chat with an agent who kept me waiting between each exchange while she handled other customers. She eventually said she’d fix the problem and write me back. She didn’t. When I sent her several follow-up inquiries, she didn’t reply.

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I finally resolved both situations with this technique:

I searched each company’s corporate site for the most senior executive I could find who seemed to have oversight of customer service, corporate communications or a related function. I then Googled their name with an “@“ sign to find their e-mail address. I also looked them up on Twitter.

Once I had their names and contact information, I wrote each executive a polite message explaining my dilemma. I asked them to assign someone to follow up with me. I wanted an actual person, with a name, who was empowered to help me.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.51.30 PMBoth appeals received gracious responses and quick follow-up. Both problems were resolved. It’s what I expected based on my own experience before joining the Peace Corps. I was sometimes on the receiving end of such messages. I always responded helpfully, even though it wasn’t my direct responsibility. I considered these messages to be welcome insights into problems our organization might have with its systems.

My suggestion when you’re trapped in Customer Service Hell, in other words, is to not become angry at the person on the phone or online with you, regardless of whether they are in the United States or somewhere else. They are probably overworked, with limited authority, and even more stressed out than you.

Get smart, not mad. Identify and recruit the assistance of a senior person who has the power to tell a competent colleague to resolve your situation. Be courteous with them, although sometimes you may also need to mention in passing how much you hope to avoid going public or pursuing some other recourse if the terrible service persists. Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 12.49.59 PMGive them a chance to take the high road. (All of this assumes, of course, you have a legitimate concern and are being honest with them rather than trying to scam them.)

When the executive tries to make things right, respond appreciatively and professionally. In my case, let me say how grateful I am to the people who intervened for me: Matt Furman and Dan Saunders at Best Buy and Meredith Kopit Levien at The New York Times, as well as to their colleagues.

If you’ve had a similar experience, good or bad, or have your own advice to share, I encourage you to leave a comment.

Oh, and one more thing: If you ever need to buy a gift basket or an educational toy, I know just where you should go.

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5 thoughts on “Get Smart, Not Mad”

  1. To my surprise, I have had great customer service experiences with some government agencies — FastTrak (California’s auto pay for bridges and toll roads), Social Security Administration, California Public Employees Retirement System. And United Airlines!


    1. Hi Kelly, and thanks for the message. I’m not surprised to hear this. My own customer-service experiences have been more good than bad and, as I wrote in the article, some have been amazingly good. That’s why it’s so disappointing to encounter the kind of disappointing service I’ve also encountered.


  2. David. I do have an unrelated question. PC set us up with a bank Moldova account to give us money from time to time. I still receive notification that I still have this account. For various reasons I’d like to remove this permanently. I’m not sure if others have encountered this but you might want to ensure you follow up with this also when you leave. Please let me know if you know of a contact to help us with this. Have a good day.


    1. Interesting to receive your message a few minutes after I reviewed my latest Moldovan bank statement. I’ve heard Peace Corps Moldova does a good job of guiding departing PCVs about how to close out their accounts. If you or other RPCVs still have an issue with this, you might try contacting Bob Gingrich, the head of administration for PCM. He’s very responsive.


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