The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apple, Verizon, and Customer Service

Like many people today, I own and use a variety of portable computing devices.  For the past two years, I have had an Apple iPhone 4, which I got on the first day they were offered by my wireless provider, Verizon.  It really is a remarkable device.  It is a telephone that can hold, and merge calls for quick conferencing.  It stores my 1200 favorite songs, which I can plug in and play through my car’s stereo.  It gives me access to the internet wherever I go, thanks to the unlimited data plan that Verizon offered on that first day of iPhone sales (and which they quickly stopped offering about six weeks later).  For about a year now, I have also had an iPad.  I probably spend about 90% of my total computer time on the Pad now, going back to the laptop mainly for Microsoft Office work in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint.

Through the wonders of technology, my iPad had the same 498 personal and business contacts that were stored in my iPhone.  Until a few weeks ago, when one day, and without the slightest provocation, my iPad suddenly lost all of my contacts.  Every single one.  Ahh, you may say… why not restore things from the Cloud?  Well, my iPhone is an older model (golly – two years old? Positively ancient, pops!).  My older iOS doesn’t do the Cloud. So I booked a trip to the nearest Apple store, a 45-minute drive away, at the Freehold, New Jersey Mall.  My Apple technologist from their “Genius Bar” tried really hard to make the contacts come back to my iPad.  He even pulled out a mysterious black box, a small thing with a tiny monochromatic screen and just a few cursor buttons, with wires and cables sticking out of its sides.  It looked a lot like the test-o-meters I used to see in the hands of electronics hobbyists at Radio Shack.  This mysterious thing was then connected to my iPhone and iPad.  The buttons were pushed, and the Genius Tech waited.  He then said the words you do not ever want to hear in these situations: “wow…I’ve never seen THAT before.”  In short, because of my old iOS on the phone, the magic box could not do its thing.  I was advised to go home, back up my iPhone contents to my laptop, and install an upgraded iOS to my iPhone.  Then the wonders of the Cloud would be mine, and my c  ontacts would magically re-appear on my iPad.

Sometimes in life, fate deals a cruel and unexpected blow.  Before I could do the backup and upgrade, I had to make a quick business trip to Northern Virginia.  My iPad and iPhone were in the car, and my laptop at home on the desk.  About 90 minutes into the trip, I stopped at the beautiful new service area on I-95 in Delaware.  A marvel of excessive cheery cubic footage, with unique urinals, high-powered hand-dryers, and free WiFi.  Fresh latte safely in hand, I sat down to check my email on the iPhone.  As expected, my accountant wanted some documents for my tax prep.  I had scanned these in with my iPad and emailed them to myself back home, so they would be just a “Forward” click away from my iPhone’s inbox.  The first two went through fine.  But on the third. . . the fickle finger of fate reached out and got me.  The iPhone screen turned to a streaky mass of black and dark grey.  The phone seemed dead.  I tried every combination of key presses and resets that I knew.  No help.  I went out to the car for my iPad, and quickly finished sending out my emails.  Then I looked online for any possible explanation of the black screen of death.

This was not an unknown problem, but there seemed to be no known cure.  I got in the car and drove on to Virginia.  Over a cold macchiato, I used my iPad to get on Skype, and seamlessly buy landline calling credits for $4.99 through iTunes.  A 15-minute call to home in New Jersey cost about 33 cents.  I then located the nearest Verizon Wireless store, which was just two miles away.  There, a seemingly competent guy looked at my phone, and in less than 25 seconds, said “this phone’s dead.”  I am 61 years old, and I had forgotten how it felt to drive around the country without a cell phone working as it should.  How DID we survive for decades without this?

On the drive back to New Jersey, I was suddenly shocked to hear a familiar sound coming from my pocket.  The iPhone was ringing.  Even in the inky blackness of a dead screen, I knew from habit how to unlock the phone and take the call.  It worked, and was, of course, my accountant.  I told him I was never so happy to hear from him (not true of course, as he was calling to tell me what I owed the State of New Jersey).  About an hour later, the phone chirped again – the familiar sound of an alert for a pending calendar event.  My excitement increased at the prospect that my iPhone was still alive, and that the Verizon guy in Virginia didn’t know his ear from his elbow.

Back home, I fired up the laptop, launched Apple’s iTunes software, and expectantly plugged the iPhone into the nearest USB port.  I confess I am not fond of iTunes, and not an expert in its many arcane ways.  I was able to back up my pictures and videos, my apps, and iTunes U podcasts, and so on.  But I wasn’t sure if the Contacts made it, and that was critical.  So I let Google be my guide, and I quickly found a new release from a firm in Switzerland, that proclaimed its wizardry at importing and exporting i-Thing Contacts and other content.  A few clicks and $13.99 later, and my precious contacts were safely in an Excel spreadsheet, replicated across several hard drives and email accounts.  For its part, iTunes seemed to insist that we lowly Windows users have Outlook, as a conduit for backing up Contacts.  Macintosh users, naturally, had no such impediments.

With the elegance of the iPad, I quickly booked a Genius appointment at the nearest Apple store, 45 minutes away at the Freehold Mall.  A lovely suburban shrine to retail consumption, with a Nordstrom cafe counter at which I could get a delicious Cinnamon Italian Soda freshly made.  Drink, iPhone, iPad, and laptop in hand, I went in to the Apple store.  My Genius was a nice guy, around 30, who took my phone to the back room for a quick analysis.  Dead screen, he told me.  Agreed.  What then, were my options?  He was nice enough to tell me he could check my account status with Verizon, and see when I was entitled to my next replacement phone.  A few clicks and taps brought the news that I’d have to wait until the end of June to get a new iPhone from Verizon.  Did Apple have any other options?  My Genius smiled and said yes.  He told me that Apple had factory-reconditioned iPhone 4’s, with 90-day warranty, for $149.  Not bad, considering, that Verizon would probably tell me my only option was an unsubsidized, full-cost iPhone for around $600.  Buying a used phone from Apple would also not mess with my Verizon data plan.  Verizon had previously told me that my unlimited plan only lasted as long as my current phone.  Any new phone purchase would end the unlimited deal (gee, thanks!).

On my way in to the Apple store, I had seen a Verizon store in the mall, close by.  I told my Genius that I’d go give Verizon a try.  We both agreed that this was likely to be an unsuccessful venture, so my Genius booked me an Apple SalesGenius appointment, in 30 minutes.  I packed up my tech toys, and drink in hand, headed over to the Verizon Wireless store.  Unlike the bustle of Apple’s technology wonderland, the Verizon store was nearly empty.  I was approached by one of two greeters, a woman in her 50s.  She was very nice, and seemed legitimately sorry that I was having problems with my iPhone.  She said I could go on to the back of the store, and talk with the person at the help counter.

There was one person at the counter, a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, perhaps.  She asked my name, and the number on the account.  Then she asked for a photo ID.  then, as she looked at my account info, she began to read me the details of my contract.  She told me that I was not due for an upgrade until the end of June.  I did not let on that I already knew this, as I wanted to hear what options she might offer me to remedy my situation.  Her voice was cold and flat as she read off the terms that Verizon was prepared to offer me- the option to buy an unsubsidized iPhone for about $500 more than it would cost me 10 weeks from now.  I said that no, this was not acceptable to me.  I asked if there was no consideration of my situation as a loyal and valued customer.  I have three family phones with Verizon, all iPhones, all with data plans, and have been their customer for over a decade.  Nope.  The woman seemed to be increasing her steely resolve, and her cold demeanor.  I then asked why Verizon couldn’t simply offer me a pro-rated price on a new iPhone, since I was already 94 weeks into the 104-week term of my current contract.  The woman looked at me from behind the desk and her computer screen and uttered words that they usually teach you to avoid, when you take Customer Service 101: “Sir, you just don’t understand. . .”

Of course I understood.  I even told her so, before the “and” in “understand” had drifted out into the space between us.  I said that I was totally aware of the terms of the contract, but that I was asking for help, and for an option that addressed my needs and my interests.  I noted that all I was hearing was the one option, which was completely unsatisfactory and out of the question for me.  Throughout my conversation with the woman at the counter, she had stuck to both her scripted replies, and unfriendly attitude.  All the while, behind her, the door was open to a corner back room, at which an older woman, perhaps in her late 40s or early 50s, was sitting.  The second woman was clearly observing my exchange with the desk clerk.  In fact, as the conversation went on, and as I articulated both my desire for a better option, and my frustration at the “repeat again and again” treatment, I could see the woman in the back room begin to scowl.  Around the time I intoned that I did fully understand what I was being told – but simply rejected the terms and wanted a better offer – the second woman got up and came to the counter.

Most of us have had customer service experiences involving the second tier of the response hierarchy.  Sometimes (and if we are lucky) they are the people with a bit more experience and discretion, who have broader authority to bend or even break the rules in a unique customer situation.  Sometimes, they are the “good cop” who will in fact give you the same message as the tough cop, but in a nicer way to ease your distress.  Not this time.  The frowning second woman (her longish hair was obscuring her name tag, unfortunately) immediately began to scold and lecture me! She told me she had been observing the conversation, and that I was neither listening nor understanding.  I assured the woman that this was not true.  I knew my contract was not up until June, and I knew Verizon was offering me the opportunity to pay the full load for a new phone now.  In fact, I told both women that it was ME who was not being heard or understood.  What I was asking for, very directly, was an accommodation, in consideration of the situation.  I should mention here, that at no time did anyone at Verizon ask to examine my phone to confirm its problem.  Neither did they make any offer or suggestion regarding the possibility of repair, or a temporary loaned phone to get me through until June.  Why, I wondered, was it MY responsibility to think of alternative ways to resolve my problem?

The scowler simply repeated her insistence that I had not been listening.  I cut her off to tell her that there was no need to repeat the terms of my contract.  I assured #2 that #1 had done a great job of clearly and fully explaining this to me, and that I fully understood what had been said.  I was simply trying to save everyone some time, by not making the second woman read this to me yet again.  But the second woman wouldn’t have any of that.  She was not negotiating, she was dictating.  IF I would stop interrupting, she said, and IF I would listen to what she had to tell me, then MAYBE I would understand her.  I’d had about enough of this sort of treatment.  I told them firmly that there was no need to insult or demean me. To this, the second woman said “see… you are doing it again… all you want to do is interrupt me and not let me finish..”  We were quickly descending dow a rabbit-hole of customer service hell.  But we weren’t finished.

Around this time, a third person had come to the counter from a different doorway.  His name was Harold, and he may have been one of the managers there.  He stood behind the two women as our conversation continued.  The irate second woman put a bit more edge into her tone and once again told me that the only choice I had was to buy a new iPhone for around $600.  I smiled and turned to the man.  “Harold,” I said in a calm and friendly tone, “you wouldn’t pay that price in this situation, would you?”  I have interviewed more than 10,000 people during my long career as a Federal investigator.  I saw the upturn at the corners of Harold’s mouth.  He wanted to crack a smile, but he didn’t dare.  I let harold off the hook as I continued, “you know as well as I do, that none of you would pay that price if you were in my situation.  What I am asking you for here is some accommodation, some recognition that I have been a loyal customer for many years, and that you want to keep me as a customer.”

By then, the dynamics at the counter had changed and I could see that I was now leading the way.  But the angry second woman wasn’t having any of that.  She said another thing you aren’t taught in customer service class: “you aren’t special… all of our customers have been with a long time, just like you…”  Oops!  I looked at her directly and said, “you’re wrong and you know it.  Not all of your customers have had three smart phones and been with you for more than ten years.”  That was the last straw for the scowler, and she said the thing that they teach you to say less than .00001% of the time: “you should leave the store now.” I had certainly expressed my frustration and disappointment, but I had been calm, clear, and civil throughout.  But not according to the second woman, who, despite having two other witnesses, accused me of constantly interrupting them, of ignoring what I was told, and of failing to understand even simple things.  I tried once more to make MY points clear, and reiterated that I had come to them with a problem; that they had treated me badly from the minute I got to the counter, and that rather than really try to help me, they were now throwing me out of their store.  Once again, the now red-faced second woman angrily said that I should just leave.

I stepped back from the counter, and spoke very calmly to her.  I told her that unlike the three of them, who were unwilling or unable to help me, I would help them that day.  To the looks of bewilderment, I said “I’m going to give you a free gift today… I am a developer and teacher of nationally-recognized customer service training.  You can Google me on the internet and look it up if you like…”  At that, the second woman’s jaw dropped.  “is…is that really true” she asked.  I assured her that it was true, and I then said “here is my advice to you… never meet a customer’s frustration with anger and meanness.  That is what you just did to me…”

It was time to go, and I headed out of the store.  The wonderful greeter stopped me to ask how things had gone.  “Very badly” I told her.  She looked puzzled, as I went on “they were very cold, very mean, and they told me several times I should just get out of the store.”  The greeter looked shocked and incredulous.  “It’s true” I said.  “You can go ask Harold later.”

A few minutes later I was back at the Apple store, with a gleaming refurbished iPhone plugged into my laptop.  My Genius this time was a 20-something Asain-American with two silvery rings piercing her lower lip.  She was welcoming, friendly, and competent, as she explained each step of the process in connecting my new phone, to restore my old contents.  As the machines chugged away, she said “stay as long as you like… I know it will take a little while.  Call on any of us if I am busy with another customer.  We’re all here to help you.”

And so they were.


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One Response to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apple, Verizon, and Customer Service

  1. I have been a Verizon customer for about ten years now, going through many iterations of phones and plans with them. I currently hold three lines on my account. There are precisely two interactions I’ve had with Verizon where I left the interaction happy. Everything else has been a disappointment. That being said, nothing compares to how they treated you. That’s shameful.

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