For the most part, e-mail makes communication easier. But I'm beginning to think there is one area where it isn't working: customer service.
My husband and I recently signed up for Netflix. We got our first movie without a hitch. (Boys of Baraka. Two thumbs up.) We watched it. We sent it back. No problem. Since then, however, we have yet to receive movie No. 2 on our list. I've gone online several times to make sure the mailing address is correct. It is. I reported the movie missing. Netflix promised to try again. It was supposed to show up on Dec. 21. Still no movie--even though Netflix is dutifully charging me each month. So, I went on the Netflix Web site to see if I could sort this out.
Netflix wants your business. They make it easy to get started and, to their credit, they make it easy to cancel your membership, too. But if you are a member and you need help, good luck figuring out where to e-mail or call.
Netflix doesn't do a great job of displaying its customer service e-mail address. Once you find it, you have to describe your problem in 10 words or less.
I typed "movies not showing up, yet you keep billing me."
Then I got a screen of "related questions" that weren't related, such as, "Q: Why were the Seasons in a TV show sent to me in the wrong order?" and "Q: If I cancel my account, can I keep my ratings?"
At the bottom of the screen are two links. One says "still have questions." The other says "problem resolved."
After hitting "still have questions," I was presented with another round of links, one of which finally took me to a form I could fill out explaining the problem.
I would have picked up the phone. But not even Netflix's CEO could find the company's customer service number on its Web site, as CBS's 60 Minutes demonstrated recently.
My Netflix encounter made me think of other cases where companies push consumers to interact online--with similar results.
Case in point: Last year, I was having trouble shutting down an automatic withdrawal for a student loan I had paid off several years earlier. (Each month, my bank would send money to the student loan company even though I had paid up and then the student loan company would send me a refund check.) I sent e-mails to the bank and the student loan administrator and I received responses weeks later that didn't address the issue. I also called several times and wrote letters. It was finally resolved after I filed a complaint with the New York state attorney general's office.
Case No. 2: A colleague of mine has been having a heck of a time getting ringtone seller Blinko to stop billing him for a "joke a day" text messaging service his son unwittingly signed up for five months ago. I'll be writing more on Blinko later this week, but I thought it was interesting that Blinko's preferred method of having customers complain was also through e-mail. Blinko does about as good a job of providing its e-mail address as Netflix does. According to consumer complaints, many of those who write the company don't get an answer.
It is easy to understand why companies want as much as possible for customers to solve their problems online. That way, they have to pay for fewer customer service reps to man call centers. But if they want people to go online, they should make it easier or as easy as calling. Otherwise, e-mail becomes a way of avoiding providing customer service.
Okay. I'm done ranting for today. What's your experience been with e-service? Which companies are better--or worse--than others? Magic hidden e-mail addresses that provoke responses are also welcome.
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