Yesterday we had one of those so frustrating experiences with a customer service call center. The story is worth a blog entry. I’ll try to keep it to the point.

My mother rebooted her computer for what was probably the first time in months, and was prompted to enter her password when logging into AOL to get her email. The system said her password was incorrect. We tried the forgot password option and were told that there was not enough information for the system to reset her password, she should call customer service. This was the beginning of a very long telephone call, but again, I will try to retell this story with the broad strokes. The call center asks for her name, username, mailing address to verify her identity. After doing so, they said her identity could not be verified because she did not give them her complete mailing address. But she did.

The first call center representative, she called herself Christine, asked specifically for an apartment, building, or unit number to complete the address. My mother has none, and explained this. She then directed my mother to enter her address into a Google search to see the complete address that Google would apparently be able to return, of which my mother must just be unaware. We did this, yet, no additional information was provided. We offered the possibility that the address might have a different city name, we provided the four number extension to her five digit ZIP code, and we provided her previous address from where she moved about five or six years ago. For ten minutes she proceeded to explain that the address she provided IS complete and there IS no other information to add. Christine simply repeated the script. Not helpful.

At this point, I took the phone. I asked Christine to allow me to speak with her supervisor. The tone of the AOL representatives was becoming progressively condescending, as I am sure these contractors deal with consumer problems every day and they were convinced that they were dealing with idiots who could not remember their own complete mailing address.

The next representative, who called himself Nick, repeated the exact same script as Christine. Without the complete mailing address they are unable to verify my mother’s identity. I asked him precisely how incomplete was the address. He could not tell me that (but they had already offered that we were missing an apartment number). So at this point I asked him, since we are clearly at an impasse, what else can they do to help us resolve this situation? My understanding is that customer service is supposed to work with their customers to offer solutions. He said there was nothing he could do if we could not give them the complete mailing address.

Now, I know a lot about security. I work for a digital security company. Their first mistake was suggesting that offering her mailing address was somehow a secure means of identification. This, of course, is not true, because any person trying to steal my mother’s identity would most certainly have access to her mailing address. The second mistake, we will come to see, was that the missing information was actually quite insignificant in terms of personally identifying a person. The third mistake was they kept repeating that my mother never updated her security information, so they had no other information by which to identify her. This was untrue, as they did had her telephone number on record, which in my humble opinion is no less personally identifying than one’s mailing address. The flaw here is suggesting that the mistake was hers for not realizing when AOL expanded the options they offer for security and thus updating her information.

If I had to make a guess about the average AOL user, I would assume they tend to be people who subscribed with AOL early on as a result of the company’s marketing that one need not have technical knowledge in order to use the system. Most of the users in this demographic do not know anything about digital security and it is clearly the responsibility of the service provider to guide their consumers in order to follow best practices. Would this not be a failure on the part of AOL for having not properly informed their consumers and recommend security enhancements?

I offered Nick another option. I said to him, OK, you cannot verify our identity over the phone because the data we are giving you does not precisely match the mailing address you have on record. While I believe there must be some sort of small typographical or database error causing this discrepancy there is a way to confirm that the caller is indeed the person connected to the mailing address. Simply send a certified letter to that address (requiring signature from the named individual) offering a temporary password with which my mother could reset her password. He could not do this. I asked why not. He said because as long as we could not give him the address on record, he could not perform any action on her account for her own security. I tried to explain to him that he was basing my mother’s “security” on the address he has on record, and that for them to contact her at that address in no way violates her privacy or security.

So I offer a second option. Other service provider, including Google and ebay, have implemented measures to verify user identity because of scenarios like this, such as allowing the user to mail a photo ID. Was this an option? No. What was AOL going to do at this stage to help rectify the situation? Nothing.

This is when it got interesting:

I asked him what company he works for.
Nick: AOL.
Me: No, who is your employer from whom AOL is contracting your services.
Nick: I cannot tell you that information.
Me: Where are you located?
Nick: Bangalore.
Me: May I have a phone number in the United States or contact information for a direct representative from AOL?
Nick: No, we do not have any available.
Me: So you cannot offer me any solution to this situation?
Nick: Unless you can provide me with you exact complete mailing address we cannot access your account.

Me: So you are offering me no help to resolve this problem?
Nick: No, on our side we have given you multiple hints to give us the missing information. Now on your side, you can go online to AOL Help and type in password help. There you will find over 4,000 articles that might be helpful to you in resolving this problem.
Me: You find that to be an acceptable response? I find it disgraceful.

My husband now took the phone. A very smart engineer with experience in client problem resolution and how call centers work, he asked Nick for his supervisor and started over again. Now he was speaking to a man who called himself Nixon. My husband asked him a series of questions to determine at what level in the call center our problem was being handled, to discover that despite the two requests to advance our call up the chain, we were still speaking to representatives in the first level of support, essentially the phone bank. He asked to speak to an engineer. Nixon could not do this. Nixon again recommends that we type the address in a Google search to find the missing data.

Husband: I do not know what information your screen shows you we are missing, but we have given you the complete address. Both my wife and I work in IT, we know how this works, there is a mistake in the system somewhere and you need to help us resolve this.
Husband: May I speak to your supervisor?
Nixon: I don’t have a supervisor.
Husband: C’mom my man, we all have a manager to whom we report.
Nixon: No, I do not have a manager.
Husband: So you own the company?
Nixon: No.
Husband: So you report to whom?
Nixon: The CEO.
Husband: OK, then please transfer me to the CEO.
Nixon: I cannot do that.
Husband: Why not?
Nixon: I don’t have his phone number.
Husband: What is his name?
Nixon: Saj Mathew
Husband: That is not the CEO of AOL.
Husband: You are telling me that you report directly to Mr. Mathew but you do not have access to his phone number?
Nixon: Correct.

My husband types the name “Saj Mathew” into a Google search and immediately we see the first result is a gentleman named Saji Mathew, Vice President at Tata teleservices.

Husband: You work for Tata, and you do not report into Mr. Mathew who is a VP, Mr. Mathew does not even know who you are. Now why don’t we drop this pretense and let’s get down to finding a solution for this problem. My mother-in-law, my wife, and now myself, we are all telling you that you have the complete mailing address of her home. We are standing in her home right now. We have offered you two alternative means of verifying identity, we have offered you an alternative to her current mailing address, and we have offered you her previous address. There is nothing you are doing to help us resolve this situation?
Nixon: Unless you can provide the exact, complete mailing address there is nothing more we can do.
Husband: We have given you the exact, complete mailing address. There is no apartment number. I am walking outside right now [he walks out the front door] and I am looking at the door and reading you what it says and it is the same number we have been giving you for the last hour. There is no apartment number. She had an apartment number in her previous address [he repeats the apartment number from my mother’s previous address] but she does not have one now. Maybe you have a “zero” in your database. Maybe you have a “dash”. I don’t know what your database is showing for an apartment number but we are telling you that there is absolutely not one.

At this point, Nixon finally makes the connection. When my mother updated her address after moving six years ago, without a new apartment number to replace the old one, the brilliantly secure AOL consumer database stored the apartment number from the old record with the updated one. So the address that the Tata representatives in India working for AOL insisted on using to verify my mother’s identity was actually incorrect, their own error, since a blank field in a new entry did not erase older content in the same field.

Another ten minutes passed before everything was cleared up, Nixon requiring me to authorize my husband to request a password reset (because somehow that is secure), Nixon passing us back to the original representative, us repeatedly spelling out my mother’s address (regardless of which, they still spelled it wrong when they entered it), etc, etc. Finally the situation was resolved and I added additional security information to my mother’s account to hopefully safeguard from a repeat of this event.

Now, just to drive my points home, the following is what I found to be extremely frustrating with this call center experience and just make me wonder how much technology hurts or harms ones ability to reason.

  1. We were not speaking to representatives of AOL, but rather to an outsourced call center, at which the representatives clearly had no incentive to retain a customer.
  2. Perhaps because the call center was overseas, reasonable solutions such as sending a certified letter could not be considered.
  3. The representatives showed no ability to use reason or logical thinking. They could see the address on their screen and could see that we were omitting one field. It never crossed their mind that this could be an error. It never crossed their minds that it was an unnecessary or deprecated part of the address that by no means made our recitation of the address any less “secure.”
  4. The mistake was theirs all along.
  5. A mailing address is not a secure means by which a person can be identified. Despite this weak security measure, the Tata reps insisted that one missing field was worth a telephone call that required three reps on their end, three reasonable adults on ours for about an hours duration.

Ultimately, the reps only goal was to get us off the phone. There was no desire, no need to actually resolve the problem. It is simply a frustrating story because we had to try so hard to find a solution, repeating and repeating and repeating our story, our address, over and over again. There is no logic that can explain why the representatives proved to be so bull headed about an issue that actually was not as strong a cause as they pretended it was. And they were not speaking to the idiots they treated us like.

It is, for us, simply a reminder that we live in a world in which reason succeeds less and less. In a recent WSJ article (AOL’s CEO Defends Strategy) AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong is quoted as saying that AOL “seems to be in a cycle of constant drama.” Yes, it does.