Book Review: 'Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us' by Emily Yellin

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 22, 2009


Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives

By Emily Yellin

Free Press. 291 pp. $26

Neither the title nor the subtitle of this book should be taken seriously. Though "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us" does begin with a chapter describing the frustrations Americans too frequently encounter when they call customer service, basically the book is a rather upbeat account of how businesses are trying to improve service -- whether by telephone, Internet or in person -- and to respond more positively to consumer needs. As to what all this "Reveals About Our World and Our Lives," well, on the evidence of this book, the short answer is: not much.

Still, Emily Yellin's second book -- her first was "Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II" (2004) -- has the virtue of taking us into a part of our world that is large and important yet about which most of us know next to nothing. At her very best she writes marginally competent journalese, and most of the time she is content to quote extensively from interviews and other published sources rather than attempting her own analysis. But she has assembled a lot of information, and a lot of it is interesting.

If there lives today a single adult American who has not yet had an unpleasant experience while trying to obtain service or information by telephone -- from a utility, a bank, a credit-card issuer, an airline, a retailer, you name it -- then that person either has been kissed by the gods or lives in Never Never Land. It has become the essential American experience, as ubiquitous and inescapable as death, taxes and driver's-license renewal. Punching one's way through the tree of numbers on a company's automated voice system, finally to reach someone who (a) speaks what amounts to a foreign language, (b) hasn't a clue about how to help you or (c) simply disconnects you, has become as much a part of daily routine as coffee and toast. Picking up the phone to call -- oh, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Bank of America or Dell -- induces dread, raises the blood pressure, brings on palpitations.

What we have to thank for this state of affairs is what we have to thank for so much else in this blessed age: technology. "Customer service" feeds on technology: "Rotary dials gave way to touch-tone phones starting in the 1960s," Yellin writes, "paving the way for early automatic response systems requiring a caller to press a number to reach a department. Automated recordings began to replace long-distance operators on collect calls. Answering machines arose, the precursors to voice mail. Then personal computers became standard at home and work, replacing typewriters. With them, telephone help lines sprang up to assist customers in dealing with their computers. The lines were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That started to cement the idea that customer service could be available around the clock."

Or, all too often, unavailable. With the rarest of exceptions, businesses went into customer service reluctantly, if not grudgingly. Unlike the sales of consumer goods or the monthly use of utilities, customer service is difficult to quantify in terms of profit or loss. Rather than see it as a way to increase customer loyalty and learn more about what customers need and want, businesses shrugged off customer-service departments as what Yellin calls "a necessary expense of doing business rather than as potential profit centers" and tried to do them on the cheap. Since "the most tangible measure is the cost per call, or contact," they moved away from "offering a live, American-based, customer service agent [at] around $7.50 per phone call" and focused on overseas agents ($2.35 per call) or automated response systems (32 cents per call).

The result was, and generally remains to this day, a system more notable for rudeness, inefficiency and indifference than for service. As Yellin suggests, many people have no problem dealing with an automated system if it actually does what they need to have done and indeed are just as happy to avoid the potential complications of direct human contact. But there are times when only a real person can solve your problem, and companies make it as difficult as they possibly can for you to get through to that person.

Precisely how much time Americans (and beleaguered millions in other countries) waste on hold or pursuing chimeras of "service" is just about impossible to determine, but it must be measured in the megabillions of hours per year, when you consider that as of 2007 "American call centers received 43 billion calls." Yellin is at pains to emphasize that with the predictable exception of a few rotten apples, those who answer the phone mostly are decent people who try to do their jobs effectively and courteously. She goes into considerable detail about FedEx reps in Memphis (where Yellin lives) and makes a persuasive case that, in the words of the company's founder, Fred Smith, "the focus on customer service has been one of the critical success factors of FedEx"; indeed, "it was baked in from the earliest days."

In this, FedEx is unlike most corporations, which regard call centers and other forms of customer service as peripheral to the central task of increasing profits. They don't understand that, thanks largely to the Internet and the possibilities it offers for rapid dissemination of negative information about businesses' performance, "the power has shifted to the consumer," in the words of one consumer-affairs manager. With choice proliferating in many parts of the American economy -- phone companies, cable and broadband providers, even basic utilities in some locations -- people no longer have to settle for lousy service. When Comcast stopped enjoying monopoly privileges and started facing competition, guess what happened: Comcast started paying attention to customer service. As more companies learn the same lesson, we can only pray that others will follow suit.

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