The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cutting through customer service doom-loops by calling in a ‘Karen’

With customer service an endless exercise in frustration, one start-up with an edgy name — Karens for Hire — tries to help

Fallon Zecca launched Karens for Hire with her partner, Chris Grimm, after listening to friends in Pittsburgh complain about their interactions with customer service representatives. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

PITTSBURGH — Tasha Ray has heard the soundtrack of hell, and it is the hold music of Aetna’s customer service line.

Earlier this year, Ray found herself trapped in a doom-loop of phone frustration as she tried to get a document that one of her siblings, a Medicaid patient, needed to enter a mental health facility. Over and over, she would call, wait (and wait), reach some distant call center, repeat her story and hear the same promise that the document was on the way — simply a letter stating that her family no longer had a policy with the insurance giant.

“It would never come,” said Ray, 29, a federal worker in Denver. “I would be in tears on the phone.”

So, defeated as many are by an economy that grows ever more automated, outsourced and dehumanizing, she called in a Karen.

Ray already knew the get-me-the-manager “Karen” stereotype — privileged, entitled and demanding — when she saw a TikTok video about a company called Karens for Hire (“We Karen, so you don’t have to”), which promised to harness the power of accomplished complainers in the service of beaten-down customers, abused tenants and anyone else with a dispute that outstripped their own capacity to carp.

Press 1 for frustration

As the holiday season floods the economy with products to return and refunds to demand, the Pennsylvania group hopes to bring a bit of edgy meme energy to the staid universe of consumer advocacy groups. It joins the ranks of those who line up on the side of the stymied, including countless “On Your Side” local news segments, the Better Business Bureau, and nonprofits such as Elliott Advocacy and Clark Howard’s Consumer Action Center.

“Today people just expect to be treated terribly by big business,” said Howard, a longtime Atlanta-based consumer champion on radio, television and podcasts. “Sending a bunch of Karens after them could be their worst nightmare.”

Ray thought the Karens for Hire video was merely funny until she was telling a friend about it the next day. Suddenly, she stopped herself.

“Wait a minute. I could use someone like that with Aetna,” she said.

Ray found the company’s website and read some encouraging reviews. The average fee of $65 seemed well worth a gamble. She sent in a request for help.

‘Your estimated wait time’

Her plea arrived at a 19th-century brick house on one of Pittsburgh’s once-grand boulevards. Here, in a drafty bottom-floor apartment, Chris Grimm, 44, and Fallon Zecca, 35, are trying to launch a small business and also revolutionize the way we complain.

On a December morning, Zecca is where she often is: on hold. “Your estimated wait time is four minutes,” said a voice from the speakerphone on her dining room table. Her personal record is three hours on hold (with Air Canada), but this time, she is quickly on the phone with a travel broker dragging its feet on refunding a frustrated flier.

“Hello, this is Fallon of Karens for Hire, and this is my third call,” Zecca said, launching into a recap of her client’s complaint: a last-minute canceled flight that forced her to rent a car and drive hours from Toronto to Pittsburgh to avoid missing work.

On the other side of the table, Grimm — her business and romantic partner — was reviewing the fine print on a solar panel contract. A family in California has tried for months to understand why their roof array was producing less than a third of the expected voltage, leaving them with light bills of $200 month. The company that sold and installed the system had stopped replying.

“They’ve got a good case,” said Grimm, highlighting the provision that promised monthly bills of just $19. He had the owner’s direct line in hand, and now he was typing up his arguments on a laptop with “You’ve got to believe” written on a sticky note next to the keyboard.

Karens for Hire, which includes two other part-time advocates and a lawyer on retainer, has received more than 2,300 requests for help since it launched last spring. The table is littered with scrawled notes and numbers, the detritus of hundreds of transactions gone bad, conflicts large and small, corporate and local, petty and profound.

The ranks of the angry thwarted is growing, as some companies decide it is cheaper to bring in new customers than keep old ones.

“Over time, the attitude of companies has gone from, ‘We want to resolve a conflict with customers,’ to, ‘We want to make the customer go away,’” said Christopher Elliott, a consumer columnist whose Elliott Advocacy nonprofit assists more than 10,000 people a year with business complaints. His columns have appeared in The Washington Post.

Many of those who have turned to the Karens send for help only after they have bruised their own foreheads on the brick walls of Airbnb, Facebook, Ticketmaster, T-Mobile, car dealerships, internet providers, insurance companies, moving companies and contractors.

Others sought help from the start, either too busy or too intimidated to do their own jousting.

Several of the group’s clients have been recent immigrants, all too aware that poor English or a heavy accent is a disadvantage in the daily battles of American commerce.

Among the cases in the active file:

1. The Massachusetts dress maker being stiffed by a celebrity chef who wore her creation at the Met Gala, then refused to return or pay for it.

2. The woman trying to end her $4,500 deal with the matchmaker It’s Just Lunch after she asked for a man who loved hiking and was matched instead with a man who mostly wanted to try on women’s shoes.

3. The low-income tenant in Memphis, a single mother on disability, being pushed out of her apartment in an apparent violation of rental laws.

For the last case, Grimm provided the woman with a pro-bono tutorial in federal tenant protections and how to enlist the aid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He had just helped a New Jersey woman draft a letter to the Kia dealership balking at replacing her engine.

Many of their clients don’t need a mercenary complainer so much as some basic instruction in how to complain.

“People don’t know how to stand up for themselves,” Grimm said.

For these two, it comes naturally. They both describe learning to speak up early in boisterous Pittsburgh families.

“We’re Italian,” Zecca explained. “We don’t really have inside voices.”

They both became the go-to fixers for relatives and friends who had products to return or refunds to demand.

“If something was broken, my mom would just want to throw it away,” Zecca said. “I would be like, ‘No, they sold us this product that didn’t work, and we’re taking it back.’ These companies want to make it hard so you just give up.”

Both have work experience inside grievance-generating businesses, including tech and health care. Zecca still works full time for a medical software company. Grimm was once an Apple Store clerk and spent six years behind the service desk of a Mercedes dealership, where he posted low sales but the company’s highest customer approval ratings.

“I would tell people they didn’t have to have unnecessary work done all the time,” he said.

The Karens for Hire lightbulb went off in early 2022. “We could do this as a business,” they said one night while laughing about Zecca’s involvement in her boss’s months-long battle with Home Depot over a botched refrigerator installation.

Grimm, who had recently left his job with a case of service-desk burnout, built a website heavy on references to Star Wars and the Marvel Universe (as is their house). A video someone posted on TikTok about the signs they put up around Pittsburgh — “Karens for Hire, Entitled to Help” — generated a surge of requests and an item by Yahoo Finance.

They knew latching on to “Karens” — the aggressively coifed, White matriarchs of meme menace — would be catchy marketing, but also provocative. Not everyone is amused.

They were profiled last summer by the local CBS affiliate morning show, “Pittsburgh Today Live,” only to find the segment disappear online. Someone had apparently objected to the Karen concept. The station, KDKA, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re not talking about screaming at the barista,” Zecca said. “We want to harness the power of Karens for good.”

Indeed, some who tried to join their team have been too Karen.

“How stupid are you? This is not that hard to figure out,” one applicant said in a test call before Zecca could lunge for the mute button and take over.

“It’s never the person answering the phone’s fault,” Grimm said. “That person is getting paid a joke salary just to get screamed at.”

Instead, like other advocates, the Karens hunt higher up the chain of responsibility. (Elliot Advocacy, for example, maintains a public database of CEO phone numbers and emails.)

Grimm was having no luck with a monopoly internet provider in Arkansas that had driven one family crazy by failing to hook them up after more than three years of phone calls. Then he had the woman hand her phone to a visiting technician and wheedled the phone number of the department head out him. Grimm and that executive finally located the system breakdown that was thwarting the process, and the cycle was over.

“I devoted a lot of lunch hours to that over three years,” said Amanda Boshears, 35, who paid the Karens $50 for the service.

Tasha Ray had become similarly exhausted trying to pry that letter out of Aetna.

Ray’s sibling, and her disabled mother in Atlanta, had been waiting for weeks to get her into a treatment facility. But an old policy from a decade ago was keeping the center from being able to process her Medicaid application.

When Zecca took over, she ran into the same carousel of failure, call after call that produced assurances that went nowhere.

Finally, she composed a tweet, tagging Aetna along with mental health advocacy groups, shaming the company for delaying treatment it didn’t even have to pay for. “Our client has been trying for months to get a paper saying they don’t have coverage with you. Why is this so difficult?”

The company responded immediately, asking for details and giving Zecca a special email address. The next day, it sent the letter.

Ray was delighted, then shocked when the company said she didn’t owe anything for an effort that generated an email chain 54 messages long.

“I sent them $100 anyway,” Ray said. “Honestly, just knowing someone else was out there hounding them was a huge relief.”

To her, that was more carin’ than Karen.

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