Sue Kerr

Customer Service LGBT Culture Clash: I Don't Buy It

Filed By Sue Kerr | March 19, 2012 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Corporate Equality Index, cultural competency, customer service, HRC, LGBT, shipping companies, social media, Twitter

My partner recently had surgery and her recuperation plans included a lot of use of her mini laptop that I had gifted her with a year earlier. Netflix was ready to roll, links bookmarked, extra charger, etc. She opted not to have it with her in the hospital even though she was there for four days so she was ready when she came home.

Then came Natasha. Or Boris. Or maybe Simon.

These are a few (ahem) of our beloved pets. All three are cats and they are drawn to the laptop like its covered in catnip. One unintentional moment of neglect left a cat napping on top of a still running mini and that's all she wrote - for the screen.

The permanent paw print was like a freakish etch-a-sketch gone hideously wrong.

Never fear. We use Dell. We are out of warranty, but I'm fairly okay with my ability to order a part and figure it out. So I logged on to the IM version of sales help and met "Thomas" (unsure if that is his real name or not but that's what the screen said.) dell-inspiron-mini-9-running-ubuntu-linux.jpgThomas was polite, asked me a few questions and then started to discuss shipping options for the replacement screen.

This is a source of perpetual frustration for me. We live in an inner-city neighborhood rowhouse community. Translation: no awning, no porch, small mail slot. So we have a PO Box and we actually live less than a mile from the UPS facility. Typically, if we can get the item held, we are golden.

Unless FedEx is involved... They won't deliver to a PO Box and they won't require a signature if the package value is less than $200 according to Dell. But I digress. Let's just say that if the plethora of FedEx/Kinkos meant anything with regard to receiving packages, I'd be happier lesbian. (Who doesn't like going to Kinko's?)

I explained to Thomas that we had a problem. He told me I could have the package delivered to my friend. I hadn't referenced a friend and asked him to clarify. Then it hit me.

I had specifically typed "my partner's laptop" when describing the scenario. He was referencing her so I asked him to clarify. He changed the topic.

I changed it back. He kept insisting I use FedEx. I kept insisting we go back to the friend/partner issue.

Then I asked for a supervisor. So "Sandeep" gets into the chat, but I still see Thomas' name. I ask him to review the chat transcript. He asked me for my credit card number.

I redirected him to the customer service issue and he told me I misunderstood. I was very frustrated, but I had a sad post-surgical partner who needed her laptop so I took a deep breath and asked to speak with another supervisor on the phone.

Two minutes later "Sam" called. Assuming Sam was a third person, I started to explain. Sam interrupted me and read a transcript to me that was completely different than what was on my screen.

Meanwhile, I'm opening the HRC Corporate Equality Index and, yes, Dell has a score of 100. So I interrupt Sam, explain the HRC index score and said I would simply like to address the friend/partner issue since respect is a core part of customer service. He hung up on me.

Chat was still open. Thomas started typing, but, wait, first he claimed to be "Sandeep" and then admitted that Sam and Sandeep are the same person. What?! *head on table*

I explained again that referring to my partner as a friend was inappropriate and I would simply like that to be acknowledged. Sam refused. Well, he apologized if I was offended by Thomas explanation of how to use to a friend's address to receive my package.

Meanwhile, I was tweeting to get Dell's attention. It worked and customer service responded in a few minutes with a direct message. At that point Thomas/Sandeep/Sam ended the chat (I took screen shots) and I received a copy of the transcript automatically via email.

Wow. I'll fast forward thru the ensuing days. Yes, days.

C from Dell called me that day, but we had to go to a medical appointment so I spoke with her the following day since we're in different time zones. She took responsibility for the errors and tried to help me get the part. That took three more days to address and Dell just seemed like a hot mess.

To be fair, they gave me a discount and then another one when a second delay happened. C was very polite and apologetic. The Twitter person reached out to me a few times. The screen arrived, we found a reputable biz to install it and hopefully that's that.

Except its not. Not really.

I don't mock people who speak English as a second language, but I admit its frustrating to engage in customer service conversations with someone who isn't fluent. I wouldn't bash someone or a company for that, but there is a line.

When I deal with Samsung, the person often uses very formal English with no sense of American dialect so I suspect that they are not native English speakers. Their tendency to tell me to do a factory reset for every problem is a clue. When I push for more tech support, they actually work with me. We communicate and I get my phone working.

But when I raised a red flag about a potentially homophobic comment, Thomas and/or Sandeep and/or Sam ignored my concern; they didn't apologize. They did try to revise history a bit, but they didn't seem to realize why I was unhappy. If Thomas had simply said "Oh, I am sorry. I meant your partner." or "Oh, I am sorry. I meant if you have a friend who can accept delivery for you" the whole mess could have been avoided and her laptop would have been repaired days ago. If Sandeep and/or Sam had done that - same outcome.

Instead Dell ended up losing over $100 in sales/shipping discounts, I'd say 6-8 hours of staff time cleaning up the mess, and has a very unhappy customer.

I'm not buying that this is a cultural issue. It is Dell's responsibility to train their customer service staff in some basic issues. That includes terms like partner or referring to someone of the same gender as your spouse. At the very very least, the supervisor should have caught the error and addressed it right then. Instead, I was on the phone for hours and frankly tweeting and Facebooking my displeasure quite a bit.

C could not explain if Thomas and/or Sam and/or Sandeep were one, two or three persons. She didn't have that information. She seemed to take me seriously, but her ability to address the service issue was basically limited to "we'll have them retrained" and her ability to address the sales/shipping issue was quite hamstrung by internal policies. I hung in there because she was so nice and clearly trying.

I bluntly told her that this experience reinforced every bad stereotype about using an overseas call center and that it was a challenge to not extrapolate from this one experience to a larger unflattering picture of the company, especially since her ability to "resolve" the situation was not too extensive.

Let me be fair. I've had two poor shipping experiences with Dell in the past. Both involved FedEx and one ruined a Christmas gift. So I'm not a fan of Dell in general for being so inflexible with their shipping procedures.

I believe I should have the ability to simply require a signature to avoid packages being left at my door or being lost in a loop of wayfarer stations. Or (in both cases) returned to Dell and having to be resent to me. *sigh*

Not everyone has the luxury of receiving packages at work and both FedEx and UPS has serious customer service issues of their own when it comes to "holding" packages, etc. Have I mentioned that I really love the post office? Go Postmasters!

But this is 2012 and we are an international economy and shopping online is a reality. I should be able to give simple instructions about my package so it arrives in a reasonable amount of time. I'm happy to pick it up at the depot.

I should be able to communicate with customer service in a constructive dialogue and reference relevant details about my household in a manner that is respected and acknowledged. I should have my request for a supervisor honored and that person should not lie to me about the contents of a written transcript. I should be able to count on higher-ups to resolve the problem quickly, without taking days.

I'm an experienced advocate and researcher so it didn't take me long to find the social media tools I needed to resolve my issue. Plus, having an opportunity to blog nationally wasn't far from the back of my mind, to be honest. I was able to make a modest fuss and get attention. Not everyone has that option and they shouldn't have to, frankly.

Dell should do better. I technically went through five different employees (more if you count the sales manager working with C to get my part to me). If it had just been Thomas, I could see it being an error or mistake or even individual prejudice or ignorance. But when you get through the Sandeep and/or Sam level of supervisors, come on, that's ridiculous.

Dell should do better by its LGBT customer base. If you pride yourself on the score of 100, not a single employee in your workforce should refuse to describe my family using appropriate terms. The term "partner" is not that outlandish. It really makes me wonder what might be happening to the LGBT folks working in that call center - especially if they are being supervised by Sandeep and/or Sam?

It is certainly not in Dell's best interest to reinforce ignorant stereotypes about employees for whom English is not their first language. When I shared this story with acquaintances, I got some of that "What do you expect? Buy American!" blowback. I understand cultural differences and I have no idea what Thomas' culture is, but that's not relevant is it? He was on the job and the only thing that was relevant was delivering customer service in a respectful manner consistent with corporate policies, not working out his own "stuff."

Who knows if it was really about my being LGBT or unfamiliarity with the English terms relevant to LGBT families? Either way, it is #FAIL on Dell's part.

I don't need any sort of validation or acknowledgement of the fact that I am gay from my retail experiences. Most of the time, it is immaterial and that's fine. I try to make informed decisions based on indicators like the Corporate Equality Index, but I'm also pragmatic. I know folks on the front end are going to make mistakes or have bad moments and so forth. I can roll with it. Really, I can.

But cultural competency begins at Dell HQ. As soon as I typed "May I speak with a supervisor?" my expectations of more culturally competent customer service rose. The complexity of their shipping policies just complicated finding a resolution to the situation - two unrelated issues that often intersect when you shop online.

The moral of the story? Buy local. Look for a Twitter handle and reach out with a request to address a concern. Take a breath and keep going up the chain of command when encountering disrespectful service. And keep that HRC index bookmarked; it is a real tool. Dell doesn't want to lose their perfect score, but I think they might rest on their laurels at their own peril.

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