Hunting For What We Want to Hear

Hunting For What We Want to Hear July 25, 2015

We’ve been talking recently about Christians’ hilarious guesses about why people are leaving their ranks in comments across this blog, and it reminded me of something.

Some years ago, way before I began blogging, I worked at various call centers doing advanced technical and billing-issues support (for companies that provided a range of services for several types of consumer electronics). I hadn’t seen it so much when I was working pure tech support, but when money got seriously involved, suddenly I began to notice something about the customers calling in for help with their bills.

Time to call the support line. (Credit: Jason Rogers, CC license. Though he's already said he edited both the owed amount and his digits, I prefer to black out anything that looks personally-identifiable.)
Time to call the support line. (Credit: Jason Rogers, CC license. Though he’s already said he edited both the owed amount and his digits, I prefer to black out anything that looks personally-identifiable.)

It didn’t happen all the time, no. Usually it’d happen with a particular type of customer, the type who never seemed to go through an entire month without calling us to complain about some perceived monstrous injustice on their bills. We’re not talking about the occasional legitimate snafu. Sometimes those happened, and yes, it could take a while to untangle some of the issues we ran into (oh my gosh some of these were crazy). But once we got those worked out, the customer never bothered us again, and certainly if it turned out to be a problem or misunderstanding on the customer’s end they didn’t argue about it. What I’m talking about today was another type of problem entirely.

These customers were from all different walks of life, but they had one thing in common: they were people who seemed to have no idea how money or monthly bills worked. They were also the most convinced that they were the company’s best customers EVAR and the most convinced that we were deliberately out to destroy their lives. I began noticing something:

The more drama I saw on an account, the more likely it was that I was dealing with a customer who was hunting for what he or she wanted most to hear.

Moreover, not only was this customer seeking only one particular resolution, but he or she would keep calling and cycling through representatives until one accidentally hinted at whatever that desired resolution was. And then that would be the story they clung to with all their strength no matter what for the rest of time, and woe betide the agent who had to untangle their distorted, garbled ideas. Their battle cry was: “BUT THEY SAID!”

Worse, these were the people who acted like they genuinely wanted to know why their bills kept creeping up and why they kept facing shut-off notices every month when they were convinced they were doing everything correctly. I was naive enough to take this universal insistence seriously. I once spent an hour on the phone with two very defensive and angry middle-aged ladies who apparently had their last 18 months’ worth of service bills spread out in front of them on their kitchen table (along with what turned out to be a whole lot of cheap red wine). They said they were not leaving the conversation until I had explained to their satisfaction why they kept having so much trouble with their billing. And an hour later I still had not managed to make them understand that their problem was that they had not even once paid anything beyond their past due amounts.*

Really, only one of those customers–out of many dozens if not hundreds if not thousands–was actually telling me the truth about wanting to know what was really happening. He was a cop in a city where I’d spent some childhood years, which I think it made him a little more willing to hear me out. It turned out he’d fallen a month behind about six months previously due to his daughter’s failure to pay a month’s bill like she’d said she would, and she’d never told him she hadn’t done it. Since he never looked at the bills**, he didn’t know anything was wrong until the service got disconnected when he fell a little behind one month. He apologized profusely for being so mean and overbearing at first, and why yes, that bill got paid in full pretty quickly.

Every so often I’d find some very small errors on a bill, but these were along the lines of a small monthly service the customer had signed up for and forgotten about (often the customer calling to complain about their bill had not even noticed it). Almost none of them were problems on our side, across all the companies I worked for. And we’re not talking about huge errors anyway. The bills as they stood were not often much changed by these corrections.

These customers weren’t really happy to learn that, either.

They did not want the lesson in home economics that they needed and frequently claimed to desire. What they really wanted to hear from me, without exception, was this:

Oh my god, you’re so right. We’ve totally messed up here and have overcharged you massively. Let me credit back the last fifteen years’ worth of late fees and all of those reconnection fees, and how about a free month or two of service to make up for all your “inconvenience”? You are our very best customer, after all, and the customer is always right.

That may sound like hyperbole but it was, quite literally, the gist of what they were trying to get someone to say. And if someone accidentally said anything vaguely related to that desired outcome, that was it as far as they were concerned, no take-backsies. They clung to any such misstatements like Dumbo to his lucky black feather.***

What they did not want us to say was anything like this:

This is the amount you owe us.

You need to pay the full balance on your bill every month by the due date to avoid late fees and disconnections.

These fees are valid and will not be credited.

You voluntarily signed a contract, so if you disconnect your account, then–just like the contract says–certain things are going to happen to you.

Those were not the desired outcomes, so these customers quite literally did not hear anybody who said anything different. They’d ask to talk to supervisors, who’d duly look over their bills, ensure that there weren’t any billing problems like the previous agent had already done, and then reiterate that the bill needed to be paid. I don’t know how many of these super-long calls I took before a manager took pity on me and explained to me that it was a waste of time to try to educate these folks on the finer points of personal financial management–especially because they didn’t actually want to learn how to pay bills or know exactly what was wrong, because that was going to look like “this is happening because you’re doing something wrong.”

“The problem, Cas,” he told me as gently as he could, “is that if you’re not going to give them free service or a whopping big credit, they don’t care what else you have to say. So you might as well just say the hard part and get it over with, and let them figure out on their own how to deal with it.”

The first time I tested his advice, I was a little nervous, I’ll admit. The customer was a typical one–upset with finding out his recently-disconnected account had gone to such a serious past due status that it could no longer be revived without payment in full of many months of service, itself a considerable sum considering his rather ambitious service plan. He was convinced that his bill was drastically wrong, that we needed to give him an equally drastic credit, and then–in his opinion–we’d start off on a fresh foot. He couldn’t articulate exactly what he thought was wrong aside from a dead certainty that we’d been double billing him, a common element in these conversations.†

I told him that it only looked like double billing because he’d been running a past due balance for the entire length of his account with us, about two years–and what a rather imaginative and hectic two years it’d been! He’d called us several times a month for the entire length of his association with us, and gotten quite a few credits along the way from harried agents who couldn’t stand up to his blinding amount of doublespeak. The music finally needed to be faced. There would be no more credits applied to his account; he’d gotten every one he was eligible for and way more besides. Presented with this information, his response was to demand that I go through each and every bill he’d had for the entire two years of service. I informed him that I’d already looked over his account, ensured that he was being billed for only one month of service at a time, that all of the services on his account were ones he’d actually signed up for and authorized, and that nothing was there that he hadn’t authorized. Certainly he could take his bills to a service center, where someone could sit with him and explain this stuff to him face to face, but we would not be doing that over the phone again like we had for the last two years. I was as gentle as I could about laying his options at his feet: he could refuse to pay the bill in full and the account would go to collections, or he could pay the bill in full and then the account could be reactivated if he liked. Those were his two options. He’d left nothing to chance and used up every bit of his slack, so those were his only two options at this point.

It wasn’t a fun conversation, but it was at least very short.

During this job, I got this sublime revelation:

These people had fallen prey to their very own self-created delusions.

It doesn’t matter if the angle being played is religion, alternative medicine, political extremism, a dietary philosophy, or whatever: scams tell people what they really want to hear. Their victims are smart, wise, gifted, correct, discerning, and totally immune to scamming. Their fears are reasonable and totally justified–and here is the cure for those fears. Anybody who says differently is just wrong, an outright enemy, or both. People who feel hard-done-by are especially prone to this kind of thinking–like evangelicals who are convinced against all evidence to the contrary that they are “persecuted,” for example, who see all pushback against their overreach as proof of their delusion and flock to irresponsible leaders who reinforce that delusion.

These customers wanted me to tell them what they really wanted to hear. They weren’t interested in anything I had to say if I disagreed with them. Their “paychecks,” so to speak, depended on them being right and me being wrong, so there simply wasn’t going to be some magic combination of words I was ever going to come up with that would make them realize they were in the wrong. Being wrong would mean having to cough up quite a lot of money they very likely didn’t have–and might call into question their judgment on a variety of other topics I didn’t even know about. I was facing an impenetrable wall with a spoon. Sometimes I might get lucky there–like I did with that awesome cop–but usually these conversations would be long, protracted, painful, and end with the deluded person remaining deluded–if not drilling down harder on the delusion.

In that context–over the phone with sharply limited amounts of time–I had no way of dealing with the roots of their self-delusion; their erroneous ideas about their bills were just a symptom of that self-delusion. They were already primed to see me as their enemy and had no reason at all to take my word for anything. They didn’t trust me–largely because I disagreed with them about this conclusion they’d drawn.

The computer in Wargames got it right: Sometimes the only way to win that game is not to play.

Over time, I learned to apply that idea to other subjects. When someone’s really ready to listen and hear out the other side, it’s glaringly apparent. I’m a lot better at picking my battles nowadays than I used to be, back when I took people seriously when they said they really wanted to know if they were right or wrong about something.

As for the guy I tried that boss’ advice on, well, he didn’t pay the bill right then, but I checked his account later; he hadn’t called us back to argue the point, and payment had been made in full shortly afterward. The account was active again–though I don’t know for how long.

Sometimes people just need boundaries set for them. The funny thing was, I was one of those people. I let other people’s delusions control me and take up all my time.

I spent way too long in my life taking people seriously when they said they wanted to hear the truth because I didn’t realize they just wanted agreement with their own delusions. Like I learned to do in that job, my priority now is spending time with the people who really do want a real conversation. There are lots of them out there.

I was just thinking about this topic today on a beautiful Saturday, and I wanted to share it with y’all. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

—————————————–

* I’m not actually kidding here; I ran into a lot of people who literally paid only their past due balance every month and then got outraged when they noticed their service had been disconnected because they’d “paid their bill in full.” These were also the people who absolutely counted on those few days’ grace period from the “last day possible to pay this bill without disconnection” and “okay you’re disconnected now,” and got really mad when the system didn’t give them the number of grace days they mistakenly thought were their right.

** Sweet mincing Moses, people seriously need to be looking over their monthly service bills at least every couple of months.

*** We’re not talking here, by and large, about people who read their service contracts, either, or they’d have known that nobody they could reach by phone was authorized to change the conditions of those contracts, which was what these folks were essentially asking us to do.

† If your service is based on SIM cards or on other unique identifying numbers, this is generally all but physically impossible. I only saw it once in the entire time I worked in the service industry, and it was a very weird situation involving tower bounces that never should have happened. But I probably got dozens of accusations of double billing every month.

""I'm just doing opposition research! Yes, that's it!""

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