Why Are Companies So Horrible At Pre-sales Customer Service?

Phone OperatorI have a standard rule of thumb: any product that sells with a warranty usually becomes a product I have specific questions about before I’m willing to make the purchase (especially technology/electronics). But what are my options for getting these questions answered? If I want answers now, I have to check out an FAQ. (Has anyone else noticed that FAQs answer your questions less often than not?)

Or perhaps I can dial a phone number (that is, once I find it—when will sites stop hiding them?). And why is there only one phone number with seven tiers of menus to route me to human? And no, I don’t want an email address; I’m interested in this particular purchase now, not tomorrow when I get a response to my email.

One piece of retro-style customer service I love but don’t find very often: the operator. With an operator, there’s no need to hear the stupid intro of, “listen closely as our options have recently changed.” And again, more often than not, my question falls under the routing category of “other,” but I can’t skip ahead by pressing 6 or 7 on the keypad (often the numbers that are “other”). I have to listen to every single option to get to know the number of the last one, which is inevitably “other.”

So, to review, I first have to look around for a phone number. Then get routed to what I think the equivalent of pre-sales is according to the menu system. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get someone to help me. But they may just tell me I’m in the wrong place. In which case, I get fed back into phone-robot-routing hell.

Another option (which often can be faster) is to drive down to the closest Best Buy and ask someone a question there. But this is another “more often than not”—those employees don’t know the answer to my question. They didn’t make the product; they just want to sell it. I want to talk to someone who was specifically trained in this product at Sony, Toshiba, Canon, HP, or wherever. But does anyone other than the engineers or designers who made it know anything beyond what’s written in the online documentation I’ve likely already looked at?

So many times I’ve been ready to buy something only to pass because of lack of information. And I don’t think I’m alone. Check out this interesting piece which points out ways in which companies might fix this problem. And if you’ve had any good experiences with pre-sales, let me know in the comments.

  • Paul Ellis

    I totally agree with you Bob. I get so annoyed when I’m at Circuit City/Best Buy/etc and I have the nerve to ask the “sales associate” a question about a particular product. This is what happens 98.673% (I’ve kept rigorous stats) of the time:

    Me: “What is the native resolution on this LCD TV?”
    SA: “Uh, let me check the card here. Uhmmm. It doesn’t say.”

    Like I am so stupid that I wouldn’t look on the card first. Odds are, if I’m asking that question, that I’d know to maybe, just maybe try looking at the card first.

    Anyway, ultimately there is one reason the pre-sales is soooo bad. Most people don’t actually more for it. In our internet shopping age, we’ll go check out the product(s) we want to buy and then go comparison shop on Froogle or Pricegrabber.com for the best deal.

    Now I’d *like* to think that I am willing to pay for better service, but since it seems to be so bad everywhere, I usually go for the price. Which is often at Costco, which at least doesn’t try to act like they offer excellent pre-sales support.

  • Couldn’t agree more (and thanks for the link). This is one of the perils of being a knowledgeable consumer: now, more often than not, we’re more “learned” than those who sell the products, and it’s hard to get the answer to most of the prosumer- and pro- level questions, because the FAQs are tailored to the lowest common denominator.

    Why can’t companies provide up-to-date scripts of their phone operators online, so one can check which options he needs before calling? Better yet – offer special 3- or 4- digit extensions (if not specific numbers) that, when dialed, take you to the right person and tell them what you’re there for. I’ll even take online sales/support chat if they’ve got it, over going to a store staffed with underpaid and undertrained high school kids there for the employee discount.

  • Chris

    I usually just do a google search for my question and that takes care of it.

  • Amen. You can always try pressing zero a bunch of times to see if you get kicked straight to an operator… but it doesn’t always work.

    For me, something that’s helped is an online subscription to Consumer Reports. It costs $20 or $30 bucks, but it’s been worth every penny.

  • Danielle

    I once worked as a pre-sales rep for Nortel Networks.

    Before I was hired they asked me to describe a router. I said it was something that routs information. Then when they asked me to describe a switch, I got worried because I had never heard of a switch (other than a light switch) in the computer world. I was candid with my lack of knowledge.

    I think they hired me because I am female (There were no other females on the team at that point). Maybe my gregarious personality got me hired. Either way it was not my computer expertise.

    I was trained for a couple of days in which I learned what it means to be hot swapable. I even learned about ATM s (not the cash machine but Asynchronous Transfer Mode used in switching.

    Still my job description was to help companies choose the right hardware for their needs and help them design a network using Nortel products.

    There was no way on Earth I could do that!

    So this is what happened:

    Someone would call with questions.

    I would write them down as best I could.

    I put the person on hold.

    Then, I would go and ask the one guy from our team of ten or so who actually understood the questions and could answer them. This would usually require standing in line because no one else male or female knew how to answer these questions or even so much as understood the questions being asked.

    The guy who knew his stuff never answered phones because he was to busy answering all questions.

    Sometimes he would get exasperated and finally pick up the phone and talk to the customer but only rarely.

    Most of the time I didn’t understand the questions being asked or the answer that was given. I just did my best to transmit information.

    The system wasn’t designed this way, we were just lucky to have someone on our team who knew what they were doing. I would guess other teams like this didn’t have that luxury.

    So, this is just a little snapshot into my pre-sales experience. I thought you may think it was interesting.

  • Bob Caswell

    Wow, Danielle, I wonder how many pre-sales centers are run in a similar fashion… That’s crazy.

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