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Callers on Hold - Phone Support Failures May Put Customers at Risk

It was mid-March, and I was standing on line at the CVS in a small town in New York, where my mother lives. She had just had some surgery, and we were getting her prescriptions filled. COVID-19 had just started to lock things down in the area, and my mother was one of the last surgeries performed in our area, before most surgeries were put on hold. Though my mom lives in a small town, it happens to be one of the regions not far from New York City that is most popular for "weekenders," and where many city residents have purchased second homes. It is also an area where New York City residents moved to in large numbers after 9/11, and where they flocked to when the coronavirus numbers in the city started to soar.

The "stay at home" advisories had been issued for our area, and I had decided to hunker down at my mom's, wanting to do my best help her heal from her surgery, and keep her safe from COVID. Heeding the advice of the health officials, we attempted to set my mother up for prescription delivery vs. going in to the store. However, we encountered a glitch somewhere in the system. Even though her online account said that she had been successfully set up for delivery, we received a message that her prescription had been filled, and was waiting at the store. We attempted to cancel this online, but could not do it successfully. And, because the system was showing she had filled the prescription, the account would not allow her to submit a new delivery request. So, my mother attempted to call the store, to have the prescription cancelled and returned, and to request assistance getting the prescription delivered.

She sat on hold for five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes, and then we crossed the one hour mark. She was in pain from her procedure, and due to take her other medications, so continuing to sit on hold was not an option. So, geared up in my mask and gloves, with disinfecting wipes and gel and spray in hand, I headed off to the store.

When I walked in, you could immediately feel the tension and fear and confusion, both from the customers and the staff. As I stood in line at the pharmacy, the other customers all either looked nervous and uncomfortable like I did, or they had the defiant "everyone is overreacting" attitude, which just caused everyone else to get more nervous. And as I stood in line, I immediately started to hear the pharmacy phone call status, which loudly piped through the pharmacy overhead speakers. "Two callers on hold," then "three callers on hold," up to one point where there were "six callers on hold," and then the number went back down, and continued to fluctuate, as I continued my wait in line. As I looked around, I quickly realized the number wasn't fluctuating because callers were being served. It was fluctuating because people who had been on hold, were giving up and hanging up! This was stunning to me because the very reason I was standing in the store, against public health advice, was because no one answered the phone, which could have provided all of the support I was now standing in line to receive. And the pharmacy staff, who were understandably exhausted and scared themselves, had long since passed the point of even noticing the ringing phone, or the overhead speakers. To be clear, I am not being critical of the employees at all. What was becoming clear is that a long-known customer service problem that exists in thousands of businesses, and is an operations problem that needs to be solved at the corporate level, was now actually threatening my health and health of every other customer in my situation.

When I finally got to the front of the line, I asked the pharmacist if the phones were being answered at all. Her response to me was that they just could not keep up, given the need to serve the customers at the counter, and also dedicate staff to being on the phone with the insurance companies, while also covering for staff who were out sick or who were too afraid to come to work.

None of my questions required the assistance of my local pharmacy. Everything I needed, could have been handled by a central call center. And a call center include both general customer service, and access to technical support, for issues that result from a disconnect between pharmacy services and online transactions. And because my issues started with the online prescription platform, I could have been assisted by a chat support option. Unfortunately, those options did not appear to be available. This is no longer just a standard customer service issue. It is now a public health hazard.

In fairness to CVS, I am calling them out because that is where I went that day. They are my favorite pharmacy. I'd have called out any other pharmacy for the same issue, and they all have them, but I don't frequent the others. And, I have had this same experience at rental car companies, hotels, restaurants, and really any other place where customers attempt to contact the company for support. When I have stood at service counters listening to the phone ring, I have even offered to wait so the person assisting me could answer the phone. I know they feel the standard, "no it's okay, we want to get you taken care of" response is supposed to make me feel important and demonstrate efficiency. In reality, I just stand there empathizing with the poor caller who is expecting that as a customer, they are as important as those standing at the counter. No so in many cases, my friends.

Interestingly, in my most recent trip to a regional CVS, I noticed an update has been made. Now you can hear the phone ringing and ringing, and it still appears that no one is answering it. To test this out, I called the pharmacy while standing in line during my last visit, and sure enough I sat on hold the entire time, until I was back in my car with my purchase, and just hung up. However, the overhead system no longer screams out the number of callers on hold. So, it seems the pharmacy at least decided not to add more suffering to the experience, by broadcasting the problem. And again, I am in no way calling out the in-house pharmacy staff.

Whether your business is a public corporation or a small, entrepreneurial company, service matters. If you are not sure about the quality of your phone support and overall customer experience, now is the time to tackle this challenge. If you are not sure how to proceed or you do not have the right talent in place to do this internally, the investment in the right advisor and project support could help you improve your relationship with your customers. Now more than ever, it may also keep them from considering a move to your competitors, if they are taking more active and visible steps to protect customer health and safety.

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