Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Want My Business? Speak English!

I recently had the pleasure of dealing with a customer service professional who is not from our country. Of course, when I say “pleasure”, I mean “frustrating, aneurysm-provoking experience”.

Before I begin, I want to state that I have nothing against foreigners working for us. If Chinese sweatshops give us cheap stuff at Walmart, then so be it. If Mexican illegals mean cheap labor and vegetables, then I won’t complain. So what if they speak little or no English? As long as they build me a DVD player or paint my house, I don’t need to converse with them. But when it is their job to provide verbal help to ignorant Americans like me, then they damn well better speak coherent English.

Back in May I booked a flight to visit my mom in Florida. My whole family is from Massachusetts, but my mom moved to Florida because she had to. You see, it’s a law that all people who are both over the age of 60 and Jewish must move to Florida. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up in the Old Testament. You’ll find it in Hezekiah 3:12 Section 9 Subparagraph A.

Anyway, I’ll be flying down to God’s Waiting Room in November, and what better way to secure the best flight and price than by ordering tickets half a year in advance? So I went to one of those online travel agent sites that searches for flights based on the criteria you give, and purchased a round-trip ticket. Simple and easy, right? You’d think so. Except that this past Sunday I got an e-mail from the agent company saying that my itinerary had been changed. The airline – who I’ll simply call Airline X in order to protect AirTran’s identity – is doing away with some of its non-stop flights, so instead of flying directly to Florida in mid-morning I would have to catch a 6:40 AM flight (which would mean getting out of bed before 5 AM) and spend some time in Atlanta. Now, I have nothing against Atlanta. I’m sure it has all the things that other big cities have, like theaters, restaurants, pollution, crime, etc. But sitting in an airport – any airport – is about as fun and cultural as a cow pasture, except without the fresh air.

So I called the agent company. Before I tell you which one it was, you should know that they are all the same. Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia and their ilk are simply software programs that save you a little time by searching many airlines’ flight databases so you don’t have to go to each one individually. They typically add $5-10 to the ticket price in return for the time they save you. The company I dealt with was Travelocity, which apparently farms its customer service out to India. Instead of just complaining about my experience, I’ll give you a transcript of what happened:

Customer Service Rep: “Hello, my name is Mumblesomething. How can I help you?”
Me: “My reservation got changed by Airline X. I’d like to cancel it.”

(A few moments of verifying my identity and trip ID number.)

Me: “Can I cancel the trip and get a refund?”
CSR: “I must put you on hold in order to check our policy.”

Of course. He’s only a customer service “professional” who has had numerous customers cancel flights. It’s not like he should know his company’s policy on the matter.

CSR: “Okay, I havmumblewith our policy something unintelligible. Now I must check de airline’s policy. Do you mind if I put you on hold?”
Me: “I certainly do mind if you put me on hold! All I want to do is cancel a flight, and you’re eating up all my cell phone minutes!”
CSR: “I’m sorry but suywhrmwmahap wusrtfsh policy.”
Me: “What? I don’t understand what you just said. Look, is there someone I can talk to who speaks good English?”
CSR: “Sir, this office is in Maharashtra. You’d have a better chance of finding a Democrat at a KKK rally.”

I’m kidding of course. His powers of enunciation were rivaled by those of a freshman at a frat party. What he actually said was:

CSR: “I’m sorry that wsheiodnfmsujsrusnghgsuf policy.”
Me: “What?!”
CSR: “I said that wsheiodnfmsujsrusnghgsuf policy.”
Me: “Can I just call the airline directly?”
CSR: “Yes. I will put you on hold while I locate de number.”

Of course. God forbid he should have any of the airlines’ phone numbers handy.

CSR: “The number is 1-800-247-8726.”
Me: “Thank you.”
CSR: “Mmbldehgi-”
Me: <Click>

I called AirTran -- I mean, Airline X -- and talked to a nice native English-speaking woman who canceled the flight for me. I got a refund of all the money I had spent except Travelocity’s commission. Then I called Airline Y and another nice native English-speaking woman helped me book a round-trip direct flight to Florida (the Land of Bad Drivers and the 4:30 Early Bird Special). I will not have to spend time at a third airport, and I will fly in the middle of the day when I am less likely to be mugged.

Farming jobs out to overcrowded nations where labor is cheap saves money, but if the workers are supposed to be able to communicate effectively, it would be better to pay a little more for people who can reach their customers rather than drive them away. I know that I will never, ever use any online travel agent again. I will not single out Travelocity for boycotting, because while their Indian employees exasperate us by speaking Inglish, Orbitz’s customer service folks in Singapore are frustrating us with Singlish. And imagine the shock of dealing with Expedia’s customer service folks in Hong Kong when they tell us that our fright has been cancered.