Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ October 2018

The Decline and Fall of Western Customer Service

By David I. Goldman

In this age of large, impersonal, technology-driven governmental organizations and businesses, we’ve all had the unfortunate experience of having to navigate the treacherous shoals of complex phone menus, poorly designed webpages, and badly trained, unmotivated customer service personnel.  I will recount for you my experiences with one such large organization, PEPCO, and, hopefully, help provide some illumination on the process for getting one’s streetlight repaired.

I live on a dark, heavily wooded neighborhood street, with steep steps to my house.  The streetlight in front of my home began dimming and, eventually, went dark in late July.  After stumbling around my front yard for a while, nearly missing serious injury several times, I got on the PEPCO website on 9 August.  After some effort rummaging through the pages, I found what I believed to be the correct place to file an electronic report.  I received an automated confirmation shortly thereafter, saying their “goal” was to have a representative contact me back within two business days.  So far, I was satisfied with the process.

Instead of a call back, I received another email on Monday the 13th, within two business days, asking me to locate the outage on their map at pages/connectwithus/outages/streetlightoutage.aspx.  Sadly, the link opened to a “PAGE NOT FOUND” notice.  As I write this in mid-September, the page is still inactive.  I called PEPCO, went through the complicated phone menu, waited awhile on hold, and, finally, spoke with an agent who said my original request didn’t go through.  She took my information again and said the repair would be done in two to three days.  However, I received an email from PEPCO shortly after the phone call that thanked me for using their “on-line self-service tool,” providing me an order number, and adding that the repair could take up to 15 days.  I called back twice, having been disconnected mid-conversation the first time, to ask why there was such a large time discrepancy.  This agent informed me that the repair crew would check the light within 72 hours and change the bulb if that was all that was needed, but any other repairs could take up to 21 days.  Something was amiss, but I decided to give the system a chance.

‘Before’ photo of the streetlight in question.  [Note:  Photo has been lightened as it was too dark to see much without the streetlight!]

The system, unfortunately, failed me.  On 20 August, having heard nothing about the request, I decided to call PEPCO again to check on the status.  After the usual menus, bad Muzak, and holds, I spoke to an agent.  She claimed there was no way to check on the progress of a repair.  At that point, I asked to speak to a supervisor.  She sounded annoyed.  After another lengthy hold, she got back on and told me to call Engineering.  I said I would, but that I wanted to speak to a supervisor as well.  She assured me one would call me back within two days.  Need you ask?  No one ever called.

I did call Engineering and spoke to a nice gentleman who said that his office had absolutely nothing to do with streetlight repairs and that only Customer Service could track the requests.  He added that PEPCO only maintains a two-person maintenance crew for streetlight repairs for all of Montgomery County, so the repairs can take a while, and the office has no phone lines.

‘After’ photo.

On 4 September, with my street still benighted and having received no calls back, I took three deep breaths and tried Customer Service again.  After going through the menu and holds, I finally got connected to an agent, who insisted there was no way to track repairs and that I would just have to wait.  At that point, deep breathing would have been pointless.  Angered, I asked to speak to a supervisor.  She got surly in response, and put me on a long hold.  When she returned she claimed that no supervisors were available.  I insisted — another long hold.  The agent finally got back on, and told me that she would transfer me to Customer Designs.  When I asked what this office was, and why no one had informed me about it before, I got a long pause.  Clearly, she had no idea.  Since everyone I had spoken with at PEPCO had only given me misinformation, I demanded to be connected to a supervisor immediately.  Hold again.  After a few minutes, she got back on and said she would transfer me, after all, to a supervisor.  Instead, I wound up in some nameless voice mail at a 678 area code.  To date, no one has called me back.

After posting a summary of this sad tale on the list serve, knowledgeable neighbors directed me to the Montgomery County website.  My experiences there have been better, though not great.  I filed a digital request on 6 September and received an email confirmation from someone at the Department of Transportation.  It included the same order number I had received on 13 August and the same bad PEPCO link, so I called the person listed as the contact on the email the next day.  To my surprise, she called me back and told me that, while there was no tracking system, crews usually checked the lights within 15 days.  When I reminded her that my order had been filed almost a month before, she said that some initial evaluations were taking as long as 90 days.  Not what I wanted to hear.  She did, however, promise to check with “their guy” at PEPCO, and call me back.  To my surprise, she did.  I got a call Monday the 10th, but she could not provide a better time frame.  She said, however, that the repair had been escalated.

The county representative also provided me with a working link to file requests:  When I asked if this was the link PEPCO was using, she said it was.  I decided to check up on this; the link on the main PEPCO-Exelon website seems now to connect to the same map in the county link.

UPDATE — 8:00 p.m., 9/11/18

Although the light was still registered as an outage on the link above two hours ago, while the sun was still out, it is now operational.  PEPCO-Exelon must have learned I was writing this.  Had the company created a more user-friendly website with updated links and some sort of tracking system, and had it properly trained its staff on operations and customer-service etiquette, then a lot of confusion, time, and exasperation could have been avoided on everyone’s part.  Even more importantly, you would not have wasted 10 minutes reading this essay.  We can all blame the decline and fall of Western customer service!

[Goldman and his family have lived on Lockridge Drive for 17 years.]   ■

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