I’ve Got a Problem with “No Problem”

Today I was on the phone with a customer service person from Vanguard and, sorry to say, didn’t have a great time of it.

Being a customer service rep is a very difficult job. In the late 90s when I worked for E*TRADE (do they still all-cap it? That was the official way to write the name of the company back then) there was a time during which I saw one of the main customer service centers doing its thing, in Rancho Santa Fe, outside of Sacramento, over several days. Back then Rancho was a big CS locale; there were lots of tilt-ups full of lots of CS reps. Don’t know if they made the cut . . .

Back then was the Pleistocene Era in terms of CRM (customer relationship management) tools and software, so I’m sure it looks different these days when you watch CS reps go about doing their work, but probably much is also still the same: they wear headphone phones, they look at screens, they sit in cubicles within big pods of cubicles, they have to know about, or know how to access information about, a great variety of aspects of the business, and, in addition to there being a lot of clocks and timers everywhere, they have their work monitored in all sorts of ways.

Oh, yea, and then there are the customers they have to interact with all day long, many of them (most of them?) irate or at least tending towards irate, if for no other reason than the customer just gave a lot of information to the great telephone menu-tree machinery in the sky, only to find the human at the end of the great telephone menu-tree machinery in the sky asking for the very same info all over again . . .

So you have to hand it to these folks. It’s a hard job.

*  *  *

And then there’s the Vanguard part of the unhappy call I had with customer service earlier today.

Now, I’ve written before that I think most people should have Vanguard in their life — because, if left to its own devices, Vanguard is better for more people’s financial health than any other financial services provider out there, yes, but also because they usually have very good to excellent customer service.

You can measure the quality of customer service, in terms of direct experience and anecdotal evidence anyway, in two ways. First, you can look at how the CS folks are doing when they’re just doing what they’re doing. And second, you can look at how well they respond when something gets screwed up, as inevitably will happen from time to time if you do complicated enough things with them frequently enough.

I’ve always found Vanguard good on both counts.

There are, of course, other measures of customer service, but they’re typically not measurable by any single person’s direct experience, but, rather, reside within the CS management’s knowledge, derived from all that monitoring of the reps that they do — e.g., the frequency with which they screw up, both at the individual and company-wide levels, and how efficiently they answer questions, both at the individual and company-wide levels, etc.

I’ve never seen numbers like these published by any financial services company. Have you?

So the personal experience, anecdotal approach will have to do.

*  *  *

Put these two things together — customer service and Vanguard — and what you get is the CS phone call I had with Vanguard earlier today, which really didn’t work for me, for several different reasons.

First off, the CS person kept talking on top of me. Might this be technology? These days most big companies use VOIP (digital, Voice Over Internet Protocol phones, which plug into the Internet rather than into the phone system per se), and I find that a lot of VOIP calls suffer from a lag, i.e., it takes a while for their words to arrive at your ears, and vice versa, while good old POTS (Plain Ol’ Telephone Service) phoneware never has any, i.e., it’s instantaneous, like you’re talking to someone standing next to you in the real world.

The problem, then, is that that lag can get conversations all out of sync, with each person talking on top of the other, much like what happens on a lot of cell phone calls or, if you watch TV, like what you see when you watch a real-time interview spanning the globe, where the lag is often as long as several seconds, so that interviewer and interviewee have to really work hard at waiting for the lag-time to run its course, in order to keep their call and response separate.

Does that sound familiar? Have you been there/seen that/heard that?

And on some VOIP systems it seems like you cannot hear the other person when you’re talking. and vice versa, so there is no barge-in, no way to interject, no way to short-stop anything. It’s one-way talking, rather than two, kinda like how most speakerphones (other than the near-ubiquitous in Silicon Valley and conference rooms elsewhere Polycom batphone and its ilk) sound.

And then on the CS call with Vanguard there was that classic not-good characteristic, which is that the CS rep was not really answering my questions. That’s never a happy thing. But maybe that was me.

*  *  *

Those two demerits wouldn’t get me a-writing today, though. What did get me a-writing, and what really got to me in a bad way, was what the customer service rep said at the end of the call, after I had routinely thanked the rep (even though I wasn’t really all that thankful), to which he responded by using a simple two-word phrase:

No problem.


No problem. No problem? No problem!!! Argh. Call me Client Eastwood protecting his precious lawn, but there is just some something about that phrase — which these days is more and more taking the place of you’re welcome or the more common, thank YOU — that just totally sends me.


I think it’s purely a sense-of-the-language thing.

More specifically, I find each of the words in the phrase inappropriate, and I also find the phrase itself inappropriate. That about covers 100% of the possibilities, doesn’t it? First there is the no. A gracious thank you should not generate an in-gracious no-anything. And then there is the word problem. A gracious thank you should not generate anything having to do with the word problem.


Because both words are negative, and negatives have no place in expressions of gratitude.

But then what really sends me is how the phrase itself, which, to my 50-something ears anyway, sounds, something along these lines:

This whole interaction was about me, and it wasn’t all too terribly inconvenient, because your needs are inconsequential compared to my own, so shoo, go on your way, get outta my hair, and let me get back to what I really want to be doing and what’s really important. To wit: me.


A good attitude for a good customer service rep is the opposite:

This whole interaction was about you, and I’ll do everything I can to help you, so please do let me know if there’s anything else I can do. Thanks!


Does anyone else hear it this way? I’m pretty sure my 80-something mother does. And that’s gotta count for something, right? And then there are also a bunch of other people who’ve told me (when I asked . . . ) that they find the whole no problem thing a problem.

So CS people of the world — non-CS people of the world, too! — please do think about this no-problem thing.

Because, to some of us — maybe all of us born before, say, 1970 — my hunch is that no-problem really *is* a problem.




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