Long-distance customer care flawed online

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We've never liked dealing with telecom companies. Pergatory, as defined in the Cyber Critique lexicon, consists of being bounced from uselessly pleasant customer service drones to draconian billing zombies and back-interspersed with eon-chewing spans of being told that our "call is important" every 10 seconds.

So setting up long-distance telephone service without having to speak to a single human sounded too good to be true. And it was.

Customer service on the Web has amazing potential. When done right, service via the Web can be invaluable and provide all sorts of warm, squishy customer relations. When done wrong, such as MCI Worldcom, it can frustrate consumers to no end. Once you've managed to get surfers to your site, you had better treat them right. Clicking to a competitor's site is much simpler than driving to another mall.

There are already customer service applications becoming status quo: shopping agents, order trackers and the good old frequently asked questions. Here's our brief take on companies doing it right and wrong from start to finish.

MindSpring Enterprises is an example of technology working for the customer's benefit. We set up our account, monitored it, added services and checked the status of their servers in no time at all. Best of all, when we did have to speak to a tech support operator, he was able to pull up information-in real time-about where we were dialing in from and what sort of errors we were getting so the problem could be fixed while we remained on the line. If only the rest of life were that elegant, functional and simple.

In other words, if only the rest of life weren't like the MCI Worldcom page. In theory, anyone can sign up for service at their convenience and with no human interaction. They can view account information and all that good stuff. However, the registration process was confusing and flawed.

Flaw No. 1: There was no confirmation either of success or failure in the registration process. Flaw No. 2: There was no phone number to allow the customer to call a customer service agent. Flaw No. 3: The consumer affairs page could not be found. And, oh yeah, Flaw No. 5: It didn't work. Then we spent some time with the live customer service folks (and if we had another few pages we could tell you about this part of the fun) who had no record that we'd set up the account. This became even more confusing when we later received three separate sets of calling cards, which hints that the online registration did, against all indications, work. Go fig.

Yet, it's inexcusable. No rational reason exists to explain why MCI Worldcom should be such a mess. Especially with the MindSprings out there showing the way. While we wait for them to get their site together, it's back to pressing "1" for limbo.

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