My name is Rose Silcox, and I was a credit manager for Qwest Communications for two years, based out of Seattle, Wash. The title of credit manager is a nice way of saying I was the person who shut off the customer's home phone, cell phone, Internet and dish service if they didn't give me money for their past-due bills. I was literally the last line between the customer and their ability to communicate with the outside world.
That said, I still had to be friendly, upbeat and provide excellent customer service, despite the fact that I felt like I was constantly in some sort of odd hostage situation, where I was being held hostage by the customer -- who (according to our company guidelines) had to initiate the hang up -- while at the same time being considered the criminal for threatening to shut off their service. It was a constant stream of angry customers yelling profanities, people giving the most ridiculous excuses and stories to keep service going, flat-out crazies, and a host of other random, extremely odd situations.
A desperate parent -- or not
One of my favorite moments was when a lady called, desperate to get her cell-phone service restored without payment. Her reason? Her child had been kidnapped and she didn't have home-phone service. She needed her cell phone in case the kidnappers called.
Wow! How horrible, right? Of course I would try to get her cell-phone service restored. But it is not so easy as just flipping a switch. Especially when I didn't have a payment. It is sort of tedious, actually. So as I took the steps to get her service restored, I talked with her more about her situation. You know, reassuring her and providing a sympathetic ear. It turned out her child was kidnapped by her neighbor.
"Oh really? At least you know where he is," I said. "Is he being held against his will?"
No, she explained, actually her child had already returned to her. He was no longer kidnapped, but in fact safely back with her.
So then I had to ask, "Well, why do you need your service turned back on?"
Her reply was, "In case my child is kidnapped again!"
"Kidnapped again? What? Why not keep a better eye on your kid? I'm sorry, I cannot turn your cell phone back on without payment."
And that was that. The customer had me believing her, I was going to turn her service back on. But she realized her folly by not sticking to her own made-up story. So she paid her bill and I restored her service.
A courtesy call
Another one of my favorite times at Qwest was actually on Saturday mornings. I hated getting up and being to work at 7AM on a weekend. But at least I got to make the "unexpected high bill notice" calls. As a courtesy to Qwest home-phone customers, if their bill was unusually higher than normal we would call them up a week before the bill printed to let them know. Nice, right?
Too bad it is the age of the telemarketer. And early Saturday morning to boot. Most people are asleep at 9AM, when I was allowed to start calling customers about their bills. When I called and said, "Hello my name is Rose from Qwest Communi...," click. They hung up. I would have to call back. (By Qwest policy, I had to make meaningful contact.)
So I would call again and say, "Don't hang up! I am not a telemarketer! I'm Rose from Qwest Communications and there is a problem with your bill!" This usually got the customer's attention, specifically the wife/mom's attention, since that is usually who would pick up the phone.
The once-drowsy lady is now wide awake. Often with a bit of panic in her voice.
"What is wrong with my bill?"
Then I start to go through the charges. Sometimes it was something they expected: their child is doing study abroad in Romania, a brother is in jail and they have been accepting his collect calls, grandpa is sick again and he lives three states away. Surprisingly, those calls were the exceptions -- not the standard.
No, instead, the standard conversations usually went like this:
"Well Ms. So and So, it looks like someone from your phone number XXX-XXX-XXXX has been making calls to 1-900-..."
At this point, she would freak out! I mean, really freak out. First would be denial, and I would have to start my explanation over again. Usually this time with questions peppered in by her.
"What time were the calls made? For how long? What was the rate?" As she asked these questions, reality would creep in.
The next thing I know, there is a loud banging in my ear, she is using the phone to hit her partner in the bed next to her. He is yelling, half asleep, confused, she is screaming at the top of her lungs. Or in the middle of my explanation, I hear her jump out of bed and run down the hall, yelling at the top of her lungs. In the distance a television is on and then a kid's voice can be heard. Then more often than not the kid is screaming as she hits him with the phone. Either way, the person who made the calls is in trouble! There goes their nice Saturday.
Again I cannot hang up. As I wait for the customer to speak to me again or hang up, I take my headphones off and giggle at the mayhem. Then, typically, she would come back on and we would make arrangements for the high bill to be paid, in between more screams at the guilty party or possibly more more hitting. Then finally the call would end, and it was on to the next one.
An eventful pocket call
But my favorite call of all time was actually not a call at all. It was a drug bust. If you have ever had your cell shut off for non-payment, you know that no matter whom you try to call, the phone will direct you to the cell-phone company. Specifically, the Credit Management Department, direct to my desk. Repeat offenders would often pocket dial me, or their children would be playing with the phone and end up calling me.
Yup, even if they pocket call me, I cannot hang up. It has to be the customer. Normally when that happened, it was pretty boring stuff. Pocket or purse noise, people talking, baby noises. I would say "Hello" over and over again until they realized their phone was on, and either talk to me or, more often, just hang up, which meant I could move on to my next caller -- process that usually took less than five minutes.
But one day a customer from Billings, Mont., pocket dialed me and didn't hang up. I did all my normal stuff to get their attention. But clearly they were focused on other things. I finally gave up and just listened for awhile. At first what they were saying didn't make any sense to me. But soon I realized they were discussing quantities of meth, weed and other illegal drugs. I could hear them driving around Billings, picking up and dropping people off, all the exchanges and conversations that took place in the car and much more. These people were serious drug dealers.
When someone calls in, whether they mean to or not, their number comes up on my computer screen. I would type that number into our operating system and then I could see all their information. Their name, address, Social Security number, etc. Everything. When I realized what they were up to, I began taking notes. Between the information I had on them from their account and what I could hear them say, I was able to call the Billings police department on a second line and describe the car they were in, where they were and where they were headed next. And in case the cops still missed them, I told them where they lived. As far as evidence? Well, from the sounds of it, those drug dealers still have plenty of that on them. Just in case that wasn't enough, there was the over 60 minutes of recorded conversation Qwest had.
Within 10 minutes of my call, I heard sirens, then a small chase and finally the pull over and the arrest, all coming through my customer's cell phone. At last a cop came on the phone and after he realized it was me, he ended the call.
How is that for customer service? I am sure I lost the customer's business that day, but I helped a city. Couldn't think about that, though: I had to take the next call.
Next: Confessions of a Criminal Lawyer
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