Always Right is Slate’s pop-up blog exploring customer service across industries, technologies, and human relationships.
I once received an unbelievable voicemail. It’s called the “Grazie! Voicemail.” Until now, it has only been privately shared with a small group of friends and co-workers who’ve intimately come to know its sound, its meaning, its contours, its hermeneutics. This was our own bootlegged comedy masterpiece, born of a kind of vituperative rage that only exists at the customer end of customer service. The Grazie! Voicemail is carved into my brain; I could and will sing it to you on my deathbed if you’ll join me on that day.
At the risk of explaining an inside joke, or gilding the lily, or putting a hat on a very angry and frustrated hat, I’ve attempted to annotate the voicemail below so we can be one with its majesty. It is called the Grazie! Voicemail for reasons I hope will become clear. You can listen along to my annotations here.
Groupon was once the darling of Chicago’s startup community; it is now a place from which everyone I once worked with has been laid off, a clearinghouse for overstocked items and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of local massages. In its early years, customers could leave our customer service team voicemails with their problems, and we would call them back. Most people are as taken aback by the beep of a voicemail as they would be by a mic shoved in their face from behind, but Bob, the man who left this message in 2010, was not: He enters the digital space with gusto, much like the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
“I keep buying from you, and you keep screwing up my account. Now I’m not even getting the daily Groupon coming to my email. Has anybody ever thought of running this like a business?”
Bob withdraws a bit from his spectacular opening volley to lay out his problem in his New York baritone: He’s not getting the daily email. This was, by far, the most common issue we had in customer service. Groupon was then the largest of the “daily deal” e-commerce websites, which sold a kind of thrill: You have 24 hours to buy this deal or it’s gone. Let’s say it’s a $20 Groupon for tapas at Gregs’ Tapas (there are two Gregs who co-own a tapas restaurant in this scenario). The customer would pay $10 and get a Groupon for $20 worth of tapas. Groupon would give the Gregs $5 and take the other $5 as a fee. (The fee was usually 50 percent.) This meant the Gregs had to offer $20 worth of tapas for only $5 of revenue, with the promise that the customer would be so smitten by their discount tapas they would come back many times and buy tapas at full price. This was Groupon’s business model. Communism works in theory, too.
“You should’ve sold to, er, Google or whoever for $6 billion …”
Yes! It was Google. In 2010, Google offered to buy Groupon for a staggering $6 billion and was rebuffed in a move that was widely seen at the time as really dumb but has since grown to be viewed as staggeringly dumb now that Groupon is trading at about $4.75 a share. But we were growing very fast at that point, the plucky startup that couldn’t see the bubble for the trees, which in turn led to a spike in unanswered voicemails and a lapse in good customer service. Our man here caught wind of this, a seer and a sage who just wasn’t getting his daily email.
“... because the whole thing is starting to falter. It’s run like CRAP! It’s a CRAP HOUSE!”
Without question, this is my favorite part of the voicemail. Improvised human anger caught through audio vérité—in the proud American tradition of Buddy Rich cursing out his band or the two alcoholics tearing into each other in the documentary Shut Up, Little Man! or Bill O'Reilly's infamous tirade that coined the phrase “Fuck it, we’ll do it live”—has this kind of extra-linguistic quality to it. You could call it poetic, but it’s more heroic, since it involves those same impulses that make people run into a burning building. No time to think! Just do something insane and hope you come out alive! Was he ever going to get “crap house” unless he first made “it’s run like crap”?
“Call me back, Bob ______, (___) ___-1989 and tell my why my account is all screwed up and the place runs like a junkyard.”
Essentially Bob, like all of us, was just trying to get through his day without his account being all screwed up.
The paradox of customer service: The customer has one problem, but the service rep has 100 problems. You take 100 calls a day from people who hated Gregs’ Tapas, or who were told by one of the Gregs that the Groupon expired even though it says on the Groupon it didn’t expire, or who visited Greg’s Tapas in Schaumburg instead of Gregs’ Tapas in Naperville, or who didn’t read the fine print of the Groupon that said it’s not valid on Fridays and Saturdays and excludes the grilled octopus. Bob has every right to be upset, because this is consumerism and you should get what you paid for. Which was the problem of Groupon and the rest of the almost extinct “daily deals” sites that tried to use the power of socialized consumerism to boost business but were always thwarted by capitalism or the fact that Bob forgot he changed his password to “password2” four months ago. Bob paid $10 for $20 worth of tapas, which means everyone’s angry and getting hosed, except for Groupon, which takes its cut and sends a bunch of young Chicago kids to the phones to try not to screw up people’s accounts. But in the end, Groupon’s hosed, too.
“Please call me back. Bob ______, (___) ___-1989. Make sure it’s a supervisor or someone who knows what they’re doing.”
It’s never a supervisor. It’s always just someone saying they’re a supervisor.
“Grazie!” Why does he say it like this? Graaaaazie! The coup de grazie! Is he actually mad? Wait, was he joking this whole time? One wonders where the locus of his anger resides—is it Groupon, or some unknowable, ancient pain Bob suffers daily?
There’s a part of me that thinks, even after all these years, this is an actor reading from a script, that none of this is real, the Grazie! Voicemail is like Tommy Wiseau’s unreal performance in The Room whose levels of awareness remain unknown, whose impulses remain inscrutable. Customer service is about transactions. You close a ticket and help someone out; they, in turn, give you something: more business for your company. I assume we eventually fixed Bob’s screwed-up account, and in return he gave us this towering 50-second epic about a man, a crap house, and $6 billion. No, thank you, Bob.