Sunday, February 12, 2017

A powerful conversion after lousy customer service

When his daughter was planning a trip to Iceland, J.K., a reader from Boston, read the travel materials supplied by the tour group organizing her trip and discovered that she would need a plug adapter if she wanted to plug in any of the electronics she might bring with her. What the materials didn't say is whether she would also need a voltage converter since Iceland operates on a 220-volt system and North America operates at 110.

Most laptops, cellphones, and tablets have an automatic voltage converter built into their plugs, something that J.K. confirmed by reading the tiny print on the plugs themselves. The only item his daughter would need to be able to charge those items is a plug adapter.

J.K. researched online to find out what kind of plug adapter she'd need for Iceland. Then he rifled through his desk and found that he had just the kind she needed.

What J.K. didn't have was a voltage converter. His daughter would need one to charge her camera's battery. Again, he took to the internet and found a local office supply store that seemed to carry several different types.

When J.K. and his daughter got to the store, it wasn't clear which, if any, of the plug adapters was also a voltage converter. The packaging on each item was sealed tight so they couldn't get to the instructions or specifications.

On his smartphone, J.K. searched for a toll-free number for the company that manufactured some of the converters in stock, found it, and gave it a call. After finally getting through to a live customer service person, J.K. read the various model numbers to him and asked if any of them was also a voltage converter. The customer service representative said he would look the item up on his computer to see, ultimately telling J.K. that there was nothing on his screen indicating the items were voltage converters, so, "No, I suspect they're not."

After a bit of back and forth, J.K. got off the phone. He went to the information desk to ask if someone who might know something about the adapters could help him. When the clerk came over, he asked if he knew if any of the adapters was also a voltage converter. The fellow took a look at the packages and pointed out very small print (even smaller than J.K. remembers seeing on the plugs of his daughter's electronics) that indicated one of the items was indeed also a converter.

He bought it and it worked great for his daughter while she was in Iceland.

"Wasn't it unethical for the guy on the phone to tell me the adapter wasn't also a converter when he really just didn't know?"

Bad training? Maybe. Poor customer service? Perhaps. Not giving its customer service representative the tools they need to do their jobs competently? Certainly. The manufacturer could and should do a better job of training its customer service representatives to know its products.

But incompetence doesn't make the guy unethical as much as it makes him and the manufacturer look incompetent. Were it not for the knowledgeable office supply store guy helping them out, the manufacturer might have lost the business.

Fortunately, J.K.'s daughter got what she needed, and the pictures she shared with her father when she got home made them both happy. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Azalea Annie said...

Pity the poor customer service rep who doesn't know all the details about 12,500 products! No, the CS rep had no intent to be unethical. He just didn't want to say "I don't really know" and possibly lose his job.