Customer (dis)Service at its finest: Direct Loans

SarahAndersonphotoToday's guest post is by Sarah Anderson, M.A. Corporate Communications College of Charleston '10 (pictured) 

I am 23, fresh out of graduate school, happily starting my career and enjoying the non-ramen food groups that come with a steady paycheck. Then—bam— it’s June and my six month grace period is over for student loans. I knew it was coming and had prepared (or so I thought). I paid off my interest so it wouldn’t be consolidated into my principal, set up an electronic debit account (EDA) to lower my interest rate and waited for the bill.

On June 7, nine days before my grace period ended, I received a letter stating that my first payment would be auto-drafted on July 21. Seven days later I received another letter saying my debiting had been temporarily suspended.

I called up Direct Loans to find out why my EDA had been stopped — and proceeded to have one of the worst customer service experiences of my life (oh honey, it’s about to get worse). The girl repeatedly tells me that my grace period doesn’t end until mid-June, so I can’t set up EDA until July. I tell her I understand this, but that I need to know if I have a payment due in July still, as well as how to pay it since they’ve closed down my EDA. As we talk, she gets shorter and shorter with me, cutting me off in the middle of questions.  I point out to her that I know it is frustrating to have to answer so many questions, but that this is a lot of money and I’m concerned about missing a payment. At which point she tells me that she’s already “validated my question,” and promptly hangs up on me.  Did you know that if you owe money, you’re not allowed to ask them more than twice when it’s due or how you can pay it?

Frustrated, I called back to speak with a manager. After a heart-to-heart about my previous phone call, she told me I would have to make my July payment manually. By the way, the girl who hung up on me told me I didn’t owe any money until August— thanks for that— almost went into forbearance my first month in.

Dutifully, I go online July 1 and begin paying Uncle Sam back. Six days later, on July 7, I get a letter saying that my EDA had been re-instated and would draft on July 21. Frantically, as I had only planned to pay them ONCE this month, I call Direct Loans and am assured by an exasperated “Rita,” that EDA won’t kick in until August. I note the date, time, topic and person I spoke with, and go on with my life, happily unaware that the customer service rep on the other end made no such notation.

On July 27 I check my bank balance for the end of the month and am shocked to see an unexpectedly low, girl-you’re-almost-broke number. What do you know— electronic debiting worked in July after all.  I call up Direct Loans (they’re on my speed dial by this point), and am told that they have no record of me calling on the 7th, therefore I have no proof that I didn’t know I would be charged.  Not only that, but after submitting an APPLICATION for a refund, I have to wait four to six weeks, and that is IF my request is granted.

The manager very (un)helpfully tells me that I’ve now paid off more of my balance, which will reduce my interest. Yay! My loan is getting paid off, but I can’t make my rent next month! Maybe my company will let me sleep under my desk…

I’ve had poor customer service experiences before— only this time, it’s not an incorrect coffee order I’m dealing with. This is my life, my credit, my livelihood. To be honest, I’m confused— Direct Loans had been helpful until now, and this isn’t their first student loan rodeo. The first time I called, I dealt with a very professional, knowledgeable young man. It seems that the professional customer service team with which I had previously talked has been let go for a cadre of clueless, moody teenagers attempting to keep me from asking too many questions by misusing big words like “validate,” and when that fails, resorting to hang-ups or giving me misinformation.

So, Direct Loans, here’s my question. Customer service is important in every industry— every job. It has the power to serve as a positive or negative touch point for a brand or company. But it’s so much more than that when it comes to people’s finances. Your inability to handle a customer who had “too many” questions, or give out correct information, is on the brink of putting me in a seriously nerve-wracking financial situation. Don’t you realize that while to you it’s just a job— to me it’s my life? Or, perhaps, do you just not care?

11 thoughts on “Customer (dis)Service at its finest: Direct Loans

  1. It seems to me that rudeness and ineptitude are the two main qualities companies look for when hiring Customer (Dis)Service Reps. I am shocked whenever I get a person on the phone from Time Warner Cable who is polite and knowledgeable.

  2. Rep, a few years back we upgraded from a VW Pissant to a Lexus, and the difference in each company’s respective service models was nothing short of stunning. Volkswagen shared its dealership with Ford, and its service seemed geared to F-150 drivers: They stopped just short of calling you a sissy man and taunting you for not wanting to change your own oil. In contrast, Lexus had leather couches, freshly baked cookies, loaner cars, drop off and pick-up service, complimentary car washes, etc. Fittingly, the oil change at the Lexus dealership cost twice as much as the one at the Ford/VW one, but in the end felt nothing short of pampered. So, yes, there are brands that take that approach with customer service, largely because they’re dealing with upscale customers who appreciate (and can afford) it.
    Carl, I hope you’re right about a tipping point. Because when we simply make decisions on cost, what we get is everything — from the actual manufacturing to the customer servicing — taking place overseas, where labor is cheaper. As for your keen observation about the immigration workers, I have encountered a lot of govt employees who are truly passionate about their subject matter. It’s disarmingly refreshing.

  3. Ghost, I know what you are saying but I think we might be reaching a bit of a tipping point. Time is money and so hassle is costly. There have been a couple of times recently when I have opted for a slightly more expensive service provider because I know if I run into problems the customer service is there. Qwest is a good example, also my insurance agent. I rarely shop online to get slightly cheaper prices because it is not worth the hassle when something goes wrong.
    Also, a word on a different point about customer service from government entities… you would imagine that the US immigration service would be a nightmare, but in all my dealings with them they have been great. The paperwork is complicated but the people on the phone are efficient, helpful and courteous. A lot of private companies could learn a lot from them.

  4. I agree- Direct Loans is a federal entity and a large majority of students will always get their loans from them, especially because private loans tend to be more expensive. I can’t exactly “take my business elsewhere” at this point, and they know that.
    Ghost, I was actually thinking about that yesterday. I was pleasantly surprised to have a Wal-mart employee offer to help carry a bike I had purchased out to my car. I would have expected this at a higher-end store, but I know at Wal-mart I get what I pay for. You brought up an interesting point- a good customer service experience is just as much about managing our own expectations to a reasonable level as it is the actual quality of service we receive.

  5. That’s a really interesting POV, ghost. I agree the average American probably won’t pay extra for better service. But, premium brands should extend premium service. I’m not suggesting that Comcast, Continental, Yahoo!, New Jersey Transit or the U.S. congress are premium brands, but they sure aren’t discount merchandisers either. The problem, though, with Comcast, NJT and Congress is that each is, in effect, a monopoly. So, there’s no incentive for them to provide better service. Would love to hear your take.

  6. I may be alone on this, but I think the lack of customer service reflects our culture on the whole: We say we want to be treated like a valued customer, but, at the end of the day, we really don’t want to pay extra for that treatment. As such, every time we forgo potentially better customer service in an effort to save money on cost, we send businesses the message that customer service doesn’t pay.
    This cultural tendency is also reflected by the get-rich-quick approach of the modern-day stock market. With such an emphasis on immediate and ongoing profitability, companies have little choice but to cut back on customer service in order to prop up quarterly earnings for shareholders. It’s the proverbial hamster on the wheel, and it can’t be sustainable over the long haul without something having to give.

  7. Great insight, Art. I’d love to know what some of these organizations promise in their marketing messages. I guarantee there’s a huge gap.

  8. I think the financial service industry is rapidly closing in on the airline industry (and perhaps NJ Transit, as Steve often notes) as providing some of the worst customer service. I was just reading an article about folks with no mortgage who are being foreclosed on and having their credit ruined by unfeeling lending institutions. I think it’s because lending institutions don’t view their clients as clients–they see them as financially inept shmucks who owe them money (and who they have by the short hairs) and treat them as such. I found a certain attitude change, too, when my loans came due. When you’re in college its, “Focus on your education–worry about the loans later.” When you’re out of school it’s, “Youse got a job now, so let’s have wit my *&%$@ money.” A very rude awakening for a college grad who has not yet been jaded by the realities of life.

  9. The lack of responsibility and sympathy is exactly what makes this situation so frustrating. Direct Loans not only failed to own responsiblity for the issue, but has also demonstrated a complete lack of compassion. Both of which are hallmarks of really outstanding customer service, and noticeably lacking in my experience with them so far.
    -Sarah (@ramenprincess on Twitter)

  10. Yet one more example of the deterioration of the service industry. Such a shame that with nearly every American affected in some way by the recession that people are irresponsible and unsympathetic when it comes to others finances.