Part I: Customer Service, NOT
[The subject under discussion today is, admittedly, trivial compared with the more critical problems this country faces 20 years into the new millennium. Still, as it’s part and parcel of everyday life, and not in a good way, it’s worth a mention.]
There probably isn’t a soul in this country over the age of about ten who doesn’t have an ugly customer service story to tell. In fact, I’d guess that most people have negative experiences at least monthly, if not more often. So much so that we’re actually surprised when we’re treated well and goods and services are as they should be. If my carry-out order is actually on time, complete, and correct, and they’ve remembered to include napkins and utensils, it’s a red-letter day. With carry-out the only option — or the safest option — for so long, we’ve all had ample opportunities to rate various outlets. I can count on one hand the number of perfect orders I’ve received in the last 13+ months, and have at least four fingers left over.
Online shopping is another arena rife with mistakes and frustration. I recently bought a three-pack of small items, and the delivery window was 14 to 20 days out. On day 21, when I hadn’t received the shipment, I went to the site and discovered a “running late” notice, which, of course, hadn’t been communicated to me. The new delivery window was another 6 to 12 days out. When I protested, the seller offered me a 40% discount if I’d wait, instead of cancelling the order, and promised to deliver on the new schedule. I agreed, and the shipment showed up the day after the last predicted arrival date. Oh, and one of the items was broken. Worse breakage occurred in three shipments in a row from a big-box store that I won’t name, but the chain is owned by an obscenely wealthy family based in Arkansas. I opened boxes, only to have shards of glass fall out. When I contacted their support division (very difficult to nail down, of course), they initially insisted I mail back all the pieces. After the first time, I flatly refused, and with supervisory intervention, I was able to eventually obtain a refund. Lesson learned: never order anything remotely fragile from that source.
Two decades ago, I ordered a very large, unwieldy item from a popular catalog company that went out of business shortly after the incident in question. The company sent me two of the items and subsequently charged me for both of them. When I called to inform the company of the error, they readily admitted that I’d ordered only one item. However, they required me to load the extra onto one of our vehicles somehow, cart it to UPS, and ship it back. Otherwise, the duplicate charge would stand. I refused, telling them it was their error and their responsibility to retrieve the article, and so began three months of knock-down, drag-out arguments with this entity. You all know the drill: I spoke with a different person each time I called, having to tell the entire story every time, after spending a total of probably three hours on hold. I believe I finally had to mention the word, “lawyer,” before they saw reason. Side note: this process is a formal, standardized tactic, and has been dubbed, “the loop.”
Then there are the telecom companies. I’ll bet the ghastly experiences with these entities are universal. Why is it that only new customers get the great deals, and users who’ve been signed up for ten years are treated like dirt? Why are customers relentlessly hounded to bundle services, and then when every electronic device in the house is in thrall to the telecom company in question, the overall invoice decreases by $1? Been there, done that.
I could easily sit here and relate horror stories for the next week, and I have no doubt whatsoever that fully 99.9% of my fellow citizens could do the same. Why is that?
When I worked in hospitality, I was associated with a brand that, although it owned properties all over the world, was not as well-known as, say, the Hilton or the Ritz Carlton chains. Nevertheless, it prided itself on top-tier service, and counted many four-diamond hotels among its establishments. The property where I worked had bought a franchise, and therefore was not a “company owned” hotel. Even so, we had to adhere to the strict standards that were the company’s trademark. It was a hard-and-fast rule that no employee could EVER shuffle a guest off to someone else. If a guest mentioned to the valet that he didn’t have enough towels, it was that valet’s responsibility to contact the housekeeping department and have towels sent to the respective room. Not only that, the valet had to follow up to make sure the guest was satisfied. I was in the catering department, and I was told that, if such a towel issue were brought to my attention, and I didn’t get an adequate response from Housekeeping, I had to go down to the laundry department myself, get those towels, and deliver them, to make sure they got to the room within the requisite timeframe.
I was young when I was trained in that level of customer service, and I carried such discipline with me throughout my career, no matter where I landed. Even some 30 years ago, though, attention to customer satisfaction was rapidly slipping. Now, it’s almost impossible to find, except perhaps at those four-diamond hotels and four-star restaurants. And not even there, sometimes: I found the service at one of the priciest, most snobby restaurants in the city to be sub-par when I dined there, four stars notwithstanding.
What it comes down to is a domino effect throughout corporate America. Every giant entity, whether it produces widgets, provides insurance, or feeds and houses travelers, has somewhere in its mission statement some verbiage about serving its customers well. And every single one of them that I’ve encountered hasn’t the first clue what it means to offer good service, because they don’t care. The bottom line is the first, last, and only consideration. If my carry-out order is 30 minutes late and is missing a side dish, the floor manager of the local outlet of the big chain restaurant can just say, “oh, sorry,” and I can either just shut up and take my dinner as is, or stand in line to get a refund. If I don’t patronize that place again, so what? If I have to take my car back to the repair shop three times to get one malfunction fixed, you’d better believe I’m going to be charged full price each time I’m dumb enough to try again, because obviously, it isn’t their fault the problem was misdiagnosed. If the shop is part of one of the biggest gasoline vendors in the world, no one will care if I complain. If the power goes out at the house half a dozen times a year, are we going to get pro-rated electric bills after each instance? Not a chance, because where else are we going to go for that vital service? Even so-called alternative sources still use the same power poles and transmission equipment.
All this total lack of concern for customer service stems from the scale of businesses today, naturally. Near-monopolies are the norm; anti-trust cases are almost never brought anymore, and even when they are, they go nowhere. The break-up of Ma Bell was the last big trust bust I can recall, and decades later, it has long since been reincarnated as AT&T, with, it should be noted, one of the worst customer service records on the planet. There’s been quite a bit of noise recently about Jeff Bezos’ empire, but does anyone seriously believe it will be taken down? There probably isn’t even a chance that he’ll be forced to divest himself of Whole Foods, for instance. Ditto with Google, Facebook, and other behemoths. All they do is buy up the competition and emerge even more bloated and unconcerned about the customers they supposedly serve.
Such enormous businesses control significant portions of the market share in their respective sectors. Customer loyalty means nothing, because someone new will always come along to buy from them or sign up with them. They have no accountability, and they train their employees to never apologize, never acknowledge fault. What they don’t instill is a service standard that goes any further than lip service. Newbies are taught to perform chores relative to their specific functions, be it cashiering, stocking shelves, answering the phones at call centers, packing shipments, checking in guests, attending to patients, serving food, selling advertising, repairing vehicles, or any of a thousand other task sets. Consideration for the people they serve is simply not part of the equation for the vast majority of big businesses, which inevitably dominate in this country. It’s almost impossible to escape them. Small businesses stand or fall according to their concern for their customers, so that’s where to go to get the excellent service we have a right to expect, but in too many cases, they’re shut out of markets, or they’re more expensive or they’re less convenient, which they can’t change. One has to consciously seek out the little guys, which usually entails extra time and trouble; the majority of consumers aren’t interested in such efforts.
It’s not as if there’s any solution to the problem of poor service. There isn’t. It would take a mass uprising, many millions of consumers, to effect widespread change. Boycotts are seldom large enough to make a difference, unless they receive extensive media coverage. We’ve just seen that public pressure has caused Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines to issue critical statements about the new Georgia voting restrictions, but those companies certainly aren’t going to move their headquarters or contribute large sums of money to get the laws repealed. It’s all for show. For the foreseeable future, we as buyers and users will continue to complain, continue to get nowhere, and continue to get less than we pay for.
Just as a departure from more serious topics, you may see rants here about other things that drive me crazy, but in the meantime, I invite readers to comment with customer frustration stories or lists of their own pet peeves. Let’s hear ’em, people!