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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Going ... Going ... Gone

What has happened to customer service in the U.S.?

If my recent experiences are any indication, it appears that customer service has gone the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaurs. Customer service, if it exists at all, appears to be a mere afterthought for many businesses. Once the company gets our money, it loses interest in dealing with mistakes, billing errors, broken promises, shoddy merchandise or defective workmanship. And sometimes, the companies don't seem the least bit interested in even doing business with potential customers.

I have a lot of complaints about today's customer service, or lack thereof.  Here are some of my suggestions for what companies should be doing to treat their customers right.
  • If you promise to call me back, call me back in a timely manner!
  • If you must have your phone answered by a phone tree with 'press 1 for English,' 'press 2 for sales;' etc., include all the options. Don't tell me to press the number to connect to my doctor's office when I don't yet know the name of the doctor I will be seeing because I was referred to a given medical practice but not to a specific physician.
  • And businesses, if I purchase (and pay for) a service you offer through Angie's List, and I am told that someone will contact me within two business days to schedule the service, contact me within two business days! This problem has become so bad that I am canceling my Angie's List membership and getting refunds for the services I purchased and never got. I don't care if your company is busy; I don't care if I have to wait a week or two to get onto your schedule. Just call me and communicate with me!
  • Don't change what I have already paid for. Earlier this year, I reserved an aisle seat on a British Airways flight from London to Chicago. At the London airport, as I handed the gate agent my boarding pass, I was told that my seat had been changed so family members could sit together. So their wishes are more important than my pre-reserved seat? The airline arbitrarily decided to move me from my reserved aisle seat to a middle seat right next to the lavatory, which began to stink after a couple of hours in the air. I e-mailed a complaint to the airline and waited for a response. Three weeks later, after hearing nothing, I e-mailed again. I finally got a response that started by thanking me "for all [my] e-mails." If someone had responded to my initial complaint, it would not have been necessary to send a second e-mail. And was the sarcasm really necessary?
To be sure, there are some companies that appear to value their customers and provide great customer service. Nordstrom, Target and Kohl's come to mind. Their return policy is easy and straight forward. Do businesses not understand that people will tell everyone they know about poor customer service? Especially with the proliferation of social media such as Facebook, Yelp and other on-line sites, the word will get out very quickly.

I have used social media to my advantage when I come up against a particularly recalcitrant company. When my requests to representatives of two banks to stop hounding me about past-due bills that belonged to some guy who was giving out my phone number as his own got no results, I posted on the banks' Facebook pages. I was contacted almost immediately, and the calls stopped.

I think a large part of the problem is that so-called customer service people are not empowered to do much, if anything, to resolve customer complaints. One of the car rental companies used to run a TV ad campaign that emphasized that all front-line employees have the authority to resolve problems and complaints. That's the way businesses should be run. Customers don't like being put on hold endlessly, waiting for a return call that never comes, or being transferred from person to person.

With the American economy still struggling, businesses need to wake up and start to emphasize customer service. I'm betting that word will get out and business will pick up once consumers know that a given company stands behind its products and services and will do what it takes to make things right. On the other hand, I refuse to beg a business to take my money. There are lots of competitors out there offering the same products and services. So businesses, take note.