Tinotopia (Logo)
TinotopiaLog → Customer Disservice (29 Mar 2004)
Monday 29 March 2004

Customer Disservice

That’s the Washington Post’s headline, not mine. It appears over this story, which doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know: customer service sucks.

What is interesting is the common thread that runs through each of the customer-service horror stories told by the Post: these are solely failures of procedure. One case involves a defective washing machine, but even there the real problem rose out of the seller’s and/or the manufacturer’s total inability to live up to their promises.

Why is this? These companies can achieve all these miracles — machines that wash your clothes, pocket telephones that work in almost any inhabited spot on the globe, and so on — but they seem determined not to be able to deal with their customers when anything goes wrong.

There are a number of interesting stories in the article, but the one that’s most fascinating is that of a woman who attempted to buy a washer and dryer:

Consider Katie Kannler’s struggle to get a new stacked washer/dryer delivered to her Arlington townhouse in February. It arrived on the scheduled delivery date but was defective — the dryer handle was missing. The delivery man promised to call her within three days to set up a new delivery date.

So far, so good. Ideally, a missing handle would have been noticed at some point in the process before the thing got to the customer’s home, but mistakes happen.

Unfortunately, the delivery people didn’t call back. This is a failure, but a small one. Maybe they mistranscribed her phone number; maybe they lost the paper; maybe the guy who was supposed to call her was sick that day. None of these should ever happen, but it’s still at least comprehensible that they would. So

On the fourth day, after no call, Kannler called Home Depot where she had bought the appliance. Home Depot said it had nothing to do with delivery; she needed to call GE, which delivers all the appliances Home Depot sells.

And here is the utter customer-service failure. Ms. Kannler does not have a relationship with GE; she has a relationship with Home Depot. Home Depot sold her a washer and dryer, and Home Depot collected the money. That Home Depot subcontracted some of what they sold to M.s Kannler to another company is none of Ms. Kannler’s business or concern — but since Home Depot has collected her money, they don’t really give a damn any more. It gets even worse, though:

GE, however, said it wasn’t responsible because Kannler ordered a Maytag. But Maytag referred her back to GE.

So: Ms. Kannler gives money to Home Depot; Home Depot says that delivering the thing isn’t their problem, and hands her off to GE. GE, in turn, hands her off to Maytag. Maytag, having only manufactured the thing (presumably without the missing handle) sent her back to GE. If Maytag were truly interested in building customer loyalty, they would have sent out a repairman with a spare handle — but they might be excused as she didn’t actually have the dryer in her house at the time.

“I spent all afternoon on the phone, and no one would tell me what was going on,” said Kannler, who finally went back to Home Depot to talk to the store manager. She could only talk to a salesman, who gave her another number to call — the local delivery firm — before her problem was resolved.

Because the store manager, or the salesman, couldn’t possibly have handled this for her as part of their bargain to deliver to her home a functioning and complete washer and dryer. Why bother? Let the customer do the work.

I don’t bother doing business with people like this. It’s a violation of Retail Rule #3 to make your customers work for the privilege of giving you money, and of rule #8 to expect the customer to give a damn about how you do what you do.

Now, to put this rule into practice you need a definition of ‘work’ just as observant Jews do. If you define ‘work’ too broadly, responsible retailers will have to drive up to your house with a truck full of merchandise and hold it up for your inspection while you eat chips and watch TV in your underwear. I don’t think it’s ‘work’ to require someone to come to your store; I don’t think it’s ‘work’ to require them to pick their own merchandise off the shelves and bring it to a till themselves. I don’t think it’s even necessarily ‘work’ to require the customer to figure out for themselves what product will best meet their needs (though see Customer Service Rule #6).

Taken to an extreme, it’s not ‘work’ for IKEA to require the customer to evaluate products, pick them from shelves in a warehouse, load them into his car, and take them home and put them together himself — because IKEA makes this system known to customers up front, and because it compensates the customer by offering furniture at lower prices than just about anywhere else. Each time they require the customer to do work, there’s some advantage to the customer, too; the customer isn’t working for IKEA, he’s working for himself.

Home Depot, though, doesn’t sell assemble-it-yourself washers and dryers, and ‘do it yourself’ does not refer to troubleshooting the store’s twisty maze of subcontractors.

A new machine was finally delivered, but it was so noisy that Kannler called in a Maytag repairman. His conclusion: It was improperly installed. But, he said, it was up to the deliveryman to reinstall it. A GE repairman showed up last weekend and fixed “something that had not been tightened down properly” during installation, GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman wrote in an e-mail. “While we feel badly that these consumers had a difficult experience — it is the exception, not the rule,” she wrote. On Friday, Kannler reported the machine was still not working properly. A Maytag repairman has scheduled yet another visit.

Which makes three times, on this one delivery, that GE has got it wrong — never mind the bureaucracy, the buck-passing, and everything else. But it’s the exception, remember, not the rule.

The Post says that customer service is going downhill because of the famously declining economy, but I don’t buy it for a minute. When things were booming, customer service sucked because, companies said, they couldn’t hire sufficient staff. Now that the unemployment rate is up, companies say they that customer service sucks because they’ve got to cut costs.

The bottom line is, most companies don’t give a shit about customer service; and since the problem is so wide-spread — since so many companies are so bad at it, there’s no real competitive disadvantage to treating your customers badly. What are they going to do? Everyone else is just as bad.

And it’s not that customer service costs so damned much, either. GE, Maytag, and Home Depot each spent far more money running around to Ms. Kannler’s house and answering her phone calls than they would have had someone just bit the bullet and paid for a new goddamned handle right off the bat. These people are spending staggering amounts of money trying to keep from spending any money.

Which is the mystifying part. Customer service, like advertising, doesn’t cost — it pays. It’s perticularly cheap compared to the cost of attracting new customers to replace the ones who’ve left, vowing never to give you another penny. The mysterious thing is why in most fields nobody has decided to compete by streamlining their procedures so that they don’t spend most of their time making it plain to the customers that the company’s procedure is more important than customer satisfaction, and further that the company’s procedure is not even geared to result in customer satisfaction. Besides retaining and attracting customers, they’d spend less time arguing with people, and thus save more money.

Posted by tino at 19:15 29.03.04
This entry's TrackBack URL::

Links to weblogs that reference 'Customer Disservice' from Tinotopia.

There’s also this:

If the experience is bad enough, consumers may take their business elsewhere, but most never tell a company’s executives why they left. Some are venting on Internet sites such as complaints.com, planetfeedback.com and thesqueakywheel.com. But for the most part, “very few companies hear anything from consumers, so they just think they’re hot stuff,” Tschohl said. Ronald C. Goodstein, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said that research has shown that 40 percent of customers leave firms because of poor service. “That’s the number one reason, far and away, why people switch brands — and most never even tell a company,” he said.

Funny, that’s exactly why I left SprintPCS this month, and when I called to close my account after my number was successfully ported, they told me the account had been closed automatically when the port when through, and didn’t even ask why I’d left. Customers don’t tell companies why they’re leaving because the companies have made it abundantly clear in every transaction that they don’t care if the customer is, in fact, satisfied. SprintPCS had a perfect opportunity to give me a parting survey, but did they even try? Nope.

I’ve personally experienced the SprintPCS runaround and the AT&T “no supervisor” trick, although AT&T’s far superior in-store service redeems them — SprintPCS’s runaround actually included instore staff on multiple occasions.

Posted by: Fedward Potz at March 29, 2004 11:09 PM

Good stuff, Tino, as usual.

This is something that has been vexing me quite a bit. I don’t understand what’s so hard about DEALING with an issue. It must be a bureaucracy thing, something that’s inescapable once an organization gets to be a certain size. The only thing I’ve figured out that I can do is patronize small independent businesses with good service. Now that I can afford the higher cost (as opposed to my college/starting-out days), I’ve found that the higher cost is SO worth it.

Posted by: Evelynne at March 30, 2004 02:52 PM

Do you want better service? Here’s a tip. The next time you speak to a customer service representative, afford them the same amount of respect you would give to the president of the company. I guarantee you will have the best customer service experience of your life.

I’d be willing to wager my next vacation day that NONE of you, from the person who wrote the article, to the person who last posted before me, could do my job and take the amount of abuse that I do in a day.

I have said it once here before, and I’ll say it again. Customer service is not on the decline. However customer’s having common sense, let alone common courtesy is rare if not nonexistant.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at April 2, 2004 08:17 PM

I have said it once here before, and I’ll say it again. Customer service is not on the decline. However customer’s having common sense, let alone common courtesy is rare if not nonexistant.

Maybe, just maybe the reason customers don’t have any ‘common courtesy’ is because they are tired of the one-sided arrangements of most consumer transactions these days. I’ll admit that I have occasionally been guilty of being rude to customer-service people on the phone. Usually, but not quite always, when I’ve lost my temper I have apologized.

I am usually very polite, though; it’s not the fault of the person on the phone that things have gone wrong, and I’m more likely to get the result I want if I have that person on my side, rather than thinking I’m an asshole.

My experience, though, is that things still don’t go right. I’m polite, the people on the phone are polite, and everyone is very friendly. Despite the fact that we’re all chums, though, things still don’t get resolved because nobody in the company actually has the authority to do anything. (Companies where employees can actually get things done generally don’t have terrible customer-service problems.)

I’m not thinking of something going wrong and a phone call being necessary to set things right; I’m thinking of the times where phone call after phone call after personal visit fails to change the situation at all despite the fact that everyone is in agreement. I’m thinking here of the time it took me a week of phone calls to get my bank to change my address — they had two separate systems where the address was stored, and they only bothered to update one of them. I’m thinking of the time it took two months of phone calls to get an in-warranty mobile phone replaced — because the mobile phone company just has no procedure at all for replacing faulty merchandise that they’ve sold. I’m thinking about the remote control that I’m still missing for my new video camera because Circuit City cannot manage to order the right part despite numerous attempts — because the people doing the order see ‘remote control’ and don’t look at the part number clearly written on the order. I’m thinking about the replacement gas jets for my stove that took me four months to get from Sears — because Sears uses two part-number schemes for their products, and they’re not entirely aware of this.

I agree that you don’t deserve to be treated badly simply because some of your employer’s customers are unhappy. But your defensiveness — your insistence that the customers are the real problem, despite the Washington Post story’s several well-documented customer service disasters, comments from customer-service experts, and admissions of fault from the companies involved, illustrates part of the problem.

The object of any commercial enterprise is to make money. Obviously you could make the most money by only selling your product or service to people who are intimately familiar with it and who follow all of your company’s procedures to a T, and thus who don’t require any customer support.

The sad truth is that, for nearly all products and services, that market of experts is very small. If you get a lot of calls from customers who can’t understand your bills — maybe your bills are confusing. If you get a lot of customers who are upset at how they’re being treated — maybe you’re actually treating ‘em like crap. The customer, the person whose money you want, is the ultimate judge of whether or not your service is good. In some cases, you might want to raise your prices, thus eliminating some of your most skinflinty customers and at the same time increasing the resources available to serve the ones who are left.

Getting defensive and insisting to angry customers that everything is fine and that they are the problem is not a winning strategy, and will definitely result in the customers having less respect, and more animosity, for you and your company. Perhaps your hostility toward customers — which is quite clear here — is coming through in your conversations with them?

Posted by: Tino at April 2, 2004 10:16 PM

I agree that you don’t deserve to be treated badly simply because some of your employer’s customers are unhappy. But your defensiveness — your insistence that the customers are the real problem, despite the Washington Post story’s several well-documented customer service disasters, comments from customer-service experts, and admissions of fault from the companies involved, illustrates part of the problem.

I really wish that it were just a matter of my being oversensitive, defensive, or that I just didn’t care. If it were only me, then I could solve the problem by simply adjusting my attitude, tempering my judgements, or finding another job.

But there is NO EXCUSE for what I and others like me endure of rudeness, sarcasm, abuse, name calling, screaming, racial slurs, threats and outright tantrums.

Everything you stated in your comments I may have agreed with if you hadn’t completely proven my point by admitting to participating in such behavior yourself. Of course, I’m sure that your particular case merited this and that you would never result to any extremes, maybe only mild sarcasm or insults? (Much like my sarcasm here.)

For every documented case they have where customer service went awry, I promise you I could counter with the very moment when that experience turned sour. And most likely it began with a customer screaming at the person they deem to be non-human on the line. As for the lady with the washer handle problem, I find it very hard to believe that she found not one person out of thee different companies who cared not one whit about her problem. The article doesn’t mention her attitude, demeanor, or tone when she called to each of the representatives she spoke with. That’s the part of the story you NEVER hear.

Do you know I actually had a lady tell me on the phone once, “I’m not screaming at you, I’m screaming at your company.” Do you realize how ridiculous this sounds? She knew she was being unreasonable, rude, and downright childish, but she brandished this phrase as her entitlement to bad behavior.

FYI: making sure you get your way 100% of the time is not the object of providing good customer service. Crediting your bill, whether you understood it or not, is not the object of good customer service. And putting up with behavior people don’t tolerate from your average toddler is also not in my job description.

My job is to promote our company, educate customers about our services, and provide quality, caring, intelligent information and follow it up with appropriate action.

I can, will, and every day, accomplish this. I can do it even better if you just don’t curse at me first.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at April 6, 2004 06:00 PM

Wow, what great comments. I agree with what everybody is saying, from the dissatisfied customers to the customer service associate above. Yes, Customer Disservice is widespread. It’s ugly. It’s unbearable. But with a little patience and respect (on both sides) it can be less of a struggle. I know, you’re thinking I’m some sort of hippie who thinks we can all get along…actually, I know we can’t (and I’m not a hippie). But I do have quite a bit of experience in the field of Customer Disservice. For years I’ve been helping friends and family solve their horrible customer service problems with great success. A friend and I had it down to a science, and we actually wrote a book about it called “Service this: Winning the war against Customer Disservice.” It’s definitely written from the consumer perspective (as opposed to the stuffy, corporate point of view in every book out there) and delves into everything from showing some common courtesy (even to the most criminal of customer service associates) to writing effective communications to even contacting the top execs at faceless corporations—all so you can fight bad customer service and get the level of respect, attention and overall service that you deserve. While Customer Disservice is never going to go away, it can be a more tolerable experience…may your shopping experiences be rewarding, and at the very least, slightly free of Customer Disservice!!!

Adam Last Chapter First www.lastchapterfirst.com

Posted by: Adam Bailine at May 19, 2004 04:03 PM

Customer service sucks. Bottom line. I just got that “Service This” book the person in the last comment was talking about. It’s very cool and totally helps put companies in their place. I’m not saying that customer service people deserve to be abused but it’s gotten pretty bad out there for customers. Later.

Posted by: Doug Fischer at June 4, 2004 02:12 PM

It seems to me that one of the major problems with the appliances of today lies in engineering. Products are delivered with unsatisfactory (actually recalled) parts. Let’s make decent products! I purchased all G.E. appliances for my new home in 1996. By 2003, all but the dishwasher have been replaced (and it was the first to need service!). I will not ever, ever, ever buy another G.E. product again. Recently, my financial broken advised the purchase of a segment of their company for my IRA. I asked what companies were involved……she said G.E. was one of them……..I said “NO WAY!” Buy something, anything else!

Posted by: G. E. Agnew at March 12, 2005 03:48 PM