Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Death of Customer Service (for North America)

Friends, it is a sad day. We gather to mourn the passing of customer service for those of us who do not live outside the northwest hemisphere. Customer service was great to us. It was always there when we needed it, but we abused it...and now it's gone.

Ok, maybe not like that, but it is true: the very nature and idea of customer service is dead in North America.

And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Look at the last fifty years. My parents (and many of my older colleagues) talk about how it used to be. They even use the greatest old person phrase ever: "When I was younger...." For example, my mother remembers going to a gas station as a child. The service man was dressed well, even though he had been working on cars, and he did more than just fill up the car with gas. The oil was checked, the tire pressure was checked, and friendly conversation was had. Before you start asking, no, she didn't grow up in a small town in middle America. That's not an excuse.

Colleagues of mine will talk about going into a store to buy something and having a clerk talk to them kindly. Beyond that, the clerk knew what he or she was talking about too! This isn't always the case anymore.

The blame does not lie completely with the stores and price cuts, however. It lies with us, the consumer, as well. We have changed in many ways (most negative) and have caused this death just as much as the companies.

So let's break it down into it's parts:
The Stores and Companies Themselves
The economy is tough. I've heard that all my life. Times are changing, the dollar is up and down, yadda, yadda, yadda. The bottom line is that stores and companies have needed to find ways to cut costs. So, instead of having fourteen or more people on the phones, it has become easier to give the customer an automated system to help them find their answer.

Microsoft, for example, prefers to have people look up the online help instead of having to answer phones.

Calling Comcast for help with the Internet? Prepare to have to jump through hoops as the automated system attempts to take you to the right person. The last time I called, the person I eventually talked to said that all calls come to them, it just that the system is trying to help them find where to go in the online manual.

The outsourcing of jobs has also created customer service issues. Many people don't want to call or don't trust the person they might talk to because they believe they aren't American and can't help them. "I always get someone in India," one of my colleagues said to me. "Can't understand half of what's being said, and they never help me. I end up having to go to the store."
Indeed, some people even say that the more you pay for a plan (say from buying a computer), the better a chance you have of talking to someone who is in the country and speaks the language.

This lack of trust permeates all the way into the stores themselves. My sister, who lives in Toronto, recently went grocery shopping. They were out of my niece's favorite cereal. In the place where the cereal would have been was a sign that said, "We are out of this food item. We're sorry for the inconvenience." While a nice gesture, the problem was that to most of the customers, there was no alternative given, and they felt slighted (more on people later, however).

And there are the service places. If the DMV wants the customers to be patient and calm, don't set up an environment that's going to piss them off. It's simple common sense. Many people get annoyed by the waiting, and the environment around them can add to it. If you have a large enough space (such as in Brooklyn Center), separate those with kids and those without them. Then, have a driver's license only area and have a tags only area. It makes sense. Most people are renewing, so find a way to fast track them.

And make things easy to find. It's no wonder that people get frustrated at big box stores. Target has the right start. The store color codes sections (green for cleaning and bathroom products, yellow for food products, etc), but it doesn't provide help for those who need it (such as the old woman who could not read what was in what aisle. This leads to death cause number two...
II. The People Working at the Stores
Yes, it's a job that most people don't really want, but what ever happened to service with a smile? We'll start with Target. In my experience in shopping at Target for the last eight years, the people who work there often can't answer questions outside of, "Where is [fill-in-the-blank]?" (and some can't even answer that.) Is it the greatest job in the world? No, but it's what you're paid to do. When the woman who couldn't read the signs (eye issues) asked the clerk for help, the Target employee answered, "It's clearly marked on the signs, ma'am," and started to walk away. The woman began to explain that she couldn't see the signs, but the clerk merely said, "I'm about to go on break, so I'll see if someone else can help you."
No one came. I was angry, so I decided to help her, much to the chagrin of my wife who wanted to leave the store quickly due to my son's attitude (he was tired and hungry, which means he was Captain Dickhead). We found what she was looking for relatively quickly once she explained it.

And here in lies the problem. Most workers in retail are not happy. It's not a glamorous life, so they just want to show up, earn their money, and go home. It's understandable, but it IS a job, so do the best job you can. I have worked in two jobs that were not incredibly sexy but were very much about working with the public: Kinko's (when it was Kinko's), and a movie theatre.
Were there days I wanted to kill someone? Hell yeah! Did I ever treat a customer badly because of it? No. Because that's the job.

I remember working at the St. Anthony Main Theatre while getting my Master's degree to earn extra cash. Some customers would drive you nuts. One woman ordered a large popcorn (with butter), a large Dr. Pepper, and some Twizzlers. We rang her up, then she looked at the board again (the telltale sign) and said, "Aaaacctually...can I get a small popcorn, a medium Sprite, and some M&Ms?"

My colleague working the concessions with me started to say, "No," and was going to verbally dress the woman down for ordering without thinking, but I elbowed him and told him to get the Sprite. I put the popcorn and Dr. Pepper aside and then checked the woman out. She took two steps away and started to come back to ask for something else, thereby cutting off the person who had been behind her.
Very politely I said, "Ma'am, I'm sorry but we rang you out. Can you wait until we finish this man's order? Then you can order again."
The man ended up ordering a large Dr. Pepper and a large popcorn with butter. Luckily I had them already made.
When the woman returned later to get another drink, I was too slow to stop her from taking a drink that one of my co-workers had spit in. It was one reason why I didn't last long at the movie theatre.

I could have lost my temper, but there was no point. Still, many people in these jobs now are snarky and mean because it is an outlet.

Of course, it goes beyond the McJobs as well. My wife once had an allergic reaction to shellfish and went to the doctor. After checking her over, he stepped in the hall and began loudly talking about what a moron my wife is because she had an allergic reaction. "She doesn't need to see a doctor now. She just needs to be careful. What an idiot." Now maybe he was just having a bad day, but she never went to see him again because he was so rude.

The way clerks and associates act is only part of the problem. Knowledge is another part. Most big box stores tell you that the people there are knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. In my years of experience, the first is usually the most debatable. A friend of mine went to Best Buy to purchase a TV. Like me, he is a researcher, so he knew what he wanted as well as what it should cost and what not to buy. Unfortunately, the TV he really wanted was sold out (and he was not patient, but that comes in part III), so it came down to his two other choices.
"Which one is better for watching sports?" my friend asked the associate.
"Uh, I don't know," the employee responded, and he opened a packet to start reading.
"Well, does it matter the size for 1080P?" This is a trick question my friend asked. 1080P is best for 60 inch televisions or better, but at the same time, many shows and non high-definition DVDs go as high as 1080I. The clerk should know this if he knows the section.
"No," the clerk responds. "It's the same for a 27 inch TV as it is for a 60 inch."
The second he heard this, my friend decided to walk out. The clerk obviously had no idea even though it was said he was "trained."

So we have lack of experience, we have lack of courtesy, and we have lack of experience. However, the problem, as stated earlier, is not just with the employees. It's also...
III. The Customer
Yes, we are guilty of killing customer service, and we did it in a variety of ways.

A. We are so used to the idea of speed and instant gratification that we pushed companies to automatic customer service. We want it now. We want to walk into a store, have what we want right then, and then be on our way. That's why my sister's story about the supermarket is two-fold problem. The shopper feels inconvenienced and is pissed off, then his or her negativity affects the clerk, which creates problems for the store.

Look at fast food as well. At first, the idea was wonderful, but now if a person has to wait longer than sixty seconds, annoyance sets in. We want everything fast, fast, fast.
I was in line in a movie theatre to buy tickets (the machine was down, so I had to purchase from a human). The couple four people ahead of me did not have a card, they were using cash.
"Fuck," the guy ahead of me muttered to his partner, "why is this taking so long?" The sad thing is...he had been in line for only 30 seconds. I know because he walked in with me.

B. Patience. With online shopping, we no longer need to wait to talk to someone. We can have description and user comments right there. Go to the store and have a question? Now you have to work to find a person and hope the person you find is qualified. If that person doesn't know, then you have to find someone else and hope THAT person knows the score. We don't really have the patience for it anymore. We get angry too easily.

C. Some think that socio-economic class has a part in it, but that's actually false. I've seen both rich and poor treat associates like crap. The perfect storm of it came at a Best Buy about three weeks ago.
I went to go and purchase a movie. As I walked around the store looking for the film as well as browsing some of the electronics, I watched a family of obviously-flush-with-money folks (the clothes and attitudes gave it away) berate a clerk.
"What is wrong with you?" Mom asks the clerk. "Are you retarded?"
"He looks retarded," Daughter says.
"We want the BEST television. This isn't even 60 inches," Mom says.
The sales associate (I think I saw the name Todd) was sweating, and he was obviously uncomfortable. He tried to help them out.
"Ma'am," he starts.
"It's MISS," the woman hisses back at him.
After some stammering, he tries again, "Miss, from what you've told me, you need a 42 TV. Anything bigger will be hard to watch."
"The bigger the TV, the better, " Dad finally chimes in. "How LONG have you worked here? Did you pay attention at training?"
It was as this point that I moved on in order to not jump in and say something.

However as I neared the check out, I saw another confrontation going on.
"It said $14.99 on the rack. I don't care what the package says $14.99 on the rack."
"Ma'am, that was for the disc that was SUPPOSED to be there. This disc was in the wrong place."
"I don't care. I'm the customer," she starts yelling. "You have to do what I want."
"Ma'am, please stop," the associate says. "I cannot sell you this disc for less than the price on the cover. I'm sorry."
The woman then goes off on a whole diatribe (we can't move because we're stuck in line) about how this is because of her skin color. I made my way to the counter, but as I was leaving, she was talking to a manager who kept assuring her that her skin color was "not the reason. The reason is that the disc was in the wrong place." Didn't matter, she just sounded angrier as I walked out of the store.

It's unfortunate, but customer service is dead in this part of the world. Yet, in places like Europe and Asia, customer service is thriving.

I recently purchased a DVD for my father-in-law's birthday from an Amazon store called The Prog Rock Store. It's in England. Amazon made a mistake on the website. It said the disc was Region 1, but it was actually Region 2. I wrote the store, and they wrote back quickly with an apology.
"Send the disc back," the letter stated," and we will pay for postage. We will also refund your money the second you tell us the disc is on its way. We also appreciate you telling us about the mistake on Amazon, and we will make sure the site corrects it. We deeply regret any problems that might have occurred due to the mistake."

The money was refunded, the problem fixed, and I was able to find something else for my father-in-law. Yet, that happened because of an English company, not an American.

Do I know how it can be fixed? Not really. Our hypocrisy is part of the problem. We want everything given to us quickly, but we want it done in the nicest way possible and without any problems or issues. This cannot be done anymore. Our expectations are too high.

Sure, everyone can have a good customer service moment here in this country, but they are few and far between. I had a great one when I purchased my computer. The guy was knowledgeable, friendly, and clear, which, to me, is a rarity nowadays.

Then again what do I know? I've always been a hardball player when it comes to purchasing anything. I love to I could be wrong.



cat said...

I agree, I work customer service for a living, and most of my coworkers are here just for the paycheck. I do my job the best I can. Do, I know all the answers, no, my industry is medical and ALWAYS changing, but I do always make sure the customer gets the answer. But sometimes they get SO mad when I do not have the answer and have to go and get it, or research it and call them back. It is absolutely correct that it is all of the things you put so well in your post that is the issue with customer service today.... sadly there is no easy fix, if a fix at all....

cat said...

There is just 2 things I would add, part of it is manners on BOTH sides as well, a please or thank you or a super long way. And with the companies, a lot are pushed to get people through ASAP. Like we have to take a certain amount of calls each day and each call has to be within a certain length of time, that is just not good customer service!! We should be able to take our time and get it right with the customer the first time. Everyone would be happier that way I feel.

Sorry to ramble on and on here... Have a good day Leab!