Reality Bytes: Service with a Smirk

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - My personal good fortune seems to be mirroring the booming economy of the last six or so years. Since I graduated college in 1994, I've been making headway toward all that is good and right with adulthood--a debt-free car, an engagement ring for my fiance, a new set of golf clubs and a savings account balance that brings me more than the US$3.78 in taxable interest I earned in 1994.

Reflecting on the latter part of this decade, I can say that I've enjoyed my coat-tail ride on this burgeoning economy. I'm finally in a position to become the conspicuous consumer I've always wanted to be. Yet even though I've got discretionary income burning a hole in my pocket (my fiance is always ready to suggest something to spend it on), I'm having trouble parting with my money.

It's not that I can't find anything to buy, it's that I'm having trouble finding businesses that are worthy of my patronage.

BOOM TIMES, BAD SERVICE The issue at hand is bad customer service by companies great and small. And the culprit of all this disappointing behavior is, in fact, the booming economy, otherwise known as Good Times. Before Good Times, businesses and employees of businesses who dealt with the public took care of the customer. There was a need to remember the customer and his preferences--money was tight and every person who walked into that store mattered. Any unwelcoming behavior by a company or one of its officials or employees sent prospective customers marching to the new Wal-Mart down the street. It was a kinder, gentler time when "I'm going to take my business elsewhere" actually meant something.

But now, Good Times are here and business profits are soaring. People are disposing of their discretionary incomes--and not thinking twice about purchasing that expensive DVD player, SUV or leather couch. So businesses, with more customers than they can fend off with a dead cat, are getting lackadaisical about customers and their needs. What compounds this trend is a lack of finely trained staff (in IT and elsewhere) who can't keep up with customer requests and questions.

However, using the excuse "we're short-staffed" doesn't mean much to me. If you're going to open your doors (or website) to the public and call yourself a business, then you'd better have enough adequately trained employees. There's nothing more infuriating than going to a store and having the manager try to make you feel bad because they're a little short-staffed--like it was your fault that two employees decided to blow off work that day!

I can't tell you how many times I've been ignored, put on hold, told to call back later, transferred to voice mail or given no response at all. What about those late-arriving packages that my fiance's mother had ordered for Christmas (which included a very important present for me!)? Or when my friend tried to return a website-ordered item to the brick-and-mortar headquarters and couldn't? Doesn't it seem strange that they weren't able to help him? Not to most of us. As consumers, we put up with "No, we can't" and "I'll talk to the manager, but he ain't gonna like this" as if this is business as usual.

Bad customer service is aggravating and antithetical to the credo that declares the customer is No. 1; in fact, these days it seems businesses are treating the customer like "number two." My real problem is that I'm the kind of person who perpetually says thank you to business owners for letting them sell me a product--a product for which they paid less than half of the marked-up price that they are about to charge me. And they or their employees almost never thank me first or thank me in return for my business. "Thanks for letting me shop in your crappy store," I am often tempted to say at the end of a purchase.

"I appreciate not being able to find anything in your poorly marked aisles, and I really got the exceptional customer experience you were going for when I wanted to buy four of the items advertised in your flyer, and all you had was one really dusty one. And when your salesclerk grabbed my money and threw my fragile item in a bag (to her credit, she did ask me if I wanted a bag), I felt really, really special."

I don't own a business, but I assume that whether you're an e-commerce startup or an established IT shop, one way to differentiate yourself would be through top-notch customer service--for external customers, prospective buyers or internal users. Logic would have it, I have always presumed, that the enterprise needs customers to sustain itself and be successful.

Customer service, in my opinion, is just as paramount as maintaining accurate P&L statements, having a solid technology infrastructure or making sure there's plenty of burgers, hot dogs and vegetarian options at the company's summer outing.

But do companies really know how easy it is to lose customers forever or gain lifetime ones in just one interaction? A simple "Thank you" or "I'll call you right back" (and actually calling) are all it takes. Does it seem strange to ignore a customer's plea for help with your product? Or a little bit odd not to reply to a prospective customer's e-mail about your service? (If you're mulling over the answers to my rhetorical questions, then you might want to rethink your business strategies and your priorities.) Businesses are touting the fact that they have great CRM technology these days, but are the computers and software used by businesses really getting them closer to me? I contend that those systems are actually driving companies further away from my real needs--needs as simple as hearing, "Thank you for shopping here today. We really do appreciate your business." I don't think that tracking my last 15 purchases and being able to suggest what I might like on my 16th visit is even close to a highly personalized "Have a nice day" or a follow-up e-mail that comes back to me within hours--not weeks.

In the future, analysts predict that the only way brick-and-mortar businesses will be able to compete with dotcoms will be by offering the customer an experience he or she will not be able to get online. (Which brings to mind images of mysterious Enya music, big scented candles, beaded curtains and hippie store owners serving herbal teas and funky brownies.) This experience, they say, will differentiate the good from the bad, the profitable from the unprofitable.

These Good Times can't last forever. And when Good Times end, businesses are sure to be asking, "What's happening?" when customers no longer flock to their stores or log on to their websites. As we've recently seen, the growth and prosperity of the '90s could tank with a sequence of bad weeks on Wall Street or layoffs at some Fortune 500s. And if the economy does go in the toilet, I shall remember only those companies that treated me like No. 1. And to those other companies: I hope they enjoy the smell of being number two--if they're still in business.

Associate Editor Tom Wailgum was once a waiter, so he thinks he's an expert on good customer service. Send him an e-mail at twailgum@cio.com, and he'll get right back to you.

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