Monday, October 6, 2008

The Death of Customer Service

Has anyone else noticed that there seems to be a lack of customer service these days? I've watched this trend over the past 10 years or so decline further and further, no matter what the industry. Even if you can afford to shop in the higher end stores, there is a lack of knowledgeable sales help, and at the other end of the spectrum, the big box stores, you can't even find an employee most of the time.

Because of the recent move, I have spent more than a little time on the phone with "customer service" people from all sorts of companies, from cable and phone to insurance and social security. Besides being driven to near distraction by the automated phone systems, I have found that when I reach an actual human being there is little or no concern for helping me to resolve whatever issue has prompted my call. I wish I could say this is the rarity, but it has actually been the norm. I have had people be rude to me from the moment they picked up the call. I try very hard to treat everyone I deal with respectfully and courteously, an my mother always said "treat others as you wish to be treated". Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to matter that I am not rude, loud, abusive or obnoxious-- the lack of service is still an issue. I know that people who work with the public all day receive a lot of abuse, most of which is uncalled for, and I think it is one of the toughest jobs in the world. What I don't understand is companies who hire and keep employees who seem bothered by the mere fact that they are being asked to do their job.

I've had a particularly rough time with our local cable TV company. Not only was my installation not done properly, but there is damage to my house and they managed to cut off service to the people who live above me instead of taking the time to do the installation right. The technician came in the door complaining about having too many jobs on his list that day, and proceeded to take the easy way out by disconnecting the tenant upstairs from all their service, and re-tagging the service to us. Of course I didn't know this at the time. My neighbors were left without phone, TV or internet service for 4 days! What a lovely way to make new friends of your neighbors! Luckily, they are good people who understood that the problem was with the cable company and not us. When they finally got someone out here to address the issue I was home, and that technician was the one who told me that the technician before had cut the neighbor's service and hooked us up to it. When I asked why such a thing would happen, he explained that since the cable company can't keep up with the demand they have for service calls, they hire out to sub-contractors. The man who came out was a sub-contractor who apparently didn't care about what he was doing. He saw an easy way to get me up and running and knew the neighbors weren't in, so he simply disconnected them and walked away.

I started working at a young age, and was taught by my upbringing as well as my employers that the customer is always right. My responsibility was to please the customer and to be polite and helpful in doing so. Of course you came across people who were unreasonable or rude, but you did your best to remain professional, and if need be you let a manager handle things. These days you can't even get a manager on a phone or in a store, and many times if you are fortunate enough to reach one, you get a laundry list of their complaints and excuses for why they can't help you.

I don't know where things started to break down, but the chain reaction has been, and I fear will continue to be catastrophic, until we all start to realize that we are in things together. We need qualified people to help us, we have a responsibility to act with kindness and decency toward the people who work with and for us, and we need to stop feeling entitled to things, as if we are somehow more important than the next person in line.

Of course this is never more evident to me than when I am dealing with a healthcare provider and as a chronically ill person I am doing that on an almost daily basis. I try very hard to make a point of thanking someone who provides me with good service, but beyond that I am out of ideas. I am wondering how the rest of you are finding things and what you do to cope when you don't receive proper service? I know that stress isn't good for any of us, especially those already dealing with health problems, and I am looking for creative ways to deal with a problem I don't see going away for a long time. I would appreciate your comments.


Jeanne said...


Unfortunately, everything you described seems all too common everywhere now! You are absolutely right that such a horrendous attitude across the customer service industry is totally unacceptable.

I wish I had a magic answer for you on what to do about it.

In my experience, some companies, stores, and organizations are better/worse than others. Some of them are unbelievably frustrating to deal with and manage to "get away with it" because they are in demand (like the cable company you mentioned) or because they are "one of a kind" (like Social Security).

Like you, I get incredibly frustrated with the inexcusable attitudes that so many customer service representatives display.

With some companies, when asking for a supervisor gets me as much bad attitude as I got with the first level support people... I try asking for their supervisor rather than waste my time getting abused by them.

As you said, though, there aren't always supervisors/managers available! Or there are times where the supervisor/manager with the bad attitude it the "top of the chain" and there isn't another supervisor/manager to talk to.

Obviously these are the most frustrating situations because they cause not just frustration but helplessness and even anger. The stress obviously isn't healthy.

I'm not sure what to tell you for those "I've reached the top of the chain and I'm getting nowhere" situations other than give your business elsewhere if that's possible.

However, there are some situations where "the squeaky wheel gets the oil". For example, I have had HMOs deny a service, appealed it, been denied again, and appealed again... and won the 2nd appeal.

Of course, fighting everything to this degree isn't always practical or possible! I try to figure out how much energy I have to devote. Then I figure out where to persevere and where to "give up". I'm not one to like "giving up" but I have learned that I have to "give up" on some things simply because I don't have enough energy to fight ALL of the battles.

Unfortunately, I don't think there is any way one person can solve this problem... generally speaking.

The only way I can see of doing this is throw your business towards the few companies that actually do have good or even great customer service.

Again, there aren't always these options available. However, I try very hard not to "reward bad behavior" by giving my money to companies that have such terrible service.

I wish I had a magic answer. I don't think there is one. I think the cable example you cited is a perfect example of how the rules of supply and demand can result in poor service when the demand exceeds the supply (or when companies know they have you locked into a contract).

A similar example of companies known for bad customer service is cell phone companies. Once they have you locked into a contract, they know that you're essentially "stuck" with their level of service (or lack thereof).

If you get someone REALLY nasty on the phone, you can always get off the phone and call back. I have done this with HMOs. If someone is being nasty, I'll just finish talking with them (politely) and call right back in the hope that I'll get someone more helpful. Sometimes this works and sometimes not. It beats getting frustrated with Person #1 in the cases where it works. So sometimes I try that.

I don't know what else to tell you. I do know that I run into the sort of terrible service you've described all the time and this seems to be a widespread problem in our society now. People just aren't as helpful, polite, or customer service-oriented as in the past... as a general rule.

I'm not sure what the answer is for the big picture. When at all possible, I reward the places that have positive customer service by giving them more business and do what I can NOT to give business to those companies with bad service.

I wish I had better suggestions for you. I know from personal experiences how draining and frustrating this problem is --- when chronic illness severely limits the amount of energy we have to expend on such annoyances.

Try to pace yourself. I know with the move that this is a big challenge. Try to spread out your calls and store trips so that you're not constantly bombarded with all of the negative energy.


Anonymous said...

Unreal! It's amazing that a cable company would allow such a thing to happen.

I was raised the same way and was taught that the customer was always right. That seems to have disappeared a long time ago too.