Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Things have Changed

Let's pause a moment for a moment of silence. Customer service is dead.

In this hustle, bustle world, it's not too surprising that customer service has suffered. But I believe it has now turned the corner entirely.

My first moment of "what's going on?" occurred after I moved to northern Virginia in 1990. I had gone to a local courthouse to retrieve some documents and stopped at a kiosk for directions. The girl behind the glass was doing her nails, in the middle of the lobby at the courthouse. I couldn't believe that a courthouse employee/civil servant would be so nonchalant about her job. But my journey had only begun.

It was shortly after taking a job in Washington, D.C. that I was reprimanded by a senior partner for smiling too much. A few years living inside the Beltway did a lot to dissuade me of being friendly.

In hindsight, perhaps Washington, D.C. was at the cutting edge of rudeness. Perhaps they began the wave of indifference which has now spread coast-to-coast. After all, Washington has always been a trendsetter.

Since moving to small town America, I've learned to navigate through life seeking out service providers and cashiers who will at least make eye contact and attempt to be pleasant. There are still some folks with manners out there, survivors of "the customer is always right" school of thinking. No one ever really thought the customer is always right but they at least pretended to give a hoot.

Trying to make a purchase at an upscale department store has become difficult. First, you have to track down a "sales associate" who is available, not already busy, not on their cell phone, not about to go on break or otherwise encumbered. Second, you should already have in hand the precise item that you wish to purchase. Don't expect anyone to help you by locating another similar product, perhaps in a different color or size. Third, make it clear that you are going to buy the item with as little involvement from the clerk as possible. This declaration will no doubt bring a big sigh of relief as the clerk -- who is no doubt new to the job -- can swipe your credit card and be done with it. Everyone will be happier for the matter being resolved simply.

Like most folks, I have scores of personal stories about being treated shabbily.

Recently I was at a local grocery to buy liquor on a weekend. There was NO ONE among the store staff, cashiers, produce or meat departments who was old enough to ring up my purchase. They finally located an extra stock clerk working in the back who could do so. It was a long, complex episode but no one apologized or seemed embarrassed at all.

Recently I was dining out with a friend. We had been served and our food was excellent. But before being asked about dessert or receiving an ice tea refill, our waitress simply vanished. She resurfaced in a different section of the restaurant, waiting on a large party. We tried for 20 minutes to catch her eye without luck. I finally waved to the manager and indicated we were waiting for our check. The manager apologized, brought our check, even reducing the bill because of our long wait. My friend paid with a credit card. The manager returned with his receipt and left the table. My friend said, "I didn't get my credit card back." "Are you sure?" He shook his head. "No, I didn't get it back."

He approached the manager at a register. After they chatted, the manager reached into her pants pocket and retrieved my friend's American Express card. The manager smiled weakly and said nothing.

Unfortunately, there are many such examples. No doubt some of these incidents were due to extenuating circumstances -- staff shortages, poor scheduling, even careless employees. But the overall impression that the consumer takes away from such events is that no one cares about the customer.

If business or profits decline, perhaps CEOs should look farther down the corporate ladder to see where the problem may have begun.

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