Saturday, March 31, 2007

SERVICE (Or the lack thereof)

(News-Herald, March 29) How hard can it be to provide service?
You know. Just respond to customers as if you were concerned about meeting their needs and not treating them as time-wasting annoyances.
I am conducting an ongoing battle with my phone company. They would like me to answer some admittedly simple questions and make some reasonable arrangements. I would gladly do all these things—but only if I can do so by talking with a live human being.
I know for a fact that phone companies employ live human beings. Every time they’re interested in getting me to change companies or phone plans, they have no end of live humans who call me to chat about the various reasons I should want to give their phone company my money.
So when the phone company wants my money, they have live humans (in fact, live humans with American accents) in abundance. But when I want to talk to them about my service, suddenly all the breathing carbon-based life forms have vanished, leaving me to wander in an endless maze of automated replies.
It only adds insult to injury that these automated systems are now programmed for charm. The computerized conversation is peppered with little conversational touches such as “Now let’s see” or “I’d like to make sure this is right” or “Gosh, I can’t find the vocabulary you just used in my word-recognition software.”
I have to assume that my phone company thinks I’m too much of a moron to know when I’m talking to a computer instead of a human. Not a thought that endears them to me.
Talking to the software has actually made me nostalgic for calls to computer help lines and chatting with some charming young man in New Delhi. The accent may be impenetrable, and he may just be reading to me out of a database, but at least I know he’s real.
Incredibly, the organization that, for me, sets the standard for customer service is the government. No, really. I can hardly believe it myself, but there it is.
Because my daughter is in Austria this semester soaking up art and culture and visiting the places in Salzburg where they filmed The Sound of Music, I needed to make arrangements for her drivers license renewal and filing taxes.
At the state Department of Transportation, I got through directly to someone who personably and pleasantly answered my questions. I received the information I needed, and nobody tried to make me feel like an idiot for asking.
At the IRS, I experienced the most speedy, responsive and servicey service I’ve received maybe ever. The people I talked to gave me their name and badge number, told me exactly what they were doing if they had to stop talking to me for more than five seconds to do it, and repeatedly apologized for any delays, even though at no point did I have to sit through even a full chorus of “Guantanamera”. I was almost embarrassed to have federal employees try that hard to make me happy (almost--but I got over it).
It seems that customer service may be a new wave. Home Depot was recently shocked when an on-line column complaining about their service generated 10,000 grumpy “Me too” responses. Their new CEO immediately set up a direct complaint line and e-mail address, plus creating an in-house task force to address service issues.
One can only hope that other corporate giants deduce that it might be a bad idea to save money by cutting staff until a store only has one employee per 62,000 customers.
It is a bit amazing to realize the degree to which we have to come to expect poor or non-existent service, the resignation with which we assume that whatever business we deal with will not be interested in helping us (and that’s before we get to the truly awful examples like health insurance companies who use poor, unresponsive service as a regular strategy to make more money).
Here’s one of the under-sold selling points of small businesses in a market like ours—deal with a business where you actually see a real face, talk to a real human, and get assistance as if you were not an enormous bother. It’s one of those clich├ęs about small town life that’s true. Even if you’re dealing with someone who’s strange, obnoxious or cantankerous, you’re still dealing with a human, one person to another.

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