Thursday, March 12, 2009

131. Customer service important now

Difficult economic times mean, among other things, that families have less disposable income. It also means that whatever disposable income that can be spent on entertainment or excesses-like eating out, going to the movies or attending sporting events-is precious. Businesses and organizations that rely on disposable income need to realize, under these circumstances, that customer service is more important than ever.

However, and unfortunately, acceptable customer service continues to be an increasing problem-so much that financial guru, Clark Howard, calls it "customer no-service." This collection of customer no-service, in his case, extends beyond entertainment and excesses and includes every service that is available for purchase. The idea follows a similar premise-I am spending my hard-earned money on a product, and I would like that product to be or perform as advertised.

The easiest way for any company or business to remain or become competitive is to keep their product as inexpensive as possible. And, this, as we know all too well, usually comes in the form of finding the most inexpensive labor possible. In American service industries, this usually means hiring teenagers or young adults, in manufacturing, this includes building plants in third world countries, and, in technology or technical support, this often means outsourcing customers service centers to places like India.

We all know and understand the frustration of calling a company's support line. First we have to navigate between several directories or menus, then we are placed on hold and then, finally, we are forced to speak to someone you cannot understand. Worse, this person is usually following a customer support manual-full of "if-then" decision trees. Often they are in no position to speak to anything outside the manual, prompting the advice, "Don't speak to anyone who does not have the authority (or ability) to solve your problem."

Worse than that, however, is the current state of domestic customer service. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to get anything done right the first time. The problem is not just that businesses are hiring the wrong people-it is that they are hiring people who, at times, do not seem to care. It is tempting to scribe a laundry list of examples, such as trying to purchase a meatless Big Mac. Sounds simple, right? One Big Mac minus the meat-that means please make me a Big Mac exactly as Big Macs are to be made, just don't put the meat on it. I have received a Big Mac without meat and cheese, without meat, cheese, and sauce, and a Big Mac that only had bun and lettuce. It is so bad that I never order it through the drive thru anymore-I have to go in and check it before I leave.

Nobody likes returning food or a faulty product, but when it is necessary, it is sure nice to be greeted with, "I am sorry, please allow me to correct our mistake." That's it, that's all I want. Rather, I am often greeted with grunts, or excuses, or arguments-like I did something wrong. My parents owned several small businesses and I know that customers are not always right. People will try to take advantage of situations, in which case companies should stand their ground-professionally of course, but they are not obligated to cater to every customer's complaint. However, when the business has made a mistake, I would like them to understand my inconvenience and frustration. I don't have the time to do things twice.

In these tough times, my wife and I have become less understanding. Treat us rudely, and we'll go somewhere else. Some of our favorite places are now on our "boycott list," which we will jokingly sentence them to after incurring problems. Really, when I go out, I just want people to be nice. I know times are tough for everyone-and customer service is difficult because at times the employee has to be an actor, putting personal problems aside.

Employees need to be trained better, perhaps paid better, and understand that if people are not happy with their service-the business owner that gave you this job will go out of business, and you will lose your job. In working for my parents, it was often easier to understand-if we lost customers, my whole family suffered. The truth is that we are all accountable to someone-whether it is small business owners, taxpayers or shareholders. For some this is a tough lesson to learn.

Recently, when our favorite local pizza place messed up our order, after a very stressful day, the manager on duty, rather than apologize, explained that he has a "bunch of teenagers" working there. Unbelievably, it was almost as though he was blaming us for having unrealistic expectations.

Boycott-six months, maybe longer, if we find a new favorite pizza place in the meantime.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

130. Recession might good for us

An early morning show was discussing the economy when I caught one of their guests suggest that she was glad that we were going through a recession/depression-that we need to return to our core values.

At first I was appalled, how could anyone be happy that people were losing their jobs and houses. But then I thought about it and understood where she was coming from. Of course, she was not being completely literal and her point was to consider our current way of life.

We have lost some of our human values, such as respect, time with family and living within our means. In some ways, we are a culture out of control, where now everything seems to be out of equilibrium and we do not know where to turn.

Where did things go wrong?

Maybe the answer to that question is where do we start? For many of us, capitalism has been operating on steroids for some time now-satisfying short term earnings with long-term consequences. It was not until the taxpayers got stuck with the bill did the arrogance and irresponsibility of the top executives in the banking, investment and automobile industries become exposed.

As a society, we have become very spoiled. We want everything now-big houses, nice cars, large televisions and hip cell phones. We have racked up large mortgages, undertaken multiple mortgages and maxed out credit cards-all while saving very little. We have become willing to sacrifice principle for price and convenience. We did not care where the product came from, whether it was at the expense of an American job, or through environmental exploitation.

We have allowed technology to consume us. No longer do we take time to really talk to people-everything is an email or text message. It is common while dining out to see families sitting together but not speaking. Often one member of the family is yelling into a cell phone, another is texting a friend and still another is listing to his or her iPod.

We are living a sedentary lifestyle and consuming an unhealthy diet. We are eating processed foods and fast foods. When our diet makes us sick, we want doctors to give us a pill to make us better-rather than change our lifestyles. We are again willing to choose the convenience of a cheap meal over quality and ethical food production. The result is drug companies that are out of control and a health care system in desperate need of reform.

We continue to be a throw-away society. Recycling and conservation efforts are still in its infancy. Until recently, we chose gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles over sensible alternatives-essentially communicating to the automobile industry that they need not invest in hybrids and electric cars. We would gladly destroy the environment or go to war for cheap oil. We are unwilling to take the time to recycle our precious resources or pay a little more for recycled products.

I am not lecturing, I am just saying. We are all guilty in some respect; we all created the mess we are in. I think our new president is correct when he suggests that we will have to work together to get out of this. We need accountability and common sense.

Really, we need to start caring-about each other, about our country and about our world. We also need to be informed; it is ignorance that contributed to our situation. We need to stop looking the other way when it is not our problem, we need to know how our government works, where our products come from and how they are made, and we need to realize that our choices make a difference.

I think what we really need is a time machine. We all need to spend a month living in the conditions endured by our great-grandparents. Maybe we would have a greater appreciation of our present luxuries, learn to work together a little more, and turn off the television and video games from time to time. Maybe a return to our core values would not be such a bad thing after all.