Blame Lazy Americans for Bad Customer Service

When's the last time a business put effort into making you happy?

I am in the process of selling my house in New Jersey, which is a whole other story than the one I am about to tell you. Suffice to say that I am not meant to own real estate. So if you ever walk into an open house and spot me asking how old the roof is, do me a favor and punch me in the face.

Back to the point. For the past few years I have rented my house out, and my latest tenant has just left. I have a month or so “swing period” in between her departure and my closing, so I had to call all of the utility companies to get service—gas, water and electric—put back into my name for the short term.

Oh, where to begin. How about with this: I managed to get a live person once out of the three calls, and that was after a particularly torturous journey through the phone-prompt maze. (Does anyone ever actually press four to hear “about new programs and services”?) In the case of the gas company I pressed my way through prompt after prompt until I developed carpal tunnel, only to hear, “Due to exceptionally high call volume, we cannot answer your call at this time. Please try again later. Goodbye.” Click.

I almost cried.

The electric company won’t even let you call them—on its website, it doesn’t list the company’s phone number. Instead it insists you fill out an electronic form that took me a good half hour to complete; I began to wonder if Homeland Security was in charge. The next day, I got an email reply: “We’re sorry, your request cannot be completed online. Please call customer service.” Then they gave me the number.

We’ve all been through this—waiting for the cable guy all day, leaving the car in the shop for hours only to get the call at 6 p.m. casually declaring that they don’t have that part you need after all and will have to order it. And you might as well bring a sleeping bag if you’re waiting in a doctor’s office these days. Customer service isn’t just on the wane; it’s aggressively, resolutely dead. The worst part may be that companies and offices seem to be blithely unaware of any of this, so caught up are they in their balance sheets. An article in The New Yorker cited a survey of 300 large U.S. businesses that showed 80 percent grading themselves as providing “superior” service; unsurprisingly, a survey of those businesses’ customers found only eight percent agreed with that generous assessment.

Customer service has slowly devolved from being a cost companies incurred to ensure consumer loyalty to the first thing sliced and chopped when bad economic winds blow. That’s hardly surprising, even if it’s stupid and short-sighted. As Jay Goltz so succinctly put it in a 2010 commentary in the New York Times, “But the customers do notice. When you walk into a store, and there is virtually no help, it’s because someone figured out the company could save X dollars if it cut back the labor budget by 7 percent. When you walk out disgusted and sales go down, the store blames it on the economy or brutal competition. Then the company reacts by having another sale which further erodes profit margins. This cycle eventually results in another failed store.”

So that explains why we’re now all spending half of our lives on hold, listening to tragic elevator music or, worse, a loop of some chirpy automated voice telling us all of the non-existent virtues of the company that is holding us hostage on the phone. What it doesn’t explain is why all of the people who actually still work in customer service—people who have scarce jobs that are getting scarcer, and who are, very likely, not skilled enough to get a decent job anywhere else—are, by and large, so very, very awful at what they do.

It’s everywhere—from call center people to waiters to retail clerks and beyond. Is there anyone who’s surprised that the U.S. Post Office is broke? Who in their right mind goes into one unless they absolutely, positively have to? Been to the DMV lately? If so, did you bring War and Peace to pass the time? If you show up for jury duty (and you should—I am a believer in civics), you’re treated as a complete nuisance by the court workers, flies that need swatting. How bothersome! You’re herded into some pen together, after you’ve rearranged child care or a work project or the care of an aging parent, only to be dictated to by people who feel entitled to waste your time in whatever way they choose. There may truly be no worse example of customer service in the entire country than the voir dire process.

My way of dealing with terrible customer service has always been simple: Whenever I can (which means I am screwed when it comes to jury service), I boycott. Which works wonder for the dry cleaner or the restaurant, but is pretty much useless when it comes to things like utility companies, who have you by the …. well, you know. And even with the former, I often wonder if it matters. I went to one of my favorite seafood take-out places in Ocean City a few weeks ago, and paid for the order I had phoned in. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after something like 25 minutes, I walked back up to the counter to check on my order. The disaffected teenager at the register shrugged and said, “It’s coming, I guess.” You guess?

I finally got someone else to check. Turned out they’d given my order to someone else by accident—15 minutes ago. Livid, I demanded my money back. They rolled their eyes at one another, and got a manager to refund me. As I stomped out, what struck me the most was the fact that not one of the three of them offered the slightest apology for the mixup. I’m sure they know I won’t be back. I am also sure they don’t care.

The theories to explain the wretched state of customer service are myriad: Cost-cutting, for sure, and the resultant proliferation of overseas call centers. And then there is the idea that we’ve just gotten downright lazy: Workers don’t care because there is no penalty for not caring, and we, the customers, allow it because it it simply too exhausting and cumbersome not to. We have come to accept bad customer service as a fact of life, like rush-hour traffic or root canal.

I was at Duross and Langel, the fancy bath store in the Gayborhood, a few weeks ago for an event, and while I was there I decided to treat myself to some luxury bath products. As I took my purchases to the counter, the salesgirl politely asked if I needed them wrapped, and I said no. As she cheerily rang me up and bagged my bounty, she looked at me and said, “Thanks so much for coming in today.” I was so struck by her bubbly, genuine enthusiasm that I must have stared for a few seconds. Flustered, I told her I couldn’t remember the last time someone thanked me in such a heartfelt, lovely manner for coming into their store.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I hear that all the time.”