So I log on to my Tweet Deck this AM and what’s this?… a Tweet from Steve Woodruff, he of Sticky Figure, Five in the Morning and lots of other cool stuff and expert advice when it comes to branding, social media and on and on…

Steve’s post today is about a subject that instantly elicits an impassioned response from The Big Man. This topic is arguably the one topic that gets my Polish/Italian 43 year-old blood boiling, perhaps even more than my beloved Eagles.

The topic is Customer Service.

A few years back I wrote a piece on this very subject that I want to share with Steve and all of you. It was run in several local mags and papers in the Philly/PA/Jersey area and brought yours truly much attention as the majority of the general public also have a vested interest in this particular topic.

Although this piece was written way back in 2000, not much has changed when it comes to Customer Service, unfortunately.

Enjoy…

“Can Anyone Here Help Me?”
The Demise of Customer Service in America.
By Steve Olenski ©2000

“We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”
-W.H. Auden

Customer Service. The dictionary defines the word customer as a person who buys goods or services, especially on a regular basis. The word service, as used in this context, is defined as an act of assistance or benefit to another or others.

All in the Family
My father Joseph Olenski — God rest his soul, worked for 35 years in the supermarket business. The last position he held up until his retirement was that of General Superintendent — which in those days was a very powerful one.

He was responsible for a group of stores in a specific geographic area. He essentially oversaw all day-to-day activities of each individual store. From the hiring of the employees to the locations and manner in which items were displayed in each individual store. He basically controlled all things but price.

I am the youngest of six. Without fail, when each of my brothers, sister and myself reached the minimum working-age, off we went to work in a supermarket. Whether it was a cashier; or a clerk or whatever.

It was not like we were forced or anything like that. Far from it. We were all eager to make and spend our own money. And our father was all too happy to aid us in our quest.

Three of my brothers, my sister and myself all met their future and current spouses in, where else? … a supermarket.

So you could say supermarkets are in our blood. And we all value and appreciate quality customer service.

Our father would always preach to us that price was not necessarily the driving factor behind which particular supermarket a consumer would patronize. While he did admit price certainly played a role, he constantly preached that the two things people looked for was a clean store and good (customer) service. He swore by this: If you provide a clean location, are nice to people and treat them right, they won’t mind paying a little more for their groceries.

Now understandably a clean store or location does not apply to all services. For example, we don’t really care that our auto mechanic keeps an untidy garage, do we? But we should expect to receive quality customer service from them nevertheless. In fact we should demand it. It is every consumer’s right to expect good customer service. And I’m not just referring to saying “thank you” after we make a purchase. Of course that would be nice to hear sometimes. But that’s not enough. That’s being re-active. I mean taking the time, depending on the service or goods being purchased, to be pro-active. To inquire of us, the customer, if there’s anything else they — the employee, could help us with. If we understand how to use that tool we just rented or bought. Or inquiring ‘Would you care to see the matching pillow cases that go with the sheets you just bought?’ Or ‘Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

I don’t think this is asking too much. Do you?

In the past few years I have had experiences with some major companies and the customer service I received was, for lack of a better term, mind-boggling. I don’t know any other way to describe it. Not surprisingly my family, friends and co-workers have also had some truly amazing incidents involving major companies and the complete lack of quality customer service.

NOTE: By no means is poor customer service reserved only for larger companies.

Buy-O-Logically Speaking…
It was November, 2002. My brother Michael, the owner of a very successful multi-media communications company, was in search of a gift to buy for his employees to show his appreciation for a profitable year.

He and his Vice-President decided on digital cameras. They would buy each of their employees one as a reward for all their hard work.

They began their quest at a national electronics chain. I won’t say the name other than it rhymes with west guy.

The following is a transcript of the conversation that took place between my brother, his VP and the clerk at the store.

Clerk: “Can I help you?”
(NOTE: The Clerk starts off very well, but quickly goes downhill from there)

Michael: “Yes, we would like to buy some digital cameras. We like these right here.”

Clerk: “Okay, how many do you want?”

Michael: “Twelve.”

Clerk: “Twelve?”

Michael: “Yes, twelve.”

Clerk: “Well, I cannot sell you twelve.”

Michael: “Why not?”

Clerk: “Well if I sell you twelve, then that means I will not have any left. And if anyone else should come in and want to buy one, I won’t have any to sell them.”

Michael: “Let me get this straight. You won’t sell me twelve in the event someone might come in to buy one later?”

Clerk: “Yes.”

Michael: “Well how many can I buy?”

Clerk: “Three.”

Michael: “Okay, I will take three and she will take three (referring to his co-worker).”

Clerk: “No, I’m sorry. But you are together so I can only sell you three total.”

Michael: “Do you know where the nearest Circuit City is?”

Remember the definition for customer? A buyer of goods or services on a regular basis. The operative words being regular basis. What most companies seem to have lost sight of is that their ultimate success or failure is based on the repeat customers, not the ones who try their product, service, etc., once and move on.

If you have had a bad experience with a company due to poor customer service — are you ever going to go back? Probably not.

I don’t really know when we as a society got like this — that receiving good customer service became the exception rather than the rule. But that’s exactly where we’re at, and it’s unfortunate. Now this isn’t to say that all customer service is bad. There have been reported incidents where someone actually received quality customer service. These reports cannot be confirmed at this time. I’m exaggerating of course. It’s just that receiving good customer service is the exception — or better still, rare.

Now there must be some explanation for this. Is it that companies just don’t care anymore? No, I don’t think it’s that. At least the optimist in me hopes that’s not the case. No, what I think is at the root of this ever-growing epidemic is quite simply this: the majority of companies, Mom & Pop stores and smaller companies aside, are hiring more and more younger and inexperienced employees. Not surprisingly they have a very high turn-over rate, meaning these companies take the approach of ‘why bother to train them, if they’re not going to stay anyway?’ Of course, all of this leaves you and I to… well, fend for ourselves.

To sum up, the words “customer service,” when used together, is a misnomer of sorts. There will always be buyers of goods and services. What type of assistance they receive is another story.

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