Sunday, September 23, 2012

"I'm sorry, I can't help you" Some Concluding Thoughts

Customer service on the ground usually involves human beings, and human beings are not perfect. While we are justifiably upset when we are confronted with surly agents or less-than-helpful sales people, there often will be factors, perhaps beyond their control, that have contributed to their attitude at the time we encounter them. Aware that we too have moments of less-than-kind behaviour toward others, we can and probably should forgive them.

 However, when it is a particularly egregious or systemic failure, due to lack of proper training or adequate supervision, for example, or—far worse—the deliberate policy of a company’s customer service that results in our discomfort, inconvenience, or loss of value for dollars spent, we do not have to—indeed we should not—accept such failure or such a policy and thereby allow the company to forget or to ignore the fact that it is we the customers who keep that company in business, keep its employees in jobs, and keep shareholders in healthy dividends and other investment returns.

 I would be dishonest if I claimed that I do not care about the level of compensation I receive for abysmal customer service, but I would willingly give up all compensation in return for the believable assurance from the company that it cared enough about me as a customer, and about customer service generally, to implement, maintain, and monitor the effectiveness of a long-term policy which will result in allowing me—and everyone else who patronizes the organization—to confidently expect to be treated with the respect, courtesy, and care due a customer regardless of the amount of money I have spent or might spend.

 But no company that fails to provide a consistently satisfactory level of customer service is going to change if it is not in its financial interest to do so. Corporations that rely on the consumer for their bread and butter are also aware that they have, over a period of sixty years or more, trained us to become insatiably materialistic. As long as we covet the products or services they offer, we will allow them to have their way with us; greed trumps human dignity in a consumer society.

 We might say, then, that there is in fact a kind of unspoken compact between corporations and consumers: we love the goods and services that companies offer, so we put up with generally low levels of service and often substandard product quality. But it is not the aim of large companies simply to maintain existing profits; the impetus is always toward increasing them; after all, shareholders are greedy too. This drive to squeeze more and more out of the market is not a campaign without collateral damage, it seems to me, because it necessarily involves raising prices and cutting costs, impacting the ordinary individual through both downward pressure on wages and on employment in general (one of the most common complaints in the yelp reviews of the department store cited above was the difficulty customers had in finding someone in the store to assist them) and reductions in customer service, either policy-driven or as a result of under-staffing.

 So we have become, in a sense, enslaved to the corporations because of the lust they have awakened in us for the products they put on the market. How many of us still use the iPods we paid premium dollars for just a few years ago? Or the iPod docking stations? Do we really believe that the technology for the iPhone that is the newest object of our desire did not exist prior to the release of the iPod? Is the technology of the iPhone 5 really brand new? If we already have a smart phone that allows us to make calls, send and receive text messages and e-mails, surf the Internet, and take photos, why do we want to stand in line for hours, even days, to purchase the latest version? And let’s take a look at our cell phone bills over the past couple of years and notice how much they have increased and then ponder whether the increases are coincidental.

 In the yelp reviews of the department store mentioned above the positive comments were almost exclusively about the availability of lines of desirable products in the store; the reviewers did not appear to care about the difficulty of obtaining assistance or the surly attitude of sales staff. It is no wonder, then, that the incident that I found so shocking could have taken place.

 We have made the Apple Corporation the richest company on earth. One wonders if the workers in the plants that manufacture Apple products or the employees in the Apple stores that sell them or the consumers all over the world who purchase these products, often going deeper into debt to do so, have been invited to share in the obscene wealth of the corporation.

 It is time to give our heads a bit of a shake and recognize our complicity in what is happening in the world: the growing gap between the small number of people with great wealth and the so-called 99 percent, the general decline in quality and service, increasing personal debt, not to mention the environmental damage that has been caused by our blind rush to possess the latest of everything.

Friday, September 21, 2012

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you”—again

Several subsequent experiences have served to convince me that some large companies do not direct energy, resources, and training toward maintaining a high level of customer service despite the fact that it is the customer who keeps the bottom line healthy and the shareholder happy. Here are a couple of them.

I hold a credit card that allows me to collect points and redeem them for travel or other rewards through the auspices of a large travel rewards organization. For this privilege, and others, I pay a fee of $120 per year. In January of this year I used 90,000 rewards points, all accumulated through purchases rather than airline travel, purchases made over a few years, to book a return flight Maui for my friend and myself in September. The itinerary I was given included a Vancouver-to-Denver segment, a Denver-to-Los Angeles segment, and a Los Angeles-to Maui segment, over fifteen hours of travel for a trip that would take five hours on a direct flight. In August the flights were rerouted, reducing the trip to 11+ hours.

 At Vancouver airport on the day of the flights we were directed to the automatic check-in machines, which printed three boarding passes for me for the three flights but only one for my friend. We therefore had to wait in line to see an agent, who rather rudely told us that since the other two flights were with a different airline we would have to go to that airline’s check-in counter to get the additional two boarding passes. We convinced the agent to accompany my friend to the other airline’s counter where the boarding passes were printed. On the final two flight segments we were assigned seats in different sections of the plane, this despite the fact that I had booked the trip eight months earlier. When I asked at the departure gate of the first flight if our seats for the following two flights could be changed so that we might sit together, I was told by a semi-interested agent that since those flights were with another airline, I would have to wait and ask the agent at the departure gate of the next segment to make those arrangements. As the Vancouver-to-Portland flight was delayed and the next segment was boarding when we arrived in Portland we were unable to change our seats. We did manage to be seated together for the final portion from San Francisco to Maui.

When we arrived in Maui after a long and often frustrating day of travel, we discovered after standing for 45 minutes beside the luggage carousel that our bags had been left in San Francisco. They were not delivered until 3:30 the next afternoon, thirty minutes beyond the latest time of delivery guaranteed by the airline. The company, with which neither of us ever flies, offered a $100 travel voucher as compensation.

The frustration that we experience in these kinds of customer service breakdowns is primarily the result of the simple fact that in spite of what we may have paid, in spite of the time we have spent, in spite of the promises of the company with which we are dealing, we are throughout the process able to exercise little or no control over our situation and in the end are unable to receive satisfaction. A $25 gift certificate and a few apologies made by telephone and e-mail do not make up for the treatment I endured in that department store. A $100 travel voucher, virtually useless to us, does not come close to compensating for the loss of at least one day of our vacation. Nor do they affect the company enough to give the customer the confidence that such egregious failures to provide basic service will be seriously addressed.  The companies are fully aware that most customers will not take their complaints any further once they have received “compensation.”

The bank recently replaced my credit card due to an unauthorized charge of some three hundred dollars made on my old card. I received the new card within a day of reporting the fraudulent transaction. Unfortunately, the new card was not linked to my online banking service, so I was unable to see recent transaction or to access recent or past e-statements. I called the bank and was treated most kindly and my problem corrected instantly. However, when I went back online to view my e-statement, I again could not gain access to it, so I called the bank a second time, only to be connected with an agent who was unable to understand my problem, no doubt partly because she continually interrupted me when I tried to explain it to her. Finally I was able to speak to a very pleasant person in Online Banking Assistance, who apologized profusely and then advised me that he would send an e-mail to the relevant department and that the situation would be corrected—in five business days or less! Naturally, I protested and was again greeted with profuse and sincere apologies but no promise of acceleration toward action on my issue. I was helpless. That same morning I had read online that the bank was showering its shareholders with unprecedented dividends thanks to record profits.

 In this case, at least, my problem was corrected the next day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"I'm sorry, I can't help you." Postscript(s)

There is a long postscript to this story.

After leaving the downtown store we returned to the branch at which I had made the original purchase. I laid the broken chain on the counter as I recounted my horror story to a very sympathetic sales associate. As I was speaking with her, I looked down at the chain and noticed a small trail of gold bits beside it on the glass. Clearly this product, supposedly worth $450, was a piece of junk. When it was clear that there was no other item that would satisfy us, the purchase price was refunded without question.

 About ten days after this incident I wrote a long letter to the customer service department of the store detailing what had occurred and expressing my disappointment and disbelief that a customer should be subjected to such abusive treatment in a major department store. I sent the letter by e-mail and shortly received an automatically generated reply promising that I would be contacted by a customer service representative within twenty-four hours. More than seventy-two hours later I still had not been contacted, so I wrote another e-mail. Three days later, having received no communication from customer service I telephoned the department and spoke to a very polite representative who told me that she had no record of my initial or subsequent communication and said that since I did not have an account with the store they would be difficult to trace. Nevertheless, she assured me that she would do what she could for me and took down my particulars. We were then cut off. She never called back.

 She must have been successful at digging up my original e-mail, however, as that afternoon I began receiving messages from the store, first from general customer service, then from the manager of the store at which I bought the chain, and finally from a low-level manager at the downtown store. Everyone apologized for the poor service I had received. There were also telephone messages (I was out of town at the time) from the general customer service person and from the downtown store person. When I returned to Vancouver I had an actual conversation with the downtown person, who apologized again, told me that there was in fact no policy requiring the customer to include the tag when returning or exchanging an item, and offering me a store gift certificate as a token of the company’s desire to keep me as a customer.

 A few days later I received in the mail an envelope, with the store’s letterhead, addressed to me. Inside, wrapped in a plain piece of paper was a card with a gift card enclosed; nothing, not even the denomination of the gift card, was written on it. When I took the gift card to the store to be read, I was told that the value was twenty-five dollars.

 A further postscript:

Recall that I had received an additional fifteen percent discount on the price of the chain by applying for the store’s credit card. On August 3 I received a letter, with the joint letterhead of the credit card issuing company and the store, advising that they could not approve my application because they were unable to validate my identity. I have owned a home in Vancouver for more than twenty years and have held a credit card with a substantially high credit limit for a dozen years, yet they were unable to validate my identity.

 On August 18 I received an alert through my online banking service that a new credit account had been opened in July; the financial institution that had opened the account on my behalf was of course the same one that had sent me the letter of refusal. I have now been sent an account statement. But of course I have no credit card.
Photo Credit
Creative Commons - Some Rights Reserved

Monday, September 17, 2012

"I'm sorry, I can't help you." Part Two

I ask to speak with a supervisor. The young woman assents and makes the call. After she hangs up the phone, she promptly picks up the broken gold chain and my receipt and disappears to another section of the jewellery department. We wait for a manager to appear. After some time we spot what appears to be a supervisory type of person approaching the department. This person walks right by us and heads toward the area to which the sales associate has absconded with our stuff. We wait some more until both impatience and curiosity nudge me over to where I believe the associate and supervisor might be located.

When I find them, I see the associate sitting on the floor behind a counter, crying, the manager hunched over her, apparently consoling her. The manager looks up at me as if I am Jack the Ripper, so I retreat to my original position. We wait some more.

Finally, the supervisor comes over to us, steps behind the counter, and immediately says to me, “First of all, I want to tell you that I do not appreciate the way you spoke to my associate.” Taken aback, I counter, “How do you know how I spoke to her? You were not here.” He says, “She told me.” “She told you.” “Yes, and she is normally a very stable person who never reacts like this, so there must be a good reason for her to be upset.”

I am beginning to seethe. I say, “First of all, I was extremely polite to her: I did not raise my voice, I did not use profanity. Second, I am a customer of this store and as such I have the right to disagree with your return or exchange policy. If your associate is unable to deal with such disagreement, she should not be in sales.” This “discussion” continues for a few more minutes and then the supervisor disappears again, going back in the direction of the distraught associate. We wait some more. I am angry, frustrated, and embarrassed (my partner has been watching this entire sordid drama), but above all I am in a state of open-mouthed, bug-eyed incredulity at what I am both witnessing and being forced to endure. And I am a customer!

Dear reader, it gets far worse.
The supervisor eventually returns and tells me that he is now ready to resolve the problem; he just needs to “check some video” and then we’ll get it done. In my naïveté I assume that by “checking some video” he means that he is going to look at the video feed of the store in which I purchased the chain in order to verify that I did indeed buy it at that store (rather than picking it up off the street, of which action there would likely be no video record). Again he goes in the direction of the apparently still distraught associate. We wait. Some moments later I see him disappear through a door in the back of the store. We wait some more. Finally, he emerges from the same door, now accompanied by another man, and approaches us.

By this time paranoia has been added to the list of emotions I am experiencing. I truly would not be surprised to see two large grim-faced police officers enter the store and arrest me for theft.
The manager says to me, “I looked at the video, and it is confirmed: you touched our employee. It is against the policy of the store for anyone to touch an employee.” I look at the other man as I am hearing this: obviously store security. By now I am in a state of complete disbelief at the escalating bizarreness of this entire episode.

I recall that when I assured the associate that I was not blaming her for the store’s return policy on jewellery, I had lightly touched her arm. The security guy is giving me the dead-eyed stare. I apologize, saying that I was not aware of the policy of the store; I am quickly told that this is the policy of any business. I reply that over the years I have touched dozens of waiters and waitresses, as well as salespeople, and not one of them has ever complained or reported me to a manager. I apologize again and then make a desperate, but ultimately futile, plea to be treated as a customer and for my issue to be resolved.

The manager then says, “You also verbally abused the associate.” How could I be more shocked than I already am by what has gone on so far? “I did?” “Yes, you called her a retail c-nt.” I protest vehemently that this accusation is a blatant lie, that I have never used such language against anyone. I ask the manager if he learned of this alleged verbal abuse from the video as well, but of course I am told that there is no audio on the system.

Clearly I have been defeated: I am no longer a valued customer of this famous Canadian department store (if ever I was considered to be such a creature) but am rather a scammer, an abuser, and very likely a thief.

The manager finally tells me that he is now prepared to exchange the chain for another but that in future I must adhere to the policies of the store. He again retreats in the direction of the “crying room” only to return seconds later to inform me that there are no chains of the type I purchased in stock.

I quietly ask for the chain and for my receipt and leave the store.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"I'm sorry, I can't help you." Part One

What follows appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with religion or spirituality. But if we think about what is actually going on here, what is really behind the incidents I recount, we may see that spirituality does indeed come into play.

I would like to recount a recent experience I had in the jewellery department of a prominent Canadian (well, actually no-longer-Canadian) department store. There are three reasons for my wanting to share this rather lengthy story: first, everyone to whom I have related it has been shocked and horrified by the events that took place, so I think it is a pretty engaging narrative; second, I am certain that the horror story I tell here, although perhaps an extreme example, is only one amongst those that could be recounted by consumers everywhere; and finally, I believe that there are at least a couple of “morals” to this story that are well worth contemplating.
In July I purchased, at a branch of this department store, a 14-karat gold chain as a birthday gift for my partner. His birthday is actually in August but he was leaving in a few days to return to his country. The chain, originally priced at $450, was on sale at a discount of fifty percent; I received an additional fifteen percent off by applying for the store’s credit card. The day after I bought the chain it broke, so a couple of days later I returned it to the store and asked that it be replaced with another of exactly the same type. As the chain was a birthday present and as it had not been cheap, even with the discounts, and as my partner was going home that night and I had to spend a part of our last day together in Vancouver dealing with this issue, I was less than happy with the poor quality of the product I had purchased.
The sales associate, who was most solicitous, informed me that although the inventory record indicated that there was one chain of the type I had bought in stock, there was in fact not one in stock. She then checked the inventory of the downtown store on her computer and advised that there were three such chains at that branch. I asked her to call the jewellery department there and have them verify that the chains were indeed materially present in their inventory. She agreed and proceeded to make the call. There was no answer in the jewellery department of the downtown store. Nevertheless, the associate encouraged us to go to the store as it was only a short journey on the subway and she assured us that we would have no difficulty getting a new chain there.

She would have been more correct if she had told me that the Dalai Lama was a Holy Roller.
So already we have a pretty dismal record of customer service: a product that breaks the day after it is purchased, inaccurate inventory records, a store department that does not answer its phone, and an associate who sends us at our own expense and inconvenience to another branch of the store.

But this saga gets worse—much, much worse.

In the jewellery department of the downtown store I speak with a young female associate, showing her the broken chain and the receipt as proof of purchase, asking that it be replaced with one of the three we have been told are in stock at this store. She says, “Where is the tag that goes with the chain?” Recalling that there was indeed a small tag attached to the chain when it was shown to us prior to purchase, I tell the associate that we were not given a tag, that the salesperson fastened the chain around my partner’s neck and sent us on our way. The young lady says, “Well I can’t exchange the item unless the tag is with it. Without that tag, how do I know that you didn’t just pick it up off the street?” A little surprised by both this policy and by the tone of the associate, I reiterate that we were not given a tag and that even if I did have the tag, I still could have picked the chain up off the street (I could not understand—and still wonder about—the magical connection between the tag and the chain). “Well, it’s usually stapled to the receipt.” I reply that as can be clearly seen there are no staple holes in the receipt so my claim that we were not given a tag is surely credible. The associate says, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” I continue to protest further, at which point she tells me that my dissatisfaction is not her fault as she does not make store policy. I assure her that I do not hold her personally accountable.

Now in terms of the quality of customer service, we are by this time at rock bottom. But in fact the whole notion of customer service is soon to be buried well below the basement of the store.

To be continued...

Photo Credit
Creative Commons - Some Rights Reserved