Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Problem with American Business

American business used to take pride in doing a job well done. I grew up watching TV commercials of the poor, bored Maytag repairman who had to sit around with nothing to do because Maytag washers and dryers rarely broke down. Then, American corporations were struck by the epiphany that if they built products so well then consumers would wait a long time before purchasing new ones. When a new product was introduced to the market, manufacturers sought to stress quality and reliability. But as the potential pool of customers shrank once everyone in the country had one of those newfangled washing machines or televisions or VCRs, manufacturers realized their dilemma. They had succeeded too well. Now the goal was no longer to make sure every American purchased their product; the new goal was repeat business.

For many years, manufacturers rolled out the marketing mantra “New and Improved” as a way to encourage consumers to part with their hard-earned cash to replace something they already owned with something quite similar, but tweaked a little. Of course, “New and Improved” is an oxymoron: one cannot improve something unless it already exists, and if it already exists then it’s not new. The marketing mavens would spice up the ad copy with a snappy name like “Zylofabro” as the new ingredient or mechanical process that had been added to the staid product. And for many years, it worked.

But as the economy hit a downturn and the American Dream now required two wage earners, consumers became more skeptical. Did we really need “Zylofabro” added to our product that we had been assured for years by the same manufacturers was so wonderful, and which we had survived so well without?

Marketing wasn’t going to cut it. Manufacturers needed a new way to get American consumers to replace their existing products. It was a dilemma, but the bottom line was at stake. They thought long and hard, brainstorming until finally they devised what had been the obvious solution all along: planned obsolescence. In other words, stop making high quality products built to last. Establish a limited lifecycle for each product and build it only to last the length of that lifecycle.

What a great lesson for our kids: don’t try so hard and aim for a shoddy result. At least the Maytag repairman would be kept busy, you might think. But no, the manufacturers had that covered too. Their new mantra was “Replace, not repair”. Take my Epson printer, for example. One day, it just stopped working. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, but I got an error message which I looked up online. It turns out, Epson had coded software to make the machine stop functioning after it had printed a certain number of copies. There was no way to override the software, just as there was nothing wrong with the machine; Epson had merely decided it was time for me to buy a new printer by setting an arbitrary finite lifecycle and enforcing it through software.

When my dryer broke, I asked the repairman if I should replace it. After all, it was 24 years old and had served me well. He pointed to a part inside the dryer. “See that metal piece? It’s plastic in all the new dryers. Plastic will last five, maybe eight years and then you’ll find yourself buying a new dryer.” Planned obsolescence. I kept the dryer and repaired it instead. That was seven years ago; it still works and hasn’t had a repair since.

My washing machine of similar vintage broke two weeks ago. When I say broke, I mean the connection on the circuit board that turns on the machine when the “Start” button is pushed needs to be replaced. The rest of the washing machine, including all the other circuit buttons, is in perfect working order. When it was manufactured 31 years ago, it was made to last. All it needs is a minor repair. But even a minor repair is not a straightforward proposition when it comes to modern American business.

Since several of my appliances had joined in a mutual suicide pact that weekend, I decided to contact a repair service to see if they could be brought back to life. I prefer to repair rather than replace them because the newer models are built with planned obsolescence and will only last five-to-eight years, whereas these models were solidly built and have lasted me more than 30 years. So I found a local appliance repair service listed on Yelp that amazingly had two full pages of nothing but five-star reviews from customers. I emailed them Sunday night, and when I hadn't heard back from them I started calling them at 9 on Monday morning. No one picked up their phone despite the recording that they would reopen at nine on Monday. So I continued calling back, every ten minutes, until after 12:30. It's one thing to be short-staffed and away from the phone, but not for four and a half hours. I'm scratching my head wondering how this business could have received two full pages of nothing but five-star reviews when they don't even answer their damn phone.

Meanwhile, I needed to replace my computer, too. I found one online and was ready to order but I had one question to resolve first. The memory was upgradable so I wanted to know if I could purchase the unit with the full upgraded memory. I submitted the question on the website's form. It was a yes or no question from a customer ready to commit to a purchase as soon as the answer was received. No one got back to me for 36 hours… and when they finally responded, the answer was an automated reply “we can't process that request.”

What is wrong with American businesses that they are so unresponsive to customers trying to pay them for their services or products?

I attempted to call the company but it was ten minutes after 5 o'clock and they had closed. So I called them today before five... And was informed my wait time would be 51 minutes. When I finally reached a human being, she answered my question. However, the price on the website had now increased by $20. By waiting to receive accurate information before making the purchase, and because I could not decipher their cryptic response, the company would financially penalize me if I bought its product. Let’s review the American business model: don’t respond to customer questions in a timely manner; when you do respond, make it a cryptic automated response; put the customer on hold for nearly an hour; and raise the price while he’s waiting.

I ended up buying the computer; however, I immediately received a text from my credit card company asking me if I did, in fact, use my credit card to make that purchase, and to reply with 1 for “Yes” or 2 for “No”. So I replied with “1” and instantly received another text back that said “Thanks. The transaction was not completed. If you want to make the purchase with this card, have the merchant reprocess the transaction.”Huh? I had typed “Yes” to verify, yet they canceled the transaction anyway? So now I should call the company again and go through the entire process, including the hour-long wait on hold? Oh, wait a second. It's now 5:10 pm; the business is closed until tomorrow. Welcome to business in America as usual.

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