I’ve spent the past week writing about personal experiences that illustrate the failings of modern American business. Some of you may wonder why I’ve bothered. You’re thinking, What’s the point? We’ve all encountered the same type of situations whenever we have any contact with American businesses. The sad truth is it wasn’t always this way; you’ve just learned to accept shoddy service and products as par for the course. When you hand a cashier your money you no longer even expect to hear a ‘thank you’ in return. More likely, they act as if they’re doing you a favor. Customer service has become a lost art.
When I was younger, problems like the ones I’ve discussed this week would have been resolved with a single phone call. A customer would not have encountered robo-calls, voice mail, and automated phone menus. The customer would’ve called the business and been connected immediately to a human being. If that person couldn’t solve the problem, then the customer would have been directed to someone who could. Business owners were not annoyed by customer complaints; they welcomed them. They were grateful for the opportunity to learn what was going wrong with their company so they could correct it. You may have seen a throwback to this time on the television show Undercover Boss, in which corporate CEOs go to work for their own companies disguised as low-level employees to learn firsthand what really goes on within their companies. Often the CEOs are surprised and angered by what they discover and return vowing to make changes. But all too often today, business owners don’t want to hear complaints from customers, employees, or vendors. They don’t see it as an opportunity to improve their company, but rather take it as personal criticism that is to be avoided.
Employees no longer take pride in their jobs; they’ve become clock watchers whose only interest is the end of the business day. Employee morale is low and management is to blame for that. Management no longer motivates employees; in fact, corporations often expect employees to work longer hours, pay them low wages, and hire them as part-time workers – often for 39 hours a week – so that they will be relieved of the obligation of paying overtime or healthcare benefits. Consumers also suffer because the quest for higher and higher profits has resulted in the establishment of planned obsolescence and the corresponding introduction of low-quality, shoddy products. Publicly-held companies are even more consumed by the shortsighted focus on quarterly earnings to the detriment of long-term growth, which has resulted in a stock market that rewards daytraders and penalizes long-term investors.
Businesses spend a fortune on marketing: a thirty-second Super Bowl ad costs $5 million. Ironically, despite how much they spend to acquire new customers, American companies do little to retain them; in fact, the experiences I’ve related this past week show U.S. business practices evince an utter disregard for their customers’ satisfaction with their products or services. This makes no sense and it wasn’t like this in the past. But it will continue if consumers accept it as the “New Normal.”
Customer service entails responding to customers in a timely manner. In an age of instant communication by phone or email that doesn’t mean two days later. It requires an open portal of communication between the customer and the company, through which the customer can reach a live human being who understands the company’s products and services and can either directly provide assistance or refer the customer to another employee who can. It means not outsourcing American jobs to overseas call centers whose staffs are ill-equipped to resolve problems or often even to speak English in a clear manner. It also means viewing customer complaints not as a problem but as an opportunity to improve the business and retain customer loyalty.
Proper customer service also requires taking a holistic approach: every component of the business is interrelated. When I informed Sears I had received another customer’s appliance part, the employee should have realized that meant there was another customer who was also being inconvenienced as he would not be receiving the part that had been incorrectly shipped to me. The employee should have acted on that information proactively and not waited for the second customer to call in days later after he discovered the error. It’s bad enough for Sears to be using robo-calls but to include a nonworking phone number as the reply phone number is outrageous negligence. If a company asks the customer to call back, it should provide a working phone number. A business should never leave a customer on hold for nearly an hour. And it must make sure all of its employees – regardless of their job function – have a basic knowledge of the company’s products or services.
If businesses want to retain their customers then they need to start treating them with respect. The first step would be to eliminate automated call systems. Customers don’t want to ‘Press 1’ or “Press 2’ and jump through endless hoops as they tumble down a fiber-optic rabbit hole; they prefer to speak to a live human being.
Mistakes happen. Customers understand this. But when a business messes up, it not only needs to rectify the situation but to do so in a manner that shows the customer it acknowledges its mistake and cares about the customer’s ultimate satisfaction. If the wrong item is shipped to the customer, then ship the correct one by overnight delivery. If the service was unsatisfactory, refund a portion of what the customer has paid. I once did business with a successful manufacturer of retail display racks. Whenever I ordered from them, they would always include something extra with the order as a matter of policy because they wanted to show the customers how much they appreciated their business. Twenty years ago, when my massage chair broke and the company had to reschedule a repair appointment, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a hand-held massager along with an apology for the delay. It made a lasting impression on me and when the time came to replace the chair I was more favorably predisposed to that company than to its competitors. This is how customer loyalty is created and retained.
American businesses in sad shape. The ship is sinking but there is still time to right it. Hopefully business leaders will read these blog posts and re-examine the way they run their companies, and consumers will read them and re-examine the standards they are willing to accept from the businesses to which they give their hard-earned money. Consumers must stop acting like an abused spouse, returning to the business for further abuse or seeking out a new business identically abusive to the one with whom the consumer has just ended its relationship.