COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Customer disservice

Are you tired of waiting on hold for 30 minutes only to reach a customer service agent who can't help? Welcome to the world of poor customer service, in which companies could care less once the sale is made. It's as if the companies that sell us products think they're doing us a favor by letting us be their customers. There are three aspects to good customer service: How easily you can reach the company, their ability to quickly solve your problem, and being treated fairly and with respect.

The experience varies widely by company. Some do fine, but an increasing number fail miserably. I've had the most trouble with technology-product companies, cellular providers and airlines. In my microcosm over the past year I've encountered problems with Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ), Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), AT&T Wireless (NYSE: AWE), American Express (NYSE: AXP) and American Airlines, while having excellent experiences with Diners Club, Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV), IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ). My experiences seem to parallel the results of surveys conducted by the publications PC World, PC Magazine and Consumers Report, as well as some online complaint sites such as the Complaint Station (www.thecomplaintstation.com) and Ed Foster's GripeLog (www.gripe2ed.com).

While the complexity of the products and services can contribute to difficulties, the major cause of these problems is the companies' efforts to skimp with service to save money. Customer service is considered a cost center, rather than recognized as a marketing opportunity to build relationships and brand loyalty.

We've all experienced the difficulty in trying to get help to solve problems with a product, service or a bill. When you finally do get connected, the first person you speak to often can't solve the problem. It seems as if their job is to just get rid of the call quickly to reduce their costs. The companies just don't care what you think. (When was the last time you were asked to rate their service?)

How bad is it? Here are a few excerpts from customers taken from The Complaint Station:

"Please, I am begging that someone help me. It took three weeks for my computer to be picked up; I have had three different return numbers because they expire and still I am without the one tool I use to survive."

"I was asked to call another number and it was a wrong number ... I was transferred and put on hold for nearly three hours and I am just now realizing that I am calling them long distance during peak hours from my cell phone."

"I purchased an extended warranty for my Compaq laptop in Sept 2003. Since October, I have spoken with more than 20 (!!!!) techs (most out of the USA) and still have not been able to get my computer fixed ..."

(The above were from just one company, HP). Then there are the cellular providers:

"They extended my contract for asking for freebies (without informing me)."

"I have been waiting 40 days to have my phone ported over from Sprint to AT&T."

"I was on hold with Sprint for an hour before someone picked up."

"They make empty promises to extend your contract another year, and then one month later they remove whatever promotion you were promised."

And from one of the reps that answers calls at AT&T Wireless:

"This is one of the three most stressful jobs of the many I've had. The other two really bad ones nearly drove me to suicide ... When I push that phone button to auto-answer, it feels like playing Russian roulette; I don't know if I'll get a string of profanities from someone who has just been abused by another rep."

Then there are the airlines. My wife and daughter were returning from New York's JFK Airport last week. Both had similarly priced tickets for late afternoon flights, my daughter on Jet Blue (Nasdaq: JBLU) to Oakland, and my wife on American to San Diego. They each wanted to leave in the morning and both were told that earlier flights were available, but American would require my wife to fly standby. But at the airport their experiences couldn't have been more different. Jet Blue was able to put my daughter on an earlier flight for a $25 change fee, but since the flight was $29 cheaper, she was refunded $4. American would not allow my wife to change her flight because her original flight was nonstop and all the earlier flights required a plane change. Of course, she could make the change if she paid the Orbitz fee, an American change fee and the price differential -- all totaling $247. So she waited in the airport for eight hours. Now which airline will she use next time? It's plain stupidity.

What can we do about poor service? Do business with the companies that treat you well. Make service an important factor when making a purchasing decision. When being subjected to poor service, let your friends and associates know. Post a complaint on one of the Web sites that collect them. And let me know some of your good and bad experiences, and I'll publish them here.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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