#42 Customer Service in Our Times (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

Supposedly, the 80's were the decade of quality management and the 90's were the decade of customer service. I read that somewhere. I don't believe it for a minute, though. I'd call the 90's the decade of pretending to care about customers while doing the exact opposite of what any rational customer would expect.

We've all heard the statistics that tell us that most businesses only hear from 1-4% of dissatisfied customers. Those of us who studied customer service and product loyalty have seen the numbers that tell us that the other 96-99% of customers just swallow their disappointment and go away. We've been shown that 90+% of the folks we've disappointed NEVER come back. No matter how much marketing we throw at them, those customers remember the shafting they received and do their best to avoid making the same mistake twice.

The old numbers said that each of those burned-for-life customers told eight folks about their experience and that word-of-mouth connection spreads the news to as many as 100 potential or existing customers. That might have been true in 1980, but those numbers are ancient history today. We're living in a new world of direct experience information and, while the MBA crowd doesn't know it yet, it's really easy for a single ripped off customer to warn off thousands of victims from a product or company.

For example, in 1994 I was just getting into the Internet, through maillists and newsgroups. I'd purchased a Back-UPS Office 500 from APC (who's marketing mantra is "legendary reliability") and that product turned out to be a disaster. Instead of protecting my computer from power interruptions, the APC product introduced dozens of interruptions and, eventually, screwed up my computer so solidly that the hard drive had to be reformatted. Since the UPS had a warranty, I attempted to get some assistance from the manufacturer or the dealer (CompUSA).

Of course, CompUSA sent me to the manufacturer. Anyone who's ever bought anything from CompUSA knows that they are a customer-hostile organization that exists only because of their (sometimes) low prices and available inventory.

APC's Tech Service rep told me that my product had been released with a glitch that did exactly what I'd described. He sent me to Customer Service where I was told I'd have to box the unit and ship it to them for replacement. It has always seemed to me that, when a manufacturer admits to selling a defective product, the customer shouldn't be liable for the shipping for repair or replacement. I mentioned that and got a stern lecture about APC's "reputation for excellence," something the Customer Service person thought that "everyone knows" about and respects. I didn't know squat about APC, but I learned plenty during the course of getting this product replaced and having the $20 mail-in rebate voided because of the way APC chose to make the replacement (with an alternate product that didn't have a mail-in rebate offer). (with an alternate product that didn't have a mail-in rebate offer).

So, I wrote all this up and stuck it in a letter to a half-dozen newsgroups. I got a few letters from folks thanking me for warning them about this funky company. That was the end of it, for me. I have avoided APC, while purchasing a dozen or so UPS units for my employers, ever since. Count me as one customer in the 96% who never go back.

But my opinion of APC didn't end there. I got an email from a guy from Holland, about a month later. He said he'd read my article in a Dutch newspaper and thought I might get a kick out of the translation. I gave him my address and he sent me a copy. It was an article about the "new" communication link between customers. My article was included as an example of how a single customer could influence hundreds of potential customers, all over the world. There were a half-dozen articles, all in the same vein as mine, which did a half-dozen companies no good at all, I'm sure. Who knows how many Dutch computer users saw my article about APC? How many read it, worldwide?

It still hasn't ended. I get an email, about once every few months, from someone thanking me for the APC warning. So, what kind of statistics can you derive from all this? If only one in a hundred customers complain to a company when they find their hard-earned money was wasted on a product, how many people do you figure write someone about an article they've read, like the one I wrote? One in a thousand? One in ten thousand? This is the kind of word-of-mouth with which advertising can never compete.

I'm not the only guy to write this kind of "review," either. I see detailed product/company comments on a regular basis and they hold a lot of weight for me, too. In fact, I'd value a direct customer experience opinion over a professional reviewer's opinion by an order of magnitude. Anyone who didn't have to, personally, pay for the product or service isn't really a customer.

The weirdest aspect of my personal opinion of APC is that the replacement that I, finally, received from the company has been working, flawlessly, for all these years. It's practically an invisible part of my office. Every a year or so, when I'm vacuuming the office, I jar the desk hard enough to dislodge the UPS from its outlet and I get to hear it beep and flash its LED's, letting me know it's still working. A couple of times in that period, Midwestern lightning storms have shut down our neighborhood's power and the UPS is the only electrical thing working in the house for that period. Still, I can't notice the little beige box next to my computer without remember that APC cheated me out of $40, by my calculations. They substituted a cheaper UPS than the one I'd originally purchased and they weaseled their way out of paying a $20 rebate. I guess it's a principle issue. I paid too much for what I got and I didn't get what I intended to buy. So, in my mind, APC may always be a dishonest company.

So why do companies insist on writing hostile customer policies? Why do they keep trying to piss us off, when we're actually doing them a favor by taking the time to complain? My guess is it's because there's no glory in providing decent customer service. Nobody gets to put a glossy high-tech advertising campaign on a resume. Nobody gets to present a dog-and-phony show, with overheads and spreadsheets showing how much money was saved by cutting X feature/function/cost out of Z product, to pack of detached executives who have absolutely no connection to or interest in whoever might be foolish enough to buy Z product. Nobody collects brownie points for cutting the budget from Customer Service and adding to the pile of dollars available for executive bonuses. Providing actual customer service has absolutely no sex appeal. Talking about it is all anyone really wants to do. Doing it requires too much thought and effort.

June 2000


#41 Why Oh Why Did You Go Away? (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day


was recently offered the opportunity to try out a new telephone service. The old one, U S West, was expensive, featureless, and about as friendly as Doc Holiday a day away from his last glass of whiskey. The new one, Media One, is very personal, easy to contact, and actually sent an installation guy to do the changeover at a time that didn't require me to take a day off work. Imagine that! The new service gave me every feature available from my old telephone company for the same money as adding a single one of these features would have cost from U S West. To get every feature from Caller ID to Auto-Redial to an improved Internet connection to VoiceMail, I spent about $4 over the old basic phone bill. I doubt that I'll use half of the stuff that's on my phone now, but 21 features for $4 seemed like a reasonable deal. Add all that to getting to speak to a real person when I call for information and a the very informative and conscientious guys who have been out to do installation work on two different systems, and it was a no-brainer for me. Goodbye U S West!

A solid month after I dumped U S West, I got a form letter from their Customer Service Center. "We want to understand why you no longer have U S West service. If this service was terminate without your knowledge . . . If you did choose to leave U S West, and your decision was based on a problem you may have experienced, we would like the opportunity to regain your trust and your business . . . We also recognize there's competition for your business. We welcome this competition . . . Sometimes customers switch companies for what may seem like a 'better deal' at the time, only to be disappointed later . . . You are important to us. Please call . . . After a century of service, your satisfaction is still our number one goal." And so on.

What the heck? I had a bad day at work. I needed a good laugh, so I called their 800 number.

First attempt, "We're sorry. This number has been disconnected. Please check your number and try again. If you believe . . ." I hit redial and got through the second time.

"Welcome to U S West . . . (yada yada yada "you can go to our website" etc.) In order to assist you, you will be required to enter your telephone number . . . " Forty-seven pointless key entries later, I remembered why I hated calling U S West for anything.

Once, during a thunderstorm when my phone line went dead, I called them from a payphone to get the repair process started. Since I wasn't calling from the phone number I was trying to get repaired, the freakin' system refused to accept my repair request information. I discovered that, if you ignore the automaton voice long enough, you'll get a "customer service person." Soaked to the bone and on my last quarter, I got the same routine from the live person (if he really was living) that the brainless automated system had given me. "Sorry sir, but we can not take a repair order for a residential telephone from a number not listed to that customer." WHAAATTTT? If it was freakin' working, why would I call to get it fixed? And so on.

Back to my hopeless attempt at providing U S West with a bit of "why I'm leavin' you" feedback. I remembered that, if you ignore all of the automated instructions and pretend you still use a rotary phone, there are one or two living voices that may lower themselves to answering a customer service call. "All our representatives are busy right now. Your expected wait will be approximately 18 minutes." Intermittently, I am informed that the robot voice is "sorry you're having to wait so long. Your call is very important to us." (Who is "us?" The Borg? Obviously, no human cares about how long I'm waiting.)

Fortunately, I have a hands-free phone and it's an 800 number and I'd rather tie up my phone line than take a chance on getting an incoming call from a telephone solicitor or some jerk who wants to shame my wife into paying her credit card bill. So I left the phone on hold and went off to start dinner.

Twenty-four minutes later, pass through my office and a voice is calling. "Is anyone there? Hello?" I talk to Leo. Leo is a very nice person who has not been told that he would be getting this sort of call. But he made a stab at shipping my call to another department, the Product Service Center.

I'm back on hold with a new automated voice. This time the Borg Lady doesn't bother to tell me how long I'll be on hold.

I'm guessing for the entertainment value, the Product Service Center Borg Lady quotes U S West's prices for all of the new features I'm now getting from Media One. Adding them up in my head, it sounds to me like my $4 worth of Media One features will cost about $60 from U S West. What can a Product Service Center person do to knock $60 down to $4? This ought to be interesting. Still, the Borg Lady chants, intermittently, about how important I am to U S West and that someone will answer my call if I live long enough.

I smell food burning.

Twenty-eight minutes into this game, I decide it's less entertaining that I'd hoped it might be. I want to finish dinner, watch a basketball game, and write this Rat Rant. I will never know what U S West would say to bring me back "home." I bet the Product Service Center person would have told me how they'd like to be as customer friendly as Media One, but they just don't have the money, technical capacity, or the management willpower. Sort of like Lilly Tomlin's old "because we're the telephone company," except they don't have anything to threaten me with because I'm no longer their customer.

I wonder how long it will be before Media One starts hiring U S West's out-of-work executives and it becomes impossible to remember why I bothered to change telephone companies? I'm going to ship this one and put it in the archives so we can accurately measure the "time to mediocrity."

April 2000


#39 Modern Economics (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

In the 1950's overstuffed corporations, managers were made to be the factory floor's enemy by design.  Any manager who was appreciated by the people he managed was denigrated as being "soft" and inefficient.  Nothing changed much through the 60s, except that we began giving up industries to Japan because management was so busy, patting itself on the butt for its lousy performance, that the ruling class didn't notice the water circling in the economic toilet. 

In the 1970s, bad management was usually blamed on the fact that technical folks who were being promoted to managers were not "people-people."  The good ole' boys laying this blame were non-technical managers who were not particularly skilled in any activity, except office politics which is only marginally a people-skill.  Entrenched management certainly wasn't skilled in personal relations, or any people-oriented activity other than sucking up to the next level of power.  Still, technical skills were generally turned into management liabilities and the powers that be kept on being what they'd always been. 

By the early 80s, management began to notice that the country had been in a recession for nearly a decade.  (That's the kind of mental acuity that comes with good breeding and higher education.)  Not that noticing the disaster caused them to reconsider their basic anti-labor assumptions or to accept any part of the blame for the recession, but it was a start.  Mostly, the nation's awful execs blamed business failures on "inefficient American labor" and went hunting for cheaper labor overseas.  That seemed like a successful tactic until Japan moved some of its manufacturing here and discovered that American labor was equal to any, including Japanese.  So equal that several Japanese manufacturers produced the best Japanese products in the U.S. 

Japanese managers walked around so much that they sometimes got in the way of the production line.  And the Japanese managers were very technical, mangling another MBA myth.

The American management solution was to focus attention on increasing middle management productivity.  Since upper management can rarely spell "productivity," this was a clever tactic.  The answer to our shriveling economy turned out to be painfully simple.  It was especially painful for the people who did the actual work.  What happened was that middle management became a two-for-the-price-of-one position.  Once again, middle managers were selected for their technical skills but there was also a minimal effort made to encourage development in the person-to-person aspects of management.  Labor managed to cut its own throat, politically, so that management was able to crank up productivity demands while reducing actual labor costs.  More than a decade of Republican-owned law-making helped push this management "advancement" along pretty brutally, too. 

Now, we're reaping the rewards of having let management pay itself in seven-figure denominations for four-figure competence.  Even the rich can only vote themselves rich for so long before the house of stocks and bonds collapses in a light breeze.  I keep hearing about the stalling economic recovery and Wall Street's confusion regarding why that recovery is moving so slowly (if you can find signs that it's moving at all).  There's nothing confusing about any of this.  The spread between the rich and the rest of us is measured in light-years.  If the government were to stop propping up the few profitable industries that still attempt to produce real products, the economy would fall flat on its face. 

April 2000


#38 The True Meaning of Business Dress Codes (2000)

All Rights Reserved © 2000 Thomas W. Day

"Back of tranquility lies always conquered unhappiness." -- David Grayson

Unfortunately, this subject can be explored in about a paragraph. If I did that, I'd be stuck looking for another topic to tack on to the end of this Rat, so be forewarned; I'm going to waste some space here pretending this is a more complex issue than it really is.

One of the Twin Cities papers had a big business section spread, a few days ago, describing a half dozen of the area's newest instant millionaires. This group of guys posed for their fifteen minutes of business news fame in jeans and tee-shirts, rumpled khakis and an NBA-logo sweatshirt, or bicycling shorts and a short sleeved sport shirt with a pocket protector stuffed with pens (probably stolen from the company's office supplies). Not a suit among the bunch. Their message is; successful people wear comfortable clothes.

The same day, I listened to an NPR report about the infestation of the casual workplace and the economic problems that was creating for the Fifth Avenue boys and girls who design and sell $1,000 suits to executives and wannabes. The suit builders are trying to drum up interest in "dress up Thursday." The bulk of their market is brain-dead Fortune 500 executives and they hope to convince these hopeless morons that "productivity" can be improved by choking off the blood to the brain and making workers wear clothes that would overdress a Texan spending Xmas in Nome, Alaska. Of course, it makes sense that the suit pushers would be pushing suits. It doesn't make sense that anyone could believe that discomfort increases productivity.

At the root, dress codes are about power. There's nothing more to it, for 99% of office workers who are forced to waste precious resources on antiquated clothing styles, because of company dress codes, in order to keep marginal jobs. For the 1% who actually face live customers and are pretending to "show respect" for those customers by wearing overpriced clown suits, this discussion could be out-to-lunch.

But for the majority, when how we look is more important than how we do our jobs, we're not paying attention to important employment clues. In reality, dress codes are based on a lack of respect. (I could have said that, right at the top of this essay and saved you several minutes of valuable reading time.) That's what they were about in high school and that's still what they're about. To those of us forced to wear tourniquets around our necks, it's pretty clear that being asked to kill brain cells is not an issue of respect or productivity. It's about fear.

Like cops and politicians who couldn't earn respect under any situation, executives who instigate dress codes are mistaking fear for respect. It's possible that they don't care about the fine points that separate one emotion from the other. The existence of an employee dress code is a symbol of disrespect for the employees' skills and value to the company. A dress code screams, "a significant portion of your salary is being paid to entertain me, your boss. I want you to wear a clown suit and you're gonna do it because you don't have any other options."

With all the noise generated in the media, regarding the country's labor shortage and the difficulty in finding people to fill skilled positions, you'd think that creating employee-hostile policies would be a foolish move. Apparently, there are a lot more of us to go around than employers would like to admit, because there is no shortage of awful employers or company policies that create miserable workplaces.

As an employee, being in a position where geek clothes are required ought to be a wake-up call. When you are in demand, nobody talks about what you look like or what you're wearing. You won't have to deal with this kind of crap, when finding people who do what you do is more difficult than poking a criminal in the eye while standing in the middle of the U.S. House of Representatives. Don't kid yourself about this. If what you wear is more important than what you do, you are highly disposable.

Taking the-glass-is-full perspective, employee-hostile company policies are management's way of pointing out a precarious personal employment situation. As Andy Grove (Intel's ex-CEO) tried to tell us a while back, our employer is one of the customers in our own personal business. When that customer is telling us that our product is insignificant, we ought to be paying attention. Being reasonably free Americans, we have lots of options. We can attempt to increase our value to our employer or increase our employer's awareness of our particular skills to the employer's business. We can find a new employer who recognizes our unique contributions and value. Or, we can go back to the drawing board and develop new products (skills) to attract new customers (employers).

What we shouldn't do is accept an employer's disrespect for a few extra bucks and a moment's imagined security. Bobby Dylan once pointed out that "he not busy being born is busy dying." That goes for your career, too. And dead folks don't get much respect.

April 2000