A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.—Mahatma Gandhi

Customer Service? What’s That?

These inspiring words from Gandhi give us a pretty precise idea of what the philosophy of customer service was in a time really not long ago, but seemingly so far away. Other old-school notions such as “the customer is always right” has faded away like Gandhi himself, which leads us to the ultimate question: What happened to customer service?

I worked in a department store in Philadelphia called Strawbridge & Clothier. Strawbridge’s, as it was locally called, was a multi-level beautiful structure in a style similar to the old Macys stores. The merchandise sold was considered classier and the ambience a bit classier too. You felt welcomed when you walked into this family-owned establishment and were often greeted by the Strawbridge family themselves, who chose to be among the shoppers over hanging out in a luxury penthouse suite.

Today, you are lucky to get a greeting in most stores. Instead are followed by leech-like employees looking to make a commission, or watching your every move to make sure you don’t shoplift a pair of $20 underwear. Cash register personnel are often low paid, miserable individuals who spend their hours day dreaming of that “someday” that they will get out of “this place.” The days of “thank you” and “please come again” have gone away thankless.

Not the best example (but one I’ll use anyway) is my recent experience at 7-11. The attendant seemed perturbed that I was actually asking him a question about a product. I guess I threw off the conversation he was having with the voice at the other end of the Bluetooth attached to his ear as he looked at me grimly and said, “I don’t know.” The woman behind me stepped up and said what I should have, “Just because you are a miserable person doesn’t mean you need to take it out on customers.” How true?

Ah, the cell phone, Bluetooth and self-service—yes, technology has played a part in the demise of customer service. Supermarkets have added self-serve areas. Now we have to scan and bag out own items. Gas stations are mostly all self-service and attendants have developed a reputation for ripping people off. (Did you really need a new filter?)

It is hard to speak to a real person these days, and often when you do, you are speaking to someone in another country and language barrier hold us hostage in longer, drawn out calls of re-explaining your situation.

Despite the banking bailout 3 years ago, Bank of America (America no less) has been on the firing and hiring binge—firing Americans and hiring overseas, mainly in the Philippines—where they can get cheap labor. Oh, and they get what they pay for. Wells Fargo followed suit outsourcing jobs to India and the Philippines. Then there are the robots, or automated customer service systems, where a real person is eliminated and replaced with a option of push-buttons and a voice command system. In many cases, the voice command system fails to do one important thing…understand your voice. 

In a study released in April 2012 by the research firm, Vocalabs, 11.14% of Hewlett Packard customers complained about language barriers, followed by 7.28% of Dell customers. Citi Group was cited as having the worse automated customer service system, with Verizon in at a close second. Among the highest complaints from frustrated customers using automated customer service systems:

  1. The system didn’t have the option they were looking for.
  2. They had to call back and start over.
  3. It was hard to reach a real person.

I had this experience recently with a company called Bill Me Later. When I called, the option I needed was not an option at all, and there was no prompt to speak to a real person. After hitting “#” and “0” several times, I finally tricked the system and someone answered. The other thing I noticed about my experience with Bill Me Later, is when I said the words, “I’ll never use this service again.” There was no effort made by the call rep to maintain me as a customer. It’s equivalent to saying, “So what? Leave.”

Back to the Gandhi quote: We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

 A concept that has totally gone out the window, especially in the food service and clothing industries. Have you ever been at a counter ordering food and felt rushed to give your order and step aside? Or had some snooty clothing store person treat you like you should be privileged they let you walk in their store? Attitudes like this are all to common in today’s world.

But is it too late to change the gruesome fate of customer service? No, bottom line, the numbers should reflect how much good customer service means to people. A company called BIGinsight compiled a list of companies for its Customer Choice Awards.

The Top 10:

1. Amazon.com

2. L.L. Bean

3. Zappos.com

4. Overstock.com

5. QVC

6. Kohl’s

7. Lands’ End

8. JC Penney

9. Newegg.com

10. Nordstrom

Now according to Forbes, Customer service in the conventional sense has generally implied face-to-face communication: greeting a customer; providing him/her with product information, demonstrations, additional options, or size assistance; suggesting add-ons or complementary products; and finally, completing the sale. Historically, the best opportunity to cultivate great customer relationships is within an environment where personal interaction between the retailer (i.e. sales associates) and customers is at its peak: a physical store.

That being said, how could an online service top the charts? Well, simple put, it adjusted to the times and gives people what they want now, which is quick, reliable service, a good automated system, and the option to have a customer service rep call you. Good thinking! And it’s working.

Topping the list of poor customer service are banks, insurance companies and telecommunications companies. The MSN Money Hall of Shame lineup includes: Bank of America, (remember them, they were mentioned earlier), listed as the worst in customer service. Also in the top 10: AOL, Citi Bank, Comcast, Chase, Farmer’s and Progressive Insurance, among others.

But why banks? Bankers were always portrayed in old-time movies as great customer service providers to the people. Right?  In a recent Time magazine article, banking analyst Dick Bove explains his theory, “For the last 40 years I believed the quality of the product was the key determinant to the success of the company,” he says. “There’s no evidence in the U.S. banking system that offering a labor-intensive personalized service is successful in terms of letting the banking intuitions survive. It’s very costly with virtually no benefit,” Bove says.

So maybe for your banking experience, there may be no hope for quality customer service. But the banks too may crumble. And, someday, somehow, maybe some of the immortal words of yesteryear will reign once again. Like Walt Disney once said, “Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” That’s what true customer service does!

This may need a part II