Service Call

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, February 3, 2006

The Satellite Guy showed up at 3:20 last Friday at our new residence in Northwest D.C. The morning appointment had been set weeks before, and since noon we'd received a series of calls from the dispatcher promising Satellite Guy would be there within the hour to install the DirecTV dish. Instead, he had in his hand a paper he wanted me to sign, canceling my order. Too many tall trees, he declared.

No hello. No apologies for keeping us tied down all day. No walk around the property to consider potential locations for the dish or find out if some trees could be trimmed or cut. No explanation for why his sales colleague had never warned that trees might pose a problem.

A follow-up call to his supervisor in Idaho elicited only one of those disingenuous apologies people learn to deliver at one-day customer-service training sessions. It quickly became obvious that he was totally uninterested in learning how his company might avoid aggravating customers in the future.

I'm sure you all have your own stories about the sorry state of customer service, many far worse than mine. So I'm thinking it may be time for the secretary of commerce to declare a Stage Three national service emergency. That would be a warning to all businesses that the money they've invested in new technology to streamline operations, and the marketing money to acquire new customers, is secretly being frittered away by subversives from within.

My family's telecom saga actually began more than a month before our move, when a salesperson at Verizon sold my wife on a package deal that included local and long-distance phone service, DSL Internet access, and DirecTV. In time, we'd also switch over the cell phones. The attraction was both a competitive price and the ease of dealing with a single company. Ours was to be an all-Verizon family.

On move-in day, the phone installer showed up promptly, talked us through some options and got the phone service switched on. He also informed us that the DSL Internet access was up and running. It turned out it wasn't. He also failed to mention, as had many Verizon sales and service representatives, that we needed a modem to actually connect the computer to the DSL service -- a fact we discovered only after the techie from my wife's company arrived the next day to hook up her computer.

When my wife called Verizon the next day, Saturday, to straighten all this out, the office was closed. There was, however, a fancy automated phone system that informed her that our high-speed service would be activated 12 days later. When she phoned Verizon on Monday, however, she learned that our order had been canceled after an attempt to activate the service had failed for unexplained technical reasons. Trying to be helpful, the Verizon representative then suggested that my wife get more information at the company's Web site -- not exactly the best advice for someone fuming about her lack of Internet access.

Look, I understand things go wrong even in the best of companies. But this incident revealed that Verizon, like many companies, continues to be organized from the inside out rather than the outside in. It's all about their network, their technology, their organizational silos, their products and procedures. What it's not built around is the quality of the customer experience. And when things went wrong, it was our problem, not theirs.

I encountered a similar mentality last December, when I called the District's Yellow Cab to arrange for transportation early the next morning to National Airport for the start of a holiday vacation. After a 10-minute wait on hold, the dispatcher said she couldn't guarantee the availability of an SUV big enough for my family and a lot of luggage. But when I tried to reserve two cabs, she said she couldn't guarantee that, either, explaining that it depended on how many cabs were available in our area at that hour.

Somewhat desperate -- it was close to midnight -- I pulled out the Yellow Pages and called a car service. The dispatcher picked up on the first ring, heard my plea and said he didn't have a car available but would try to arrange now for one of his drivers to come in early. Within five minutes, he called back and it was all ready, including the credit card payment. The pickup was flawless. And although the cost was double that of a regular cab, the whole experience was so pleasant that I was happy to pay it.

While on this vacation, I discovered at 6:30 one morning that my wallet had been lost or stolen. Normally, this would have ruined my day. But by 8:30, using the hotel's Internet access and dialing some 800 numbers, I was able to order up three new credit cards, a new bank card and a new driver's license. When I returned home two days later, I found the replacement license from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in the mailbox. (Honest!) All the other cards arrived within the next two business days.

These anecdotes illustrate both the good and bad of customer service. Companies and even government agencies have become skilled in deploying technology that enhances customer service, particularly when it allows them to save money by replacing people with machines or by replacing experienced employees with $12-an-hour clerks who stay for a year and leave. But when it comes to attracting, training, retaining and rewarding people who can provide good service, their record is spotty.

Executives can often be heard complaining that while customers say they want good service, they won't pay for it. I don't think that's true any longer, if it ever was. After so many years of re-engineering and cost-cutting, service has deteriorated to the point that many of us would eagerly pay a reasonable premium to be treated like valued customers again. With so many products now reduced to commodities, that's where the profits of the future will be made.

Postscript: On Wednesday, two days after my wife called Starpower, the cable company, we had our Internet access and (briefly) TV service. The installer is expected back today. Wish me luck.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

© 2006 The Washington Post Company