"Reconnecting With Customers" says the title of a book that landed recently on my desk. "Building Brands and Profits in the Relationship Age."
Immediately I thought: If only I could help this fellow spread his message.
You know how things fall apart in spates: If the dishwasher breaks down, the dryer's not far behind. One day the credit card company overbills you; the next day the water company loses your check. You have to replace the roof -- be assured it won't be long before the upstairs plumbing fails and floods the living room ceiling.
Having gone through a deluge of this sort of thing, one arrives at a conclusion you can rely on: Customer service is an idea whose time has passed.
Remember all that hoopla a few years back about putting customers first? It didn't stick. Customer dissatisfaction has made a forceful comeback. "The customer is always wrong" has regained its place as the cornerstone of service-industry thinking.
Take the night the hose broke on our washing machine and flooded the basement. Our first instinct was to call a plumber. Alas, it was 1 a.m. But not to worry: The phone book is full of advertisements with huge type promising "24-hour service!" and "We specialize in emergencies!"
Most of the numbers didn't answer. Those that did offered all kinds of grumpy responses: Their 24-hour service was for commercial enterprises only. They didn't serve our part of town. They were just an answering service, and they'd have to have someone call.
No one ever called.
A few days later, we noticed that the dishwasher -- the one we'd just bought a few months before -- was leaking onto the (wooden) kitchen floor. We spent the next several hours trying to get the large national chain store that had sold it to us -- and arranged for the installation -- to send a repairman. This involved calls all over the country (nobody does detachment like a customer-service center). It also involved record-setting time spent on hold, and even more records set for being shunted from one crabby person to another.
At last a repairman was dispatched: the world's rudest man. He informed us that the problem was in the installation (as we had explained in each of our endless phone calls) and that he -- a technician -- handled only the repair of the machine itself.
Then he presented a bill for his visit.
We gave up, called several plumbers, finally landed one and paid for the repair ourselves -- after listening to him grumble about the shoddiness of the installation.
The water bill has been even worse. We paid. They said we didn't. We called. They asked for a bank statement showing our payment. We sent it. The next bill still showed nonpayment.
We called. They said the bank statement wasn't enough: They'd need a canceled check. We called the bank. They sent the check. We called the water company again. They'd lost the canceled check. They rebuked us: We should have kept a copy. Yes, they could see that we'd paid, but they'd need that check to credit us.
Yesterday, the notice arrived that our water will be cut off shortly.
As these events have perked along, we have also had the credit card company bill us double for two different meals at restaurants. The gas company misplaced the reading we called in. And the mortgage company forgot to pay the escrowed property tax bill. Eventually, they did pay, but the taxing authority says it can't find their check. But what does it matter? Even if they find it, the tax collectors now say the bill they sent out was wrong in the first place. They forgot to include the value of the land.
Throughout every such venture, you are guaranteed the frustration of holding forever while listening to a voice saying: "Your call is important to us!" You can count on being transferred from person to (gripey) person. And you can be sure of falling into a dialing labyrinth ("For service, press 1; for information about billing, press 2." "Key in your Social Security number NOW.")
In the end, what do you do? Cave and overpay? Go to the boss? To the boss's boss? How much is your time worth -- and how much do you have? How much patience can you summon up? How much wear and tear on your sense of justice can you stand?
They say we now have a service economy. How will we ever survive it?