Monday, June 30, 2008

Whatever Happened to Customer Service?

Remember the good old days when you'd hitch up your wagon for the long ride to town to pick up supplies and exotic imports like brown sugar and fine ribbon (for the ladies) and you knew that, at the end of your journey, you'd walk through the door of the general store and good old Pete, eyes smiling, would greet you by name, grasp your hand, and insist you to join his family for dinner?

Me neither. But I hear that's how things used to be in some places.

Either way, you can't get good customer service these days. It doesn't matter if you're dealing with giant companies like United Airlines and Comcast or with some upstart online retailer, they all offer the same deplorable level of customer care. I don't understand it. Surely these operations realize that quality customer service is key to success.

A couple months ago, my wife and I were in the market for a new prosumer digital camera. Once we settled on a model, I set about to make sure we found the best possible price. The first two online merchants I tried ordering from didn't have the camera in stock — orders wouldn't ship for over a month. No good. I moved down to the third merchant on my list. Everything looked legit, so I placed my order.

Almost immediately, I get an e-mail asking me to confirm my order by phone within 24 hours. I gave them a few minutes, then made the call. After waiting on hold for eight minutes someone answers.

"What," a surly voice demands. I'm taken slightly off guard.
"Hi, yes. I'm calling to confirm an order I just placed online."
"Order number."

Against my better judgment, I tell him my order number. I'm told to "hold on", then wait patiently while my call is disconnected. Had to be a mistake. I call back and wait on hold for seven minutes before someone picks up.

"Hello?" It's the same surly guy. He sounds like a delinquent teen.
"Hi, sorry, I just called to confirm an order I placed online but got discon—"
"What's your order number?"
"—nected so I wanted to make— sorry? Uh... give me second." I tell him my number again and am immediately placed back on hold for an additional eleven minutes. For my time, I'm treated to hissing static, subtly remixed with a cheap MIDI file version of Brahms' Lullaby played through what sounds like the busted speakers of an early prototype radio with a frayed power cord. My blood pressure is starting to go up at this point. Someone picks up.

"What do you want?" the surly kid demands.
Seriously?! "Hi, I called twenty minutes ago to confirm my order and—"
"What's your order number?" Oh for the love. I give it to him and there's a pause as he checks something. "You didn't confirm your order," he accuses.
"I know, that's why I called — twice — but I've been on hold for twenty minutes."
"Why are you calling?"
This isn't happening. "To confirm my order. You sent me an e-mail."
"Well, it's confirmed. Enjoy your order. Bye."
"No—wait! Could you please confirm that the item I ordered is in stock and—"
"Goodbye. Enjoy your order."
"Sir, before you hang up, could you please confirm that the item—"
"No! I don't confirm anything. They'll send you an e-mail."

He hangs up. I receive no e-mail. But I do send one to them, explaining how I'd been treated and asking them to kindly confirm that the item I'd ordered was in stock and would ship within two business days as advertised. I'm starting to suspect something's wrong.

Three hours later I get a call. "Hello?" I answer.
"Do you wanna upgrade your order?" No greeting. No introduction. Sounded like the same delinquent teen character. "Excuse me? Who is this?"
He raises his voice: "I said, do you wanna upgrade?"
My patience is thinning. "And I asked who's calling. Are you calling from Techon Digital?"
"Yeah. Do you wanna upgrade."
No, thank you, I explained, telling him that the standard package that came with the camera was all I needed. I would, however, like to know if my camera was in stock—

"It doesn't come with a battery."
Red flags start going up. "Yes, it does. Your website says it comes with a battery."
"Well, it doesn't. Battery is extra. $150. Do you want to upgrade?" He's growing impatient.
"Hold on a minute. The camera I ordered from you said it came with—"
"Do you want to upgrade or not?" He's yelling now.
"No. $150 is outrageous for a battery. Listen, just tell me what comes with the camera."
"So it doesn't come with a battery, or charger, or—"
"No. You have to upgrade."
"OK, I'm confused. Just let me read you the item description from your website. 'Canon PowerShot G—'"
"Just tell me if you wanna up—"
My patience is exhausted. "Just listen for a second, please! You're website says—"

"Look, how old are you?"
My mind explodes. "Excuse me?"
"How old are you?" the surly kid demands again.
"I'm 24."
"24!" He's clearly shocked. "Well I'm 19, you know what I'm saying?"
"No, I don't." I honestly didn't—was he offering his age as an excuse for his behavior?
"Why you bein' so rude?" he asks.
My mind explodes again. Did he just ask me why I'm being rude? "I—I'm not—Look, I'm just trying to get you to answer a couple basic questions. What does my camera come with and will it arri—"
"Forget it. Your order's canceled. Stupid camera's out of stock anyway."

Good riddance. I dodged that bullet. I learned the next day that the delinquent kid and the "company" he worked for were part of an internet scam ring. With customer service like that, however, I doubt they were very successful. Then again, look at Comcast.