Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

It’s no coincidence that several articles in this issue deal with the importance of the relationship between retailers and customers, whether that relationship takes the form of Harley-Davidson’s idiosyncratic “community,” a manic IVR system, or tyrannical call center performance measures. It’s also no coincidence that the problem at the core of this relationship, interactions among human beings, is one that we lack the experience to handle. Like memorizing poems for recitation, relating to people has to be practiced over and over before it becomes second nature.

The infinite variety of human malfunctions put computer breakdowns to shame. Consider some of O&F’s experiences:

Gateway Inc.

During a recent visit to this computer manufacturer’s Norwalk, CT, service center, the service area was thronged with customers, many of whom waited over an hour for the lone technician/receptionist to process paperwork, examine machines, and run back and forth between testing area and front desk. Meanwhile, in the lavishly appointed, cavernously empty sales showroom, several young men and women lounged idly, waiting to pounce on the next customer.

Kinko’s Inc.

An O&F editor requested business cards at a Fairfield, CT, location of this copy giant. The cards were guaranteed for delivery in a few days. When the editor called, the cards were not ready because the weekend service rep had forgotten to write up the order. So Kinko’s agreed to do a rush job, telling the editor that she could pick up the cards at 8 o’clock that night. The cards were ready as promised, but Kinko’s couldn’t find the disk with the original artwork — which belonged to a designer that our editor had paid for the job. Kinko’s claimed that a service rep, whom we’ll call Lolita, was the only person who knew where it was, but that she had left work for the evening. They would leave a note for Lolita, who would call back our editor. Two weeks later, Lolita still hasn’t called, but in the meantime, our editor has called Kinko’s, which claims to have found the disk.

Staples Inc.

At a Staples store in Norwalk, CT, two customer service reps — who had to wait for a manager to bring them a key to open the locked pen display case — frantically searched through stacks of boxes of fountain pens, flinging them around all over the floor behind the counter, trying to find in “inventory” the pen that I had wanted. No, they couldn’t sell me the display model, that wasn’t their policy.

This kind of ludicrous behavior isn’t limited to retail. As journalists, we doggedly pursue sources for information, and are constantly fobbed off into voice mail or a twilight zone of unanswered e-mails, unreturned messages, irrelevant press releases, and inaudible calls made from cell phones located in what seem like remote mountain areas. I won’t name these people, because you know who you are.

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