Run for Cover

Everyone knows that customer service stinks. The press gleefully offers up statistics about the thousands of e-mails that go unanswered, the multitudes of customers whose phone calls are not returned, and the holiday order shipments that disappear en route, never to be seen again. But has anyone noticed a more alarming problem? Customer service reps aren’t just indifferent – they’re becoming downright hostile.

I called a store recently to ask if a computer game was available. The CSR put me on hold for seven minutes while he went to check.

Rep (back on the phone): Sorry about that. No, we don’t have it.

Me: Can you tell me how much it costs?

Rep: I told you, we don’t have it.

Me: You have to look at the box to tell me how much it costs?

Rep: Yep.

Me: I saw a sign at your store saying that customers could pay a deposit and reserve the game. Can I still do that?

Rep: If you saw a sign, I guess you can.

Me: You’re not being particularly helpful.

Rep: I’ve helped you all I can. I’m going now.

Now try this for belligerence. I called a direct marketing company to order a replacement bezel for a wristwatch made by another firm (what kind of service arrangement is that?). No one answered, so I left a message. No one called back, so I called again a few days later. A woman picked up the phone, didn’t know what I was talking about, went to look for someone who did, then came back and said he wasn’t at his desk, but could she take my name and number and he would call me back? Two days later, the not-at-his-desk man left me a voice mail message that he had passed on my contact information to a sales rep, who, he assured me warmly, could “really be of assistance.” The next day, the sales rep called, and, furious that I wasn’t the client he had thought I was, hung up on me.

This sort of thing is highly disturbing, and it makes me long for the good old days when CSRs either didn’t exist or, if they did, left you alone. (Remember Caldor, now defunct? You could walk in unaccosted and wander about peacefully for hours searching for what you wanted.) One study reports that close to 50% of all customers contact a company multiple times with a problem or request. You’d think that with the economy winding down, a slower holiday season in 2000, and the bust, merchants would sit up and take notice. If shoppers already hesitate to buy, are they any more likely to buy if you insult them?