Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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The Death Of Customer Service

Do you recall, how in the mid ‘90's, the pundits prognosticated that over the course of the next decade, due to increasing competition and specialization in the marketplace, the most successful businesses would be those which regarded customer service as paramount? Has this been your experience? It certainly hasn't been mine! How is it that in this day, when technology affords us the ability to realise gains in productivity and business intelligence as never before imagined, the simple maxim "the customer is always right" has fallen into such disfavour as to be considered laughable.

Now, while I am certainly aware that in reality the customer isn't always right, this phrase reflected an attitude that was pervasive in the simpler time wherein it was coined. It meant that if you didn't take care of your customers, someone else would. Not so today. The aforementioned "experts" weren't totally wrong however; the increase in competition has definitely occurred - but it has been based on price. There are many among us who wouldn't think twice about thoroughly picking a salesperson's brain at a full service establishment in order to determine which article best suits their need, and then shopping around to obtain the best price. This trend has been in large responsible for the rise to dominance of the enormous, impersonal warehouse variety of chain stores, and the near extinction of the smaller operator.

We have all been made aware of service nightmares experienced by others at these mega-chains, without seeming to realise that it is we who have been the architects of their misfortune by way of our continued patronage. So, it is as a society that we must determine what it is we truly desire – great service or great price. Of course, the first law of economics "human desires are without limit" holding true, the answer to this is both. How is it then that the budding entrepreneur is to accommodate this? The answer may be partially found in technology. Let's take a look at a recent example from my personal experience in order that we might illustrate its potential in addressing difficulties arising from today's service challenges... bear with me it's a little lengthy!

About a year ago, I purchase an electronic keyboard from Steve's Music, which, from the day it was purchased exhibited minor difficulties. As these presented only slight inconvenience, I ignored them until, after realising the warranty period had almost elapsed, I elected to determine what would be involved in having the unit repaired. I called the store and inquired as to the average time required to undertake this task. The clerk replied that as the unit had only to be shipped to Montreal, it should be about a week.

I thought this was exceptionally reasonable and made arrangements to bring the item back on the day on which they regularly shipped repairs, in order that I might lessen the time I would be without my instrument. The manager was very helpful and agreed that I could bring it in at that time, despite the fact that it was slightly beyond the warranty period. I was quite pleased and enlisted the assistance of a friend to manhandle the item down to the store. I signed the appropriate forms and as I was leaving asked the attending salesperson "are you going to call me when the unit comes back next week... or should I just come in to pick it up?" – to which he replied that it would be "a couple of weeks" and that they would indeed contact me. While this estimate doubled the original, I wasn't perturbed as I still believed this to be a reasonable time frame.

Two weeks passed and as I had received no contact, decided to call them. I was informed that it would be three weeks. After this time had elapsed and I still hadn't been contacted, I called yet again. The clerk on the other end of the line told me in voice which led me to believe he considered me a complete idiot to be unaware that "repairs take at least four to six weeks...".

After six weeks had elapsed, I decided to call the manager and inquire as to where my keyboard was. He informed me that he'd look into it and call me back. As I never received a return call, I phoned him the next day and was told my unit "was on the repair bench right now" and that it should be in at the end of the week. Of course this wasn't to be. In the middle of the following week (number eight) I received a surprise call from the manager saying that my keyboard was in. "Great!", I said. Well, not really.

It seemed that the service technician in Montreal had broken his arm so nothing had been done to my unit... "did I want to pick it up or did I want to have it shipped to Toronto for repair?" In for a penny, in for a pound I thought, and like the glutton for punishment I am, agreed to have it shipped to Toronto. The manager informed me that he'd expedite repair in order that it might be ready in one week although "it normally took two when shipped to Toronto". As my luck persevered, of course the keyboard didn't arrive until two weeks later.

When I finally went to retrieve my equipment, there were no apologies – that is, until I saw it. It had been fairly seriously damaged in shipping (including a big dent in the metal front and large scratches and chips out of the black lacquered sides and back). When I complained, the manager informed me that as I hadn't brought the original box when I dropped it off, they assumed no liability. Of course none of this had been explained to me at the time and I certainly signed no waiver to that effect. When I got a little hot under the collar, he complained that I had received a good deal on the equipment in the first place and that he'd spent an additional $100.00 in shipping it.

Obviously, I found this a little hard to take and after a little coaxing, the manager, to his credit, offered to have it repaired. When I asked how long this was going to take, he said he'd have to check with somebody else. Frustrated, I told him to forget it and packed the thing back home. The worst part of the whole affair? – It's still not functioning correctly.

Now, before you judge Steve's too harshly, understand that given a similar technology infrastructure, many organisations would have performed similarly. I believe I understand what happened and as a result still shop there – in fact I just spent $650.00 at Steve's yesterday. So, what could the company have done to prevent this situation in the first place? Tune in next month when we'll delve into customer service solutions for small and medium sized business.

Originally published in HUB Magazine's Connected column, August 2000, by technology columnist Ray Richards.

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