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Article featured in The Oregonian    

'Your call is unimportant to us'

Consumers, tired of automated answering systems, the lack of human interaction and just plain wasted time, deserve a new commitment to customer service


You're on the phone again waiting for a human voice while Musak and annoying commercials fill the dead space. You just want to get through to your cable company or airline or HMO. The precious moments of your overparceled life are ticking away. You hear that familiar refrain: "Your call is important to us."

This is America, you think. The richest country in the world. Whatever happened to customer service? Your frustration isn't unusual anymore; it's the norm.

At a time when we're trying to resurrect a wounded society, customer service needs some CPR. And lost time often is at the heart of angry consumer complaints.

"In a high-speed era bristling with demands around the clock, the daily puzzle is how much time can anyone commit to any particular task?" author Fred Wiersema writes in his book "The New Market Leaders." "When customers lack the time to buy or use things, suppliers lack customers."

U.S. companies spent billions this year making it harder to get through to a real person. Mind-numbing automated answering systems keep us dangling. Some cavalier companies even charge a fee if a diehard customer sneaks through the maze too many times. That can brew frustration -- even rage.

"If someone has a serious question, that doesn't lend itself to pushing 14 buttons on a phone . . .," Scott Broetzmann, founding member of the Customer Care Alliance, told The Des Moines Register. "Technology that is wrongly deployed is one key explanation for a lot of the rage we see."

Stopping that rage by saving customers' time may be the most valuable thing businesses can do.

When the local gas man doesn't come, Gerda Harry of Southwest Portland frets. Waiting for the service man for an inspection on her new furnace, the company wouldn't commit to even a morning or afternoon time. Harry had to be available all day or ask a neighbor.

"Everyone works," says Harry, a busy property manager. "You can't ask neighbors to do that anymore."

After waiting half a day, she called the company, wanting to talk with the driver. There's no way, she was told.

"You can't expect people to wait around all day. How many days do I have left?" the 60-year-old joked.

Later that afternoon Harry suddenly smelled gas. She called. The service man arrived 15 minutes later.

Twenty years ago, anthropologist Marvin Harris already had a dim view of our service-and-information economy. "What most assured quality services in the past was that server and served knew each other and were personally interested in each other's welfare," he wrote in his classic, "Why Nothing Works." He feared customer service would only decline in quality. He was so right.
Urbanization over the past 50 years has had a profound effect. "Depersonalization in an urban environment leads to indifference," says Jim Heath, a retired Portland State University dean and U.S. history professor. "Service is still very important in small towns."

Factor in merger after merger the past few years, and you have a breakdown in personal relationships. "To turn poor customer service around, we've got to personalize services in a way we've moved away from," Heath says. "We must realize the individual employee is the most important figure."

Too often this human link to customers works under a heavy burden -- fewer co-workers and more hours.

"Manufacturing and services companies have figured out how to get more from less," writes economist Stephen S. Roach in The New York Times. "By using information technologies, they can squeeze ever increasing value out of the average worker."

When Brigitte DeWolfe of Southwest Portland bought an expensive new glass-top stove in October, the only printed help she got was how to install it. What about a seemingly simple thing -- an operator's manual? DeWolfe asked three different salespeople; she was told to go on the Internet.

"No one I talked to would put me through to a manager," she says. She has a computer but thinks the company was asking too much of customers. "Not everyone has access to the Internet, and the attitude is, 'What century do you live in anyway?' "

DeWolfe finally reached the manufacturer. She received the manual a few days ago.

Faced with too much to do and too little time, consumers have short fuses and do sweat the little stuff.

A survey of 50 banks in New York and San Francisco by a bank consulting firm, for example, found nearly half failed in providing a basic service -- a working lobby pen. Last year, The Oregonian's Julie Tripp checked on 13 Portland bank lobbies with similar results.

Frustrations didn't end with the pens. A national survey found more than half the bank customers said the automated phone system was the most frustrating aspect of customer service. And they wouldn't spend more than five minutes on hold before considering that poor service.

While banking over the past 10 to 15 years has embraced automation, some banks are changing and visibly courting improved customer service. Marketing professor Claes Fornell, a University of Michigan customer service expert, says banks have been doing better by customers.

Mergers and acquisitions have slowed, and more services are available from an increasing number of branches, he says.

At Portland Teachers Credit Union, Oregon's largest, employees' "friendly faces" are keys to the 70-year old organization's success, says Mary Jane Campbell, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

On questionnaires sent to a rotating segment of members monthly over the past three years, members have consistently given the credit union a high rating. The credit union focuses on different ways to quickly access services, such as making a loan application in minutes on its Web site. Investment in top-quality front-line employees and increased cross training are company trends, Campbell says.

Tamara Hufford-Wong, a Lake Oswego customer service consultant, helps businesses improve customer rapport. She tells them to spend more on hiring people to work directly with the public. "We need to get back to the basics. Never underestimate the power of 'thank you,' 'you're welcome,' 'it's my pleasure' and 'come back again.' "

She went in search of a "thank you" in her own survey of eight diverse businesses and only heard those special two words at one -- a service station.

"Right now, the consumer is the one saying thank you, and that's just plain nuts" she says.

Hufford-Wong would love to say that stores with excellent service will soar and that those without it will fail miserably. But unless the public speaks up, she worries Americans will continue complaining but do nothing to change things.

The recent American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures 38 industries in nine sectors of the economy, shows customer satisfaction is slowly edging up. That's not to say consumers are happy.

PC World magazine's latest poll indicates computer customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. The 27,000 respondents said they waited longer on hold and talked with less-knowledgeable technicians.

Despite my best efforts at staying cool, I recently went ballistic trying to communicate with four techies -- two in the United States, two an ocean away. They couldn't resolve my computer problem, even with a hired guru seated beside me.

In a perfect consumer world, customers want their services offered face-to-face and fast. Could it be we're part of the problem, a little spoiled, bent on instant gratification?

My brother and his wife spent four years in England. They returned to Seattle and quickly noticed the difference in expectations. In the United States, you can buy almost anything, any time.

In England, the local supermarket often ran out of grocery items during the week, and the Brits' strict zoning laws restricted similar stores nearby. Towns shut down on Sundays; stores were closed half days during the week. Once inside a store, prices were up to 40 percent more than here.

Dealing with utilities was a nightmare. The telephone was useless for handling problems; a letter was required, even though it might never be answered. And the Brits are used to standing in long lines, something we Americans wouldn't put up with.

As the holiday season descends and we're encouraged to stoke up the GNP, I'll offer my wish list:

I'd like front-line employees to be cherished, know their company's products, officers and company creed. I'm tired of hearing: "I don't know. I just work here."

I'd like to make a simple phone call and not spend half an hour on hold, or phone a business just blocks away, not a call center a thousand miles removed.

And in stores where I might spend my precious money this season, I'd like someone to say, "Thank you."

And really mean it.

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