What The Heck Happened To Customer Service?

The following is my personal opinion.

Have you noticed a trend where you feel that you are no longer a valued customer?  I have, as have many of my friends and family.  But, before I get into some negative examples, I thought I would mention some positive experiences.

-In 1973, I was a sophomore in college taking high-level math and science classes. My classes required the use of complicated equations, but they also needed many basic math calculations.  For example, I would have to interpolate a logarithm using regular multiplication and division.  This basic math could double my homework time and could be prone to errors.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that handheld calculators were just being introduced in the 1970s, and they were capable of doing all of that basic math. 

Texas Instruments had just launched the SR-10 “scientific calculator.” In functionality, this calculator was similar to those that you can now buy at a dollar store, but it was revolutionary in 1973.  I needed one; however, there was one big drawback…the price.  The calculator retailed for $150.00, and there were no discounts.  That is about $900.00 in 2021 prices. I was a blue-collar kid with very few resources. However, I knew that using that calculator would make the difference between a two-hour homework night vs. a 4 hour one. So I combined my savings from my summer janitorial job with other monies and went down to Marshall Fields (a high-end department store) and bought one.  The SR-10 was absolutely worth its astronomical price.

Eleven months after I bought the calculator, it started to malfunction. I was horrified.  I needed the calculator, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy another one.  I was sure that my warranty was up, but I took it back to Marshall Fields in a desperate move. The clerk examined it for any blatant abuse (there was none)  and reached under the counter and gave me a brand new SR-10.  I was floored.  At that moment, I became a life-long and very loyal Marshall Field customer.

-My daughter was starting college at the University of Arizona in 2015, and I had the task of driving both her and her belongings to Tucson.  Since this was a 3400-mile round trip, I had my Honda Fit serviced beforehand at Valley Honda in Aurora.  They did the usual things, including changing the oil. During that trip, in the middle of Iowa, I saw smoke and realized that my Fit was on fire!  Thankfully, I was able to pull off the expressway.  It turned out that the technician at Honda hadn’t properly seated the oil plug, which eventually dislodged spraying oil on a red-hot engine.  This could have been an absolute disaster, but instead, it was only a significant inconvenience.  

We had to stay in an Iowa hotel for several days while the Fit was repaired locally.  I was pretty upset and wrote a letter expressing my concerns to the GM of Valley Honda.  What did he do?  He wrote me a letter of apology, paid for my Iowa repairs, guaranteed to repair the Fit’s engine for free if any problems developed, and sent the oil changing mechanic to my house to apologize to my family and me.

I was again floored.  I would recommend Valley Honda to anyone.  They are the model of what a car dealership should be.  Yes, they made a mistake, but they were willing to own it, correct it, and say that they were sorry.

I don’t mean to upset your warm and fuzzy feelings, but here are some recent examples of negative interactions.

-I recently took my Promaster van to Naperville CJDR for an oil change.  I warned the service writer that an aftermarket radio was connected to the van’s OBD, but he disconnected it with the engine running anyway.  This resulted in the radio malfunctioning due to a voltage surge.  He said it wasn’t his problem because the radio was “aftermarket” even though he broke it.  I asked to see the service director, who was so condescending that I had to tell him to look at me when I was talking to him (like what you would do with a 12-year old bratty kid).  This was only the beginning of my interaction with the SD, as he tried to blame me for his service writer’s mistake.  

Naperville CJDR has an automated texting system that asked me to write a review on Google.  I did, and it was a negative review. Later that day, another automated text was sent from CJDR saying they wanted to ensure that I had an “Oustanding Experience.” I texted them back to say that I did not have a good experience, which was the last I heard from them.  This was peeving.  I then sent a copy of my Google review to the dealership president, and… no response as of this writing.  I would never recommend this dealership and will drive the extra 15 minutes to a different Chrysler dealership for future service appointments.  They have lost a customer for life.

-My sister, Nancy, sent several hundred dollars to one of her grandkids via PayPal.  Her grandson had an account, but it was no longer active. This meant that the money was not accessible and was in “limbo.” Nancy wanted to cancel the transaction, but there was no way to do this via the PayPal website.  She finally found a support number to call and spent many hours and several days trying to get her money returned. Unfortunately, what should be a straightforward process turned into an impossible one, and as of my writing, the money is lost in cyberspace.

-My friend Tom had an office in a building that was eventually bought by the city of Naperville, who then evicted all of the tenants.  Tom had a business internet account via Comcast, and this business account came with a contract for two years. He had the service for well over two years, but every time he altered the account (for instance, when he increased his internet speed), it automatically reset for two more years.  

Tom tried to cancel the account as Naperville had taken possession of the building.  He called Comcast customer service and explained this to a rep who refused to do anything and said that Tom would still be responsible for monthly payments for the remainder of the contract, even though Comcast would not be providing any services.  I was with Tom at the time of this call, and it was clear that the rep was rude and unyielding.  I was so upset that I wrote the CEO of Comcast with a detailed complaint with Tom’s permission. Unfortunately, I never received any reply, and Tom had to pay Comcast until his contract was over for a service that they were no longer providing.

-My sister, Carol, is an avid reader.  She was glad that she had a Kindle during the pandemic as she could download books.  She decided to upgrade her Kindle to a newer and more expensive model, but she had a simple question about choosing the correct one. She wanted to buy from Best Buy.  She tried calling Best Buy several times, but she found herself in IVR hell, where their automated system couldn’t understand her requests and then would hang up on her.  Eventually, she just gave up.


There are too many stories here, so my comments will be more generic.  There was a time when you would go to Amazon and assume that you would have the best selection, best customer service, and the best price.  Those days are gone.  

Bulk items can be more expensive per unit than single items; item descriptions can be misleading, prices can be significantly more than at your local store, counterfeit items are sold as the real thing, and reviews can be fake.  However, it is when you have to deal with customer service that things become distressing.  It is almost impossible to talk to a real person.  You have to search for Amazon’s 800 customer service number using Google, as you can’t find it on their website.  

Amazon will reject a return request without giving you a reason.  My friend Tom tried to return some epoxy resin because its supplied pump was defective.  He filled out the return request and was told that it was “Not eligible for return.” He had just received the resin two days before, so this made little sense.  I got on his computer, and we eventually found a text-bot to interact with.  It turns out that the item couldn’t be returned as it was a hazardous compound, but Amazon would be willing to offer a refund.  Great! However, Tom would never have gotten the refund if we didn’t go the extra step of connecting with the text-bot. People give up after they are told that the item isn’t eligible for a return.

-There are many other examples of the decline of customer service ranging from terrible computer support to constantly getting the wrong order at McDonald’s.  

I have always believed that good customer relationships were the key to a successful business.  When I was a practicing physician, over 90% of my referrals came from existing patients or a core group of referring health care providers.  What was my secret?  I not only offered my patients quality care, but I also treated them with respect.  When they would call me with a concern, I would call them back.  I ran my appointments on time, so no one was stuck waiting for hours to see me, and I took time to answer their questions.  As far as my referring health care providers, I responded to their phone calls and always sent them a detailed report of my diagnostic impression.  All of these actions would seem commonplace, but they were not.  Treating people like… well people kept me busy for the 30 years that I was in practice.

Studies have shown that a 5% customer retention rate can yield a 25% increase in profits.  Nothing is a more powerful sales tool than a trusted friend telling you about an excellent experience with a particular business or service.  Customers are often willing to spend more if they think that the service received is better.  

Earlier this year I upgraded the stock radio in my van.  I went to a local company (F&G Car Audio-Naperville) for the installation because I had such a good experience with them when they installed an autostart on a car years earlier.  Like before, they did a great job, but more importantly, they always returned my calls when I had a question or concern even AFTER the purchase had been completed. So the next time I need this kind of work done, I will surely return to them. Doesn’t that make sense?

I’m not reporting anything you haven’t heard before, so why is customer service so bad? Simply because it can be.

When companies become virtual monopolies, they know that they can remain profitable despite their terrible customer service.  Comcast is an example of this.  They don’t care if you hate them because you will still use them.

Other companies follow a cost reduction trend. For example, computer companies used to have superior customer support, but it cost them money.  Their solution was to use off-shore technical support, even though it was universally hated.  As soon as one company successfully made the transition, another followed.  Once the playing field was equally terrible, it made no economic sense for a company to change things for the better.  

The Harvard Business Review explored the case of United Airlines, which is reported to have terrible customer service.  You may recall the story where a physician was physically dragged off an airplane because it was overbooked.  As horrible as this was, it did not impact the airline’s overall profitability.  That fact sends an unmistakable message to executives.

HBR also stated that making things difficult for a customer can increase a company’s profits.  Every additional hoop that has to be jumped through will cause many customers to give up.  Endless hold times, obnoxious overmodulated music, transferring a call only have it disconnect, etc.  We have all been there. Once you hang up, you are no longer the company’s problem.

Businesses know that customers do care about good customer reviews, and they sometimes do whatever they can to “rig the system.” For example, some companies that sell on Amazon have employed paid reviewers to write a good review of their products.  Remember, if you have enough good reviews, you can become an “Amazon Choice” product, which means even more sales.  

Local businesses also rig the system.  Have you ever had a salesperson ask you to give them a 5-star review?  I have.

So what can you do?

-The most important thing that you can do is to be vocal. For example, if you are unhappy with a product or service, let the merchant know this, but do so logically.  

-Expect a reasonable resolution.  Can the product be fixed?  Can you return it and then upgrade to a better product without a restocking fee? Can you get a refund if warranted? Know what you want beforehand, but be open to a reasonable compromise. 

-Treat the merchant with respect. In most instances, this is possible.  However, sometimes it is impossible when dealing with a condescending, entitled, or dishonest seller. 

-Move up the chain of command.  Often, low-level employees have limited recourse.  If you are unhappy with an outcome, ask to take your concerns to the person’s supervisor. Note: I know of some companies who will now refuse such requests!

-Write a review.  Go on sites like Yelp and Google and take the time to write an accurate review.  Businesses look at those reviews, and you may not only help fellow customers, but you may also alert a business owner to a potential problem.  This is especially the case for smaller companies where the owner may not have a monitoring system in place.

-Consider spreading the word via social media.  The idea is not to slander the company but to honestly tell others of your experience. 

-Move even higher up. In the incident I had with Naperville CJDR, I looked on their website for the GM’s (titled, “President” at that company) email address to send him a copy of my Google review.  Guess what?  His email is not listed (Other dealerships have a complete list of email addresses).  This, unfortunately, was a bit of a red flag for me.  However, I did send him my views via their regular email portal with a note to forward to him. As of this writing, I have not received any reply suggesting a potential global issue with customer care. 

On the rare occasion, I have gone so far as to directly voice my concerns to a corporation’s CEO. This process has yielded mixed results, but it always tells me a lot about the company’s culture.

I have had excellent resolutions when writing the CEOs of State Farm Insurance and Sony.  When I contacted McDonald’s CEO, I got back a computer-generated and very generic form letter that said nothing. I wasn’t “Loving It.” When I contacted Comcast (for my friend), I didn’t even get that. With that said, it may be worth your while to write the big cheese when normal channels fail.

-When available, you can also reach out to consumer advocacy groups or other agencies that help consumers resolve problems. 

-Sometimes, the best action that you can take is with your feet.  Do this depending on the level of need you have for that product or service.

As far as CJDR is concerned, I’m done with them.  They will no longer have my business.  But what about giants like Amazon?  I had a Prime Business membership with Amazon until this year.  Now Amazon wants me to pay for that membership, plus a regular Amazon Prime membership to gain (basically) the same level of service that I had previously.  This, plus Amazon’s continued focus on profits, made me think twice about renewing Prime, and as of yet, I have not done so.  

What is the outcome of this action?  First, I’m doing a lot less impulse buying. Second, I’m shopping locally for items that I previously bought on Amazon.  Third, I’m generally buying less overall (yay!). Earlier, I was a significant Amazon purchaser; now, I’m a minor Amazon buyer.  An additional benefit is less stress. For example, it is stressful to decide on what egg timer you want when you have over seven pages to sort through.  However, if I go to my local hardware store, there are only two, much easier!

Since corporations need to serve their shareholders, they are interested in showing a quarterly profit.  However, this is a poor long-term strategy.  The only way to change this devolution is to let your feelings be known by your words, reviews, and feet.  Sometimes you can’t change a company’s culture, but by the above actions, you are more likely to find an organization that believes that you and your business are essential.