Facing down service with a scowl

A petrified bloom. . .

The annals of lousy customer service grow longer with each day that passes in this, and every other, country that manufactures careless, disinterested workers in ballooning proportions. Rudeness, it seems, is the preferred posture.

A friend, who shall remain nameless, recounts his recent experience with an airline ticket agent who, when asked a simple question, barked: “Why, exactly, is that my problem? Get back in line!” The friend was so incensed, he wrote a letter to the head of the company. He called it “therapy,” but he’s not holding his breath till redress arrives.

My strategy for dealing with such instances – increasing, as they are – of surliness is more direct. “Don’t give me any of your lip, counter help,” I’m apt to blurt, before taking my business elsewhere. But I grew up on the mean streets of major cities, where we all talked that way.

My real problem is not crumbling decorum as much as it is creeping ignorance among those I pay to do a job I’m not qualified to undertake myself. In these situations, courtesy, though desirable, is less important than competence, which is a perishable commodity in these not especially best of times.

A couple of years ago, Toronto Star business writer Ellen Roseman posted a column on the subject to the CBC’s website. “Dave Carroll, a Halifax musician, wrote a song about the damage to his guitar on a United Airlines flight to Chicago,” she reported. “After posting it on YouTube, he became a symbol of a worldwide protest against poor customer service.”

She continued: “‘United Breaks Guitars’ is now a trilogy of videos. . .While Carroll did get a compensation offer from the airline, he turned it down. His goal is to make big corporations reconsider how they treat ordinary people.”

Indeed, she observed, “Airlines are notorious for bureaucratic handling of customer claims, but they’re not alone. Telecommunications firms – such as Bell, Rogers and Telus – often make you spend time on the phone waiting to speak to a human being. Communication is not their strong suit. . .Banks used to let you speak to branch staff, but now you’re connected to a call centre. One bank, TD Canada Trust, uses call centres in India. And Sears Canada has replaced a call centre in Saskatchewan with one in the Philippines.”

Others merely scratch their heads. “Why (doesn’t a company’s) associates understand that their job is dependent on whether or not I spend my money with the business who writes their check?” wondered an administrative officer and public relations manager at an American home improvement franchise in a post some time ago to eLocal.com. “In the past, I would have blamed this on the teenager behind the counter who was forced to be there by their parents. This isn’t the case anymore. These people are grown men and women, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandparents even.”

In our case, my wife and I have endured a litany of screw-ups by allegedly skilled tradespeople who have worked on our rambling, old home in the west end of Moncton.  There’s the “new” driveway that was graded, helpfully, to conduct water against the foundation, rather than away from it. There are the custom-built kitchen drawers that stick whenever the humidity rises above 60 per cent because they don’t fit the box for which they were designed.

Still, despite all of this, some, small light does shine.

Last week, we took delivery of a brand, new natural gas furnace and air conditioner. The fuel company and the energy distributor worked together like beautifully choreographed ballet dancers – efficiently, knowledgeably and courteously. They answered our questions promptly and convincingly. They didn’t try to oversell us or pull  the wool over our once-jaded eyes.

We emerged from the experience with a renewed appreciation for the dignity of work and for those who remain committed to their own self-respect. All of which proves, if nothing else, that if customer service is an endangered species, it’s not dead yet.


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