Probably like you, I have felt the shift away from true customer service over the last several years. I can't remember the last time I called a help line and actually talked to a person without pushing lots of buttons, or giving answers that confused the machine. I have found repeating a gibberish phrase sometimes speeds up the "please wait while we transfer your call" event.
When I have called a credit card service number, by the time I fight my way through to a human, he or she is located in Munbai or some foreign location. How do I know? The person's attempt at speaking English is almost unrecognizable. Besides being very heavily accented, talking at three times normal conversational speed doesn't help. Asking to speak to a supervisor means being put on hold for several minutes, and then talking with someone who is a bit older, but still isn't speaking a language I recognize.
The list goes on. Home Depot tried to eliminate most of the helpers from their stores, only to see complaints increase and sales drop, so back came the orange aprons. I've written about the weak customer service at my local Borders bookstore. They are out of business. I'm sure you can add dozens of your own examples.
So, it has been interesting to watch two high profile developments in the last few weeks. Netflix has been an example of a company that was doing everything right. It dominated the streaming movies on the Internet niche. Blockbuster has virtually given up the ghost. Cable companies view Netflix as their worst nightmare. Netflix has become synonymous with Internet movies.
Then, management had a major stupid attack. Prices were jacked up 60% for a lot of customers. The company stated that they expected the DVD disc through the mail portion of their business to be less than 10% of the total by the end of this year. The problem is, their streaming library is weak. "Recent" additions are movies that can be 10 or 20 years old. TV show choices are thin. "Classic" movies apparently mean anything more than 12 months old. In short, they were trying to force their customers into streaming and away from the more expensive disc-by-mail method without the resources to back it up. The response was predictable. Hundreds of thousands of customers have said goodbye. Netflix has seen huge drops in its stock price. Competitors smell blood in the water, most notably Amazon.
Then, to prove they had completely lost their mind, Netflix announced that henceforth, the disc through the mail service would be called Qwikster and require navigating a different web site with different billing and queue practices. The howl from customers became even louder. More cancellations followed. Amazon and Hulu announced major new additions to their libraries.
Apparently, someone at Netflix finally had a slap upside the head and realized he was on the road to destroying the company's image and good will in just a few months. He apparently finally heard the sound of customers' feet as they were streaming to the exits. Qwikster died before being born. Netflix didn't change its pricing policy but began a very public move to beef up the library available for streaming.
Let's shift our focus to everyone's new devil: banks. Bank of America decided now would be a good time to charge people to access their own money. The infamous $5 a month debit card charge was born. Meanwhile, under the radar of most people Wells Fargo, Chase, and smaller organizations like Suntrust Bank had been testing such a move for months, But, when B of A made their announcement, the public rose up as one. Reports of people cutting up their debit cards in bank lobbies mounted. Credit Unions had their biggest growth spurt in years as fed up customers pulled their accounts from the big banks (the ones that got all that bailout money) and looked for alternatives.
Last week B of A, Wells Fargo, Chase, and SunTrust announced they were just kidding. The plan to charge people to use a debit card was killed. But, almost within the same breath, most banks began to announce new higher minimums to avoid monthly fees and higher late fees. Reports are circulating that banks will soon install parking meters in their lots, and a charge to open the bank door. I think these last two are false, but only because someone hasn't figured out what to call these fees.
What I am welcoming is the inevitable result of companies treating their customers poorly. There has been an attitude for way too long that we, the customers, will take whatever is dished out to us. We will meekly accept every attempt to nickel and dime us to death, with nary a peep of protest. We have been told to be happy we have these large organizations looking out for our best interest. And, for the most part we have accepted it (think airline fees and health insurance premiums).
To see Netflix and the banking industry buckle, even a little, is tremendously encouraging. I pray it means the American consumer has been pushed as far as he or she is willing to be shoved, and push back has begun. Without getting into all the pros and cons of the Occupy Wall Street situation and how it is playing out, I find it interesting the the majority of the American public supports the basic message of OWS: the have-nots are being trampled by the haves. They are saying our society is becoming polarized and the middle class as we have known it, is disappearing.
I'm not taking this post political. What I am highlighting is the new aggressiveness of the customer to reject practices that are blatantly harmful and unwarranted. Where this will lead, if anywhere, will be interesting to track. Unfortunately, it is likely the entire message will become sound bites and positioning statements during the political races of 2012.
Our economy is built on consumption. I have suggested that mindset has been one of the causes of our current economic mess. I am an advocate of simpler living, and mindful consumption over mindless spending. I am a proponent of knowing the difference between needs and wants. I am a firm believer that the consumer of any product and service is best served by paying attention to what is going on. If something strikes you as unfair, predatory, or simply wrong, you must speak up and take your business elsewhere. You should reward the business that treats you well and punish the one that doesn't. That's how our system is supposed to work. I am seeing the first glimmer of light that says our eyes are opening.