November 9, 2011

The Customer Strikes Back - I Hope

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.

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  1. I agree. I was surprised to see them "buckle", but they did. It shows that we can have an effect. A good thing!

  2. I recently switched doctors because at my old doctor, I had to punch several buttons and the was told to leave a message. After doing this, they never called me back! When I was calling around to see which doctors took my insurance, I found one where someone actually answered the phone-no buttons, no runaround. They got my business!

    I'm a firm believer in voting with my feet. I am one of those who quit Netflix and I bank at our local community credit union as I had a big run in with Wells Fargo years ago and learned my lesson about banks.

    I have noticed lately when calling companies, such as ATT, I get a person who is VERY helpful and asks you to do a survey at the end about their customer service. I think some companies are hearing the message.

  3. Joan,

    You are right about doctor's offices and their system. Just last week my wife called the pharmacy to get a prescription refilled. A week later the pharmacy still hadn't gotten the OK from the doctor, who claimed to have never received a request. Of course, the pharmacy had a confirmed fax message. It became a "he said-she said" battle that was only resolved when my wife went to the doctor's office, picked up a copy of the renewal, and hand-carried it to the pharmacy. Needless to say, she isn't happy with the misinformation and denial of responsibility.

    Interesting info about AT&T. Maybe, just maybe!

  4. The lack of consumer service sure spans borders. I'm not sure what annoys me more; bank fees, never-ending airline fees (that are never added on to that discount flight they advertise) or computerized phone queues, wait it might be the charge on plastic shopping bags. I try to limit my use of plastic so this policy really has me torn(great idea from an environmental standpoint - my gripe, if that were only the store's real motive). I walk with my feet when I can.

  5. Ryshia,

    Walking away is about our best defense isn't it. Some places, like Hawaii and San Francisco, have banned plastic bags completely, which is a good thing and avoids the whole charging issue.

  6. You must be hacking into my life! (Just kidding.) Yesterday, I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a customer service person explaining why I had used their company for years because of the excellent personal service and was now thinking about switching because of a slacking off in that area.

    I should add that I rarely complain. I believe, as you suggest, in rewarding good service. I am quick to compliment good service by leaving tips, by speaking to supervisors, by filling out compliment cards, by asking to see the manager (who is always stunned that someone is seeking her out for good news!). Most important, I am quick to say thank you and to be specific about what I appreciate.

  7. Galen,

    The government or Google or the phone company may be watching you, but it isn't me (except your excellent blog!).

    The point you make about rewarding good service is extremely important. If we don't compliment and support those who are making an effort, they won't know what they are doing is even being noticed.

    I have had the same experience you have in calling over a manager to say something nice about a waitress or employee. The manager comes over with a grim look expecting the worst, and always leaves with a big smile.

    That few seconds helps the employee, the manager, and every other customer of that establishment.

  8. I certainly agree about rewarding good service! I am one to write letters and emails to companies when I have a complaint but I've also done the reverse.

    Funny story- One time at Albertsons someone asked me if I was finding what I was looking for and I said no. It was a certain flavor of coffee creamer. They said they'd certainly order it for next time. Next time, same thing-no creamer and I was again promised they would get some in for me. Even a manager talked to me about it.

    Still no creamer. I knew that another Albertson's several miles away had it so it was not hard to get.

    I emailed Albertsons HQ and complained. Next thing I know, the manager and the guy in charge of the department were on my doorstep with a big bouquet of flowers and 4 bottles of the creamer which they gave me.

    Very impressive and I complimented everyone and emailed HQ again saying so. The funny thing is, they still never got the creamer in the store-lol.

    I enjoyed my flowers and called it a day.

  9. I'm in the market for a new laptop. I was looking at a Dell. But I recall trying to get some customer service out of Dell a few years back, with my previous desktop, and they were IMPOSSIBLE. Someone told me, however, that they've brought customer service back to the U.S. from India, that the phone reps are much more responsive, that customer service has improved a lot.

    Does anyone know if this is really true? If Dell fixed its "stupid attack?" Would appreciate any advice. Thx!

  10. Joan,

    Your story reminds me of the 3 months it took for one of the local Wal Marts to fix a water fountain. After trying to use it and finding only a slight dribble of water coming out, I mentioned the problem to a customer service person. One week later, same thing. One week later, a repeat. One week passes, and again, still out of service.

    I stopped trying the fountain for at least a month, but one day thought I'd give it a shot. Guess what, no change. Now, this was becoming a personal crusade. This time I called the manager and was told any requests for repair have to be submitted to home office in Arkansas. Since this was the first he had heard of the problem (!) he would take care of it.

    You guessed it: no working fountain for the next 3 weeks. Finally, 3 months after first notifying the store of the problem, I was able to get a drink at the Super Center.

    Doesn't it seem rather dumb that it takes paperwork and approval from a corporate office 1,000 miles away just to get a maintenance man to adjust the water flow in a drinking fountain?

    I didn't get any flowers, either!

  11. Sightings,

    I can only add that I had the same experience a few years ago with Dell service. I now use the Geek Squad at Best Buy. They are more expensive, but are uniformly happy and helpful.

    I read the same thing you did about Dell, but have no personal knowledge. Can anyone help with new info?

  12. I frequent a dept store in my area, called Steinmart. I really enjoy shopping at this chain store because they have well priced, well made items, and they operate as stand alone stores, meaning I don't have to brave a mall (!) to get there. A few months back I was in line to purchase some items and noticed how lackluster the on-register employees were behaving. There was no sense of urgency that a line was building and customers were getting impatient. An employee actually yawned loudly just before motioning me to approach with my purchases. Every marketing bone in my body was incensed as I left the store and drove home.

    Because I really like this store and want to see them continue to remain in business, I wrote an email to the corporate HQ. In my email I stressed that I liked their product, and that I wanted to see them continue to grow and remain profitable, but pointed out that if they lost their focus on the importance of their customers and their customer's time, they would soon go the way of Kmart, Mervyn's and even Borders.

    I got an apology email the very next day from the local store manager, assuring me they would do better. As a customer, and as a former business professional, I truly appreciated the effort the company made to acknowledge my concerns. It's OK to stumble - as long as you learn from it and change course quickly.

    And I still happily shop there today as a result.

  13. Tamara,

    To err is human, so it is OK to stumble. How someone responds is the true test.

    I like the comments so far where someone notices a problem and takes the time to notify the store/company of the issue. It is the rare organization that ignores that type of direct feedback. Frankly, it is our responsibility as a user of a product or retail establishment to tell them of our feelings, both good and bad. After all, they aren't mind readers.

    We haven't mentioned the incredible power of twitter and Facebook to really nail a company that is behaving badly. Literally millions of tweets were exchanged over the Netflix and debit card debacles. I believe companies are very aware of how rapidly customer sentiment can turn if a problem finds its way to social media. That may be one of our most powerful weapons in the fight to restore decent customer service where it is severely lacking.

  14. Whenever you pay for something, customer service is fantastic. Whenever you want to be reimbursed, it sucks. Not always, but they make it difficult so you give up.

  15. Sonia,

    The health care system, in particular, is set up to deny most expensive claims as a matter of course. They rightly assume many people will give up and just pay the costs. I take it as a personal challenge.

  16. Steve in Los AngelesThu Nov 10, 04:49:00 PM MST

    Hi Bob,

    With regard to your response above to Sonia, one of the reasons I REALLY like Kaiser Permanente is that I know exactly what my co-pay will be for each appointment and for each prescription. There are no surprises.

  17. Steve,

    But what happens if you have an expensive test or procedure? Do they find a way to deny your claim or say it is "experimental?" Just wondering

  18. Steve in Los AngelesFri Nov 11, 10:29:00 PM MST


    I never had that experience with Kaiser Permanente. My affiliation with that organization goes all the way back to 1965.

  19. Steve,

    I expected your response. My question was really rhetorical since I've never heard anyone say a bad thing about KP. Frankly, I wish it were available in Arizona.