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Bill Kalmar

Quality Insider

I Attract Poor Service

Can I be demagnetized?

Published: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 - 06:10

To illustrate how out of place he sometimes felt, comedian George Gobel once remarked, “Have you ever felt that the whole world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” When it comes to good customer service I sometimes feel like those brown shoes. Poor service seems to find me, as though I’ve become a magnet for everything that can go awry in customer service. Let me explain.

The latest results from the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) indicate that overall service has improved slightly. This was the first gain in over a year, and the satisfaction index now stands at 75.2 percent. Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI, says, “Households are under pressure from falling housing prices, tight credit, and rising food and fuel costs, making it more difficult for satisfied consumers to spend more even if they want to. The smart move for companies in this economic environment is to make sure they keep the customers they have by shoring up their customer relationships.”

The end result, one would think, is that every interaction with a department store, health care facility, transportation entity, or restaurant would be a positive experience. Evidently, and unfortunately, I am a test case for poor service. Sometimes I think that customer service personnel know that I am a columnist who writes about performance excellence or a lack thereof, and as such they want me to experience “hands on” examples of shoddy service. This past month provided a storehouse of exasperating interactions with store and service personnel.

Let’s start with the simple act of purchasing a man’s polo shirt. Regular readers of this column know that I’m a strong advocate of empowering employees, thus avoiding management intervention, which slows up the process and irritates the consumer. What follows is a classic example of an employee adhering to company policy and thus losing a sale.

No, we don’t want your money. A recent visit to a department store showed me why retail sales are down. Macy’s had men’s polo shirts on sale for 30 percent off the original price, a savings of $21. The colors offered were not my first choice so I wandered over to a Lord & Taylor store in the same mall, where the exact same shirts in my color were in stock at full price. Asking the sales clerk if the store would match the price at Macy’s resulted in a cold and pointed “No!” I then suggested that a 15-percent price reduction would seal the deal but again we were deadlocked. I’m now wearing the shirt from Macy’s in my second color choice, because the Lord & Taylor clerk preferred no sale at full price to a discounted sale. Go figure.

The clerk could have empowered herself to provide me with a reduced price, or she could have contacted a supervisor and perhaps resolved this issue. Her rigid stance is indicative of people who obviously aren’t aware that their livelihood depends on satisfying customers. I made another unrelated purchase at Lord & Taylor and mentioned this incident to a different employee, who said that I should have asked for a manager. Frankly, I don’t think that is my role as a customer. In any event, I e-mailed Lord & Taylor executive management about this episode, and I’m awaiting a response.

Our Sears Kenmore refrigerator recently gave up the ghost. Fortunately, we were able to obtain service on the same day, and after we shelled out $225 our refrigerator was repaired . . . not!. The repairman stated that ice that had built up inside the freezer would evaporate overnight and that it would be a simple task for me to replace the back panel, a module, and 14 screws myself the next morning. My 30-year career in banking didn’t prepare me for that task but, trooper that I am, I attempted to reassemble our refrigerator the next day. Alas, I didn’t have the proper tools and called Sears to have the repairman return.

The young man on the other end of the phone indicated that a repairman wouldn’t be available for six days. Well, after talking to four other representatives we were able to get it fixed that day.

In this instance, I even asked the service personnel on the phone if they had a mission statement. None were aware of one, so I offered that perhaps if they were to locate one it would state that “our most important function is to satisfy customers.” I even suggested that the person who monitors calls “for quality purposes,” should be the one to come out to our home to service the refrigerator. My harangue at four people had some effect, because a supervisor arrived 45 minutes after my phone call and repaired the refrigerator in 10 minutes.

Ever since that episode, I have been receiving recorded phone calls from Sears asking for my feedback. Normally, I would provide feedback, but I have no doubt that Sears won’t be improving their customer service in the short or long term, and thus I have declined to participate in their survey. This wasn’t my first experience with poor service from Sears and I’ve concluded that it’s an embedded cultural problem, and I don’t have the time, the patience, or the inclination to provide feedback. I think impersonal prerecorded calls are symptomatic of companies that really don't want to hear feedback from customers. Exemplary companies enlist the services of organizations that make personal calls to customers for feedback. Maybe after my blood pressure subsides a bit I will reconsider, but for the time being I’m convinced that Sears is comfortable providing mediocre service rather than assessing itself and identifying areas requiring improvement.

Most establishments survey customers after a transaction. The best companies then act on that feedback to strengthen and improve their processes. On the other hand, some give customer feedback only a perfunctory review and make few changes. Like that of Sears, their attitude is “we know better than the customer.”

Health care My third example of a service breakdown comes from my national health care provider. Back in April, my wife, Mary, and I went to the local office to register her for Medicare and supplemental insurance. The clerk noticed that Mary’s birthday was in July and wondered why we were coming in so early. From personal experience I knew that it would take months for a new revised statement and cards to be delivered, and we persuaded the clerk to accommodate us.

In June the revised statement and cards still hadn’t arrived. Calls to three different representatives of the health care company didn’t resolve the problem—all of them indicated that Mary’s new insurance policy was in process and we should remain patient. Finally, two days before the new insurance was to take effect I learned that there was no record of our signing up in April. Repeated calls to the customer service area didn’t find a representative who was operating in my estimation with a sense of urgency about this oversight, so I sent an e-mail to the executive team.

The next day we received a phone call from the president's office with an apology. We also learned that someone along the way had “dropped the ball” and that even though we hadn’t received a statement or new cards, Mary’s insurance would remain in force. To their credit, we received a statement and new cards within days. While I hesitate to escalate problems to the executive level, in this case it was the only way to break through an attitude of laissez faire.

As you can see, problems seem to reside at my door. Sometimes I feel as if someone has posted the proverbial “kick me” sign on my back. On the other hand, it provides me with a never-ending selection of topics to write about.

Other topics: By now you’re probably aware of my affinity for The Ritz-Carlton hotels. I’m totally enamored with their service and the culture that provides exemplary customer service. Recently I received an autographed copy of a new book from Joseph A. Michelli entitled The New Gold Standard, The Inside Story of The Ritz-Carlton (McGraw-Hill, 2008). Along with his signature he inscribed the words “Quality matters.” The book is an excellent blueprint of the inner workings of this two-time Baldrige winner. The processes described in the book are applicable to all businesses, particularly the chapter on empowerment and problem solving. If you are seeking a way to reenergize your business, provide exemplary service to your customers, and create a culture that encourages empowered employees to always look for ways to improve the customer experience, then you should read this book. Short of that, make a reservation at a Ritz-Carlton.

Let me close this month with some of my current pet peeves: I just heard an ad on the radio about a sale on men’s suits at a local store. The announcer stated, “Our prices are so low that we can’t reveal the makers of these fashionable suits.” Tell me what would entice me to drive to a store to buy merchandise not knowing the maker? Would you drive to a car dealership to purchase an automobile because the price was low but the dealer couldn’t reveal the make or year of the car? I think not! With our stagnant economy I would think that merchants would be more upfront in advertising their products. Needless to say, I didn’t participate in this suit sale. Of course, one of the advantages of being retired is that my wardrobe now (Michigan weather permitting) consists of khakis, sandals, and t-shirts.

Dining in a restaurant and being approached by our server who asks casually, “Are you guys still working on that?” really grates me. That would be an appropriate question if I were a beaver crunching my way through a load of logs. The words “Are you guys still working on that” should be reserved for carpenters who are constructing a home, not for a diner. The next time I’m asked that question I will politely ask for a hammer and nails and start nailing my napkin to the table. Then and only then will I answer the question with a resounding “Yes!” And when did the term “guys” become part of restaurant jargon?

I heard today that, because of a combination of high fuel costs and fear of losing their jobs, only 39 percent of workers will be taking a vacation this year. It seems that if we are away from our desks someone might decide that we’re expendable, so some of us remain chained to our desk. People who don’t take physical vacations often take mental vacations on the job. These people are burned out and need to be re-energized. If you’re unable to take a two-week vacation on consecutive days, it’s time to move on to another job or career. Most banks in fact require employees to be away from the job for a mandatory two weeks. It has to do with state or federal law so that if the employee is involved in some type of internal fraud or embezzlement it would come to light during those two weeks. So if your employer resists vacations just inform the boss that you’re taking leave to prove that you aren’t stealing from the company. That should get someone’s attention.

That’s it for this month. I eagerly await the next poor service interaction since I seem to be a magnet for personnel who are more than happy to create chaos in my world. On the other hand, I understand that demagnetizing magnets entails creating disorder to the magnet. So just maybe my rants and raves to customer service representatives might have that effect. I relish creating disorder! I will keep you apprised of developments.


About The Author

Bill Kalmar’s picture

Bill Kalmar

William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director from 1993 through 2003. He served on the Board of Overseers of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and has been a Baldrige examiner. He was also named quality professional of the year by the ASQ Detroit chapter. Now semiretired, Kalmar does freelance writing for several publications. He is a member of the USA Today Vacation Panel, a mystery shopper for several companies, and a frequent presenter and lecturer.


Me too..

We always seem to get the trainee server at restaurants. Usually poor, but an opportunity to communicate customer desires. Unfortunately there is high turnover so the lesson gets lost.

But I suspect the more rare thing (vs attracting poor service) is encountering good service. Low pay, low empowerment and high turnover are key causes of poor service. But the root cause is culture. Descriptive terms that come to mind are greedy, lazy and cheap.