Big Biz overwhelming, but smart consumers still have a voice

“The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best but legendary.”


– Sam Walton,
founder of Wal-Mart


Nothing steams me more as a paying customer than lousy service. I haven’t taken a survey myself, but I sense customer service isn’t what it used to be. Consumer advocate Clark Howard likes to call it “customer no-service.” And he’s not far off the mark.

As businesses get bigger, they are removed further and further from the person who is paying the bill. They even contract with someone with a poor command of English halfway around the world to answer the complaint line for them.

Last month, twice in the same week, I was lost in the twilight zone of customer serve for two major terrestrial communications companies. First, at work the Internet and phones were out for three days before a repair lady appeared on the scene. Initially, we had been told “the problem is in Atlanta.” Actually, a piece of equipment in Augusta had failed.

Second, a line was cut at home, taking out my television and Internet. Three frustrating days of phone calls to the company’s East Asian call center got me nowhere. A Facebook friend came over and spliced the cable. What? We get better customer service from people on a social network than from a multibillion-dollar company?

If you’re like me, you write checks each month to pay for myriad services. You can’t get along without things such as the daily newspaper, water, telephone, burglar alarm, Internet, electricity and natural gas, just to name a few. (I found after three days of darkness that you can get along without television!)

Those checks quickly add up. I send more than $2,000 a year to the television/Internet company. You’d think I could get some respect when I call the 800 number, wherever in the world that number takes me.

After a long wait on hold, my call gets disconnected. Later, someone on the phone promises a technician is on the way. When he doesn’t show, another person claims the appointment was cancelled for darkness. He feels good he was able to reschedule the appointment for me – in four days! And by the way, I’m told I need to hang around the house for a 12-hour window to let him in. Give me a break!

Back at the office, I call the major Internet/telephone service to check on my service call. “We’re waiting for (so-and-so) to notify us of the results of their examination,” she says. ”Well, I can notify you right now, because he just left here and said it is your problem.” She responds, “He may not have told you the truth.” Argh!

After the office service was restored, I called the company about a billing adjustment for the days we were without service. At least the lady didn’t laugh at me. She did say that she would compute a number for me, and I could “take it or leave it.”

As the old Brown & Williamson tobacco ad supposedly goes, “I won’t complain. I just won’t come back.”

Unfortunately, the nature of our economy is that bigger is supposed to be better. But what increasing size often does is reduce or completely eliminate competition. We consumers are at the mercy of the big corporations. And we have virtually no recourse. We must use their services at the price they demand, and their call centers when things don’t go right.

So why don’t we make some demands of our own? Next time you have a problem, take charge of the situation. Be in control. Don’t settle for deferrals and non-answers.

Get the name of the person you are speaking with. Keep a record of when you talked and the responses you got. Not getting anywhere? Ask for a supervisor.

Be specific about what your problem is and what you want done about it. The morning of the third day our office service was out, I told the customer service representative that I wanted a solution to my problem and a timetable for resolving it, and I would stay on the phone until I got that. They gave me what I wanted.

Don’t be afraid to use social media. You’d be surprised how many companies watch tweets and the like to see what people say about them. A survey shows that 62 percent of us complain on social media.

Are you a longtime, loyal customer? You should let them know that and try to use that fact to your advantage. Use the Internet to find the folks in the corporate offices who appreciate your business.

Don’t threaten, or get nasty or rude. Many of these operators seem clueless. They know only what is in their talking points. I remember the wise words of a friend of mine: Just because someone is stupid, doesn’t necessarily mean they are entitled to have that information. He actually didn’t say “stupid,” but this is a family publication.

I know you’ve heard it said many times: The customer is always right. Really? Is that the way you feel you are being treated? I remember many a phone call I received as regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from people complaining about public housing. More often than not, I would disarm them by agreeing, telling them “You’re right.” When I would ask what they wanted me to do to fix the problem, very few had a clue.

“Customers don’t always know what they want,” says Howard Schultz, whose company is building that big Starbucks plant here. He figured out how to do coffee, and as a result, people “found we were filling a need they didn’t know they had.”

It’s easy to be clobbered by corporate America. It’s easy to give up the fight and settle for mediocrity. But as a consumer – the person who writes the checks – you do have the power to fight back. It’s worth it.


(The writer is a former mayor of Augusta and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)



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