ATLANTA -- It seemed like every time John Lockwood took his new car back to his dealership for service, he was done a disservice.
Twice he and his wife were told the car was ready, but when they arrived, the repairs hadn't been done. One time, the employees couldn't even find their car for an hour.
When a brake repair job made it necessary for them to rent a car, the dealership reimbursed them -- two months later, after repeated phone calls from the Lockwoods.
"They were kind of vague, and not very honest," said Lockwood, a high school counselor in Oak Lawn, Ill. "They acted like they didn't have time for us, like we were being overly demanding."
For those who demand, or at least expect, good service, these are not good times. The stronger the U.S. economy has become, it seems, the weaker service has gotten.
"When you tell people you're in this business, you could build your portfolio of clients just from everybody who says `Your first client needs to be so-and-so,"' said David Deutsch, chief executive officer of Service Intelligence, an Atlanta-based company that helps businesses identify customer service problems and develop a comprehensive plan to improve and maintain service.
At Wednesday's annual shareholders meeting of The Home Depot, Arthur Blank, president and chief executive officer, commented that his company's 180,000 employees are "a dying breed (who) believe in taking care of customers."
While the home improvement retailer has continued to emphasize service and employee training -- Deutsch mentions Ritz-Carlton, Charles Schwab, Starbucks and Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A among other prominent companies that come to mind for service -- many others have let it slide as a priority.
Companies looking to make cuts often target service areas, Deutsch said, and the corporate downsizing of the 1980s undercut many employees' feelings of company loyalty. High technology, with often-understaffed customer support lines, voice mails and other depersonalized staffing, has introduced new frustrations for consumers.
And, low unemployment makes many low-wage employees in retail and restaurant jobs unconcerned about job security -- there are plenty other openings.
The result is a steady decline in the past decade in most surveys of consumer satisfaction with service. Deutsch said one recent survey found 46 percent felt service is getting worse; only 18 percent said it's getting better.
His company invites people to tell of service horror and hero stories on its World Wide Web site. Horrors have outnumbered heroes 2-to-1.
--A writer told of a fast-food drivethru employee who couldn't get the order right. A co-worker made excuses for her, saying she "is very sick, I think she has the flu," and explained that she herself had come to work recently with stomach flu.
--A man wrote of trying to buy a pair of jeans at "a major retail shop" in Houston. He complained about the lack of assistance and was told by a clerk "that if I didn't like it, to go somewhere else to shop."
--A software company sent its new users manual and reference manual to the local printer. When the deadline came, it was told the account executive handling it no longer worked there, and had "destroyed all pending jobs." The owner's only offer of compensation was a discount on "your next job."
--And, a woman wrote that her seriously ill husband arrived 10 minutes late for his dialysis treatment. The technician later removed him from the dialysis machine a half-hour early, saying she was "going to teach him to be on time."
"This is fairly disappointing news," Deutsch said of surveys on service. "To really have a loyal customer, you have to go beyond that satisfaction level."
Service consultants emphasize to corporate executives that investments in training will impact their bottom line -- studies have found that an average company must spend five to seven times more to attract a new customer than the cost of keeping one.
Deutsch came to Service Intelligence last year after selling majority ownership of a computer training company he helped found called ExecuTrain. Service Intelligence moved its headquarters here from Seattle, where it began in 1992 by offering research and analysis to companies of their service quality.
The expanded company adds comprehensive training and ongoing reinforcement, feedback and measurement of service. Deutsch said the goal is to provide a coordinated program that goes beyond the research, strategy and training components that usually are provided separately by consultants.
The privately held company, whose clients have included Starbucks, Cinnabon, Norwest Bank and Westin Hotels & Resorts, hires "mystery shoppers" to help provide initial analysis.
Peter Gurney, vice president of research, demonstrated one recent day with a stroll into a northern Atlanta mall location for a well-known national department store.
The entranceway was clear of litter, cigarette butts, and the like.
Signs were well-displayed, and promotional items such as Star Wars books were in stock.
So far, so good.
Gurney went to the customer service station. No one there.
There was a pile of merchandise left on the counter.
"No one coming to ask if we need help; or saying help is on the way," he said.
He stood chatting, glancing at his watch.
Still no one.
"So now we've been here 15 minutes," he said, shaking his head. "This isn't good."
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