Dismal American Customer Service

On Friday, December 9, 2011, I had another ridiculous customer service experience. I’ve had many such encounters in my life since 1970. In my mind 1970 was the year when customer service started going downhill and it hasn’t let-up since then for far too many Americans.

My story started when I ordered an item online earlier this week. I requested to pick the item up at the store and was notified it was there ready for me yesterday afternoon. Although this took place in a particular store it could have been any store offering this service.

In my particular situation when I arrived was informed I needed to proceed to the desk in a small office at the back of the store. At that office there are actually two functions going on: Photo Service and Online Pickups. There is a line of people ahead of me and the workers in the office are slowed down by the fact there is only one customer terminal in this office for them to use.

My initial observation as an analyst and project manager is this arrangement is a constraint on providing good customer service. Why not have two separate offices to handle the two types of services and why not have one terminal for each? I know the answer is the executive management only wants to increase profits and not be too concerned with customer service. To increase profits it’s better to make customers wait, and wait.

The next item I observed is that this office is messy looking and cluttered with lots of empty cardboard boxes. I learned a long time ago that a messy and cluttered office is an indication of poor processing. This can also leave a bad impression on a long line of customers who begin to talk about having to wait in line hoping their photos or packages can be picked up when they work their way to the service desk.

I wasn’t in a hurry yesterday and the analysis I made to this point were because I could see the staff wasn’t handling the pressure very well and wanted to see how much further the chaos might evolve by just kicking back to observe.

Just before I was the next customer to be processed, I noticed I was already standing in line for about ten minutes. That’s a reasonable wait in this situation. I then noticed that several other staff were scurrying around because they have a second terminal that they can use, except it’s in another location a few aisles away. That’s right, there are other department staff that use that single terminal so you can imagine how the entire store must be organized this way.

Normally, if I was in a hurry, I would not be understanding how the store employees are working against themselves by this design. But I don’t blame them! They are only doing what they are told to do by management that doesn’t see the negative impact this inadequate process has on the customers.

Once I made it to the service desk I gave my pickup notice and that’s when the real fun began. For the next 30 minutes, I watched people scurrying around into the warehouse and out looking for my item. I noticed that no one had attempted to scan the inventory system to determine if the item had actually arrived. I would think that should be done first, right?

A supervisor showed up to help one of the staff fix the lone terminal because now the waiting line had become long again and those employees that are sent out looking for a free terminal to use, must have went on a break because they were nowhere to be found. But once the line shrank back down they showed up in a swarm. Get the picture?

As the supervisor was exiting the office I stopped him and calmly, politley¬† explained to him that the process in place is useless. That if the process couldn’t be improved the service should be stopped instead of putting customers through the debacle. Surprisingly, he agreed! He said upper management refuses to listen to the staff’s feedback and instead continues to issue edicts about they should just do their jobs!

I immediately recognized that upper management pattern from my own corporate experiences. That pattern has infected almost every business in America. But I digress.

After several more people joined into the treasure hunt for my item in the back of the warehouse, I waited another 20 minutes before deciding I had learned enough and requested to stop the search and seek a refund. I had now spent about one hour of waiting.

Another manager explained how sorry he was for the experience. I told him I understood the problems the employees face under their work conditions. He personally escorted me up to the front to receive my rebate.

Imagine my surprise when the terminal system used could not give me a refund because it showed the item was in the store but never picked up by me! This was observed by another long queue of people in that Return Line whom the supervisor had cut in front of (with me) to expedite my refund. It was another tense 15 minutes waiting there for the Return Desk staff person to figure out how to end-run the terminal and provide me a cash refund instead!

I could name this store but I won’t. I know the management would only blame the staff and my issue was not with the staff, but with the process in place. The terrible process in place is known as Common Cause Variation and described in Six Sigma Courses I studied a couple years ago.

The next time you’re in a customer service situation that breaks down, take some time to understand what you observe. Resist the temptation to be frustrated and angry. You may realize the people to be blamed are probably not the staff people you encounter.

Instead you may reach the same conclusion I have and that is poor customer service starts at the top of an organization and works its way swiftly downward to you. Then think about that fact there are many tens of thousands of American organizations infected the same way.

In closing the item I ordered would have cost me $5 plus tax. At least ten people spent about ten man-hours involved in the search and resolution issue before I received my cash refund. One would think if upper management understood that happens once too often they would improve their customer service processes because it’s contributing to a loss of business and customers. In a world of global competition for those same customers, some organizations may lose out disenfranchised customers forever…

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About Don Larson

Using computer technology since June 1980.
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