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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[October 16, 2002]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

You're Not Listening To Me

As some of you may (or may not) have noticed, I've permanently altered the title of this column from "Dot Com Commerce" to "Dot Commentary." When this column was conceived several years ago, e-commerce was the eighth wonder of the world. ("You bought it over the Internet? Wow! Can I touch it?") Now, the Internet is just another channel among many of commerce and customer serviceyawn.

What many companies didn't understand is that even four years ago, it wasn't enough that a company had a Web site and an e-mail address. They had to actually service customers via these channelsthe coolness factor wore off in about eight nanoseconds if customers found their e-mail went unanswered, their click-to-talk requests brought an agent online after about three weeks of waiting, and the Web site was little more than a glossy electronic brochure, with no guts and no real usefulness.

Some companies still don't get it. Electronic or otherwise, customer service is still the single most important ingredient in the recipe of success, if you'll pardon the cheesy kitchen metaphor. "But we have collaborative browsing and voice over IP capabilities on our Web site!" is a common complaint when some companies find themselves accused of bad service. What does it matter, if customers don't know about it or won't use it, and those that do use it experience the kind of frustration that can usually be found only during a morning spent in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles? You might as well be printing your advertisements on the underside of cocktail napkins or putting billboards on the bottom of Puget Sound.

Electronic or otherwise, the gulf between good and bad customer service is ever-widening, with those who get it vastly pulling ahead of those who still clearly don't. This can be no better illustration than two experiences I had today, both polar opposites of one another.

Yesterday, I brought my Saturn into the dealership from which I purchased it two years ago. I had a dead battery and a funny whining sound from the engine. Upon entering the building after leaving my car running (afraid that if I shut it off, it would not start again), I explained the problem to the service desk rep within sixty seconds. He found my record in the computer, confirmed my details, handed me my copy of the work order and told me not to worry about my carsomeone would be along to move it. After which, the dealership's van gave me a ride to work. Sure enough, the car was fixed at the end of the day (the mechanic had called me twice during the day to keep me apprised of its progress). When I picked my car up, it had been washedand vacuumed. Today, I received a call from the Saturn dealership to ask if I'd been happy with the service. I'll be honest, I have few brand loyalties, but I love these people. Asked if I would recommend Saturn to others, I replied honestly, "I already do." The agent seemed as pleased as if I'd given her a personal compliment.

Ready for the dark side? Several hours later, at lunch time today, I ventured out to an incredibly pricey health food market in the ultra-swanky town of Westport, Connecticut. I like the place because its deli is wonderfully stocked with gourmet pre-prepared food, its produce is both organic AND attractive (difficult to find sometimes) and it sells many items I use a lot of (honey, cereal, liquid soap) in bulk form. I'll also admit to a closet addiction to expensive herbal bath products, of which Wild Oats carries an extensive line.

After examining the sandwich choices at the deli, I ordered a vegetarian Reuben. I pointed to the name of the sandwich, listed in 100-plus point type on the sandwich board. The woman toward whom I spoke my order looked dully at me for several seconds, and turned around and wandered away, ostensibly to make my sandwich. Bemused, I watched her move in ultra slo-mo, piling roasted red peppers and feta cheese onto a roll. Now, I don't have Reubens often, but I was pretty sure that the last time I did, it involved no feta cheese. Not being a big fan of feta (it smells like something I once dragged out of a stagnant tidal pool when I was 8), I pointed out to the woman behind the counter that I think she had made me a "Mediterranean," not a Reuben. She stood there for another long 10 seconds, clearly hoping I would take the proffered fake Greco-Roman imposter sandwich. I declined. "Reuben," I said. "It has sauerkrautand Swiss cheese, and some kind of orange-colored dressing," I added helpfully. Another ten seconds of blank staring, then a meander back to the sandwich counter.

Once I finally had my Reuben and the rest of my purchases, I took them to the one and only cashier outpost open (out of a possible 10), and waited for 15 minutes. Since none of the bulk purchase stations had the sticky labels you usually use to mark bulk food, or pens for that matter, my bulk items were unmarked. "What's this?" She held up a viscous, sticky, amber-colored substance in a squeezy plastic bear. I suspect most people on the planet would assume it was honey; my cashier clearly believed there were other possibilities. "Honey," I answered helpfully. She was not enlightened. "What do I do with it?" I stared hard at her, trying to ascertain whether she was teasing me. "Ring it up?" I suggested, trying to assist as best I could. "But there's no label on it," she complained. "So I don't know what the code is." Ahhhthe source of our problem. "There are no labels or pens in the bulk food section," I replied. She stared hard at me for a while, in the same manner of the Fake Reuben Lady, hoping maybe I would suddenly spout the four-digit code for bulk clover honey. When no such information was forthcoming from me, she wandered away to find the code herself, stopping to chat with several of her coworkers along the way, while the 10 people queued behind me stared at me with active dislike. After she got back, we repeated this process with my plastic bottle of peppermint liquid hand soap, and a bag of bulk oatmeal. My suggestion that she should keep a book of the various food codes at the register was met with a hostile glare.

My Reuben was ultimately very tasty, but I'll need a strong impetus to go back to the market again. Too many companies assume that putting one marginally competent, half-trained manager in place to manage 50 untrained, uninspired people will not only keep existing customers, but will help win new ones. I suspect the organic market does not have the beginnings of a clue as to why so many of its customers leave for the health food store down the road, never to return again, despite the fact that it has the best curried turkey salad in town.

The same goes for Web-based customer service, so much of which is still excruciatingly bad. Overuse of e-mail auto-reply programs, in which a customer's request for sizing information on a pair of jeans is met with a cheerful assurance that the company would be happy to ship the puce-colored sweater to Duluth, is rampant. So are unanswered e-mail messages, illogical Web site designs, broken links, deactivated shopping carts, error messages, old databases, outdated information and non-payment of hosting service bills so the Web site is not only bad, but no longer available.

If the organic market and others like it were a human child, they would be a misbehaving 7-year-old, who, upon being told 10 times to stop teasing the dog, gets sent to his room without supper on the 11th time, yet still genuinely does not comprehend why he's suddenly staring at the blank wall, hungry, and with no TV privileges, while the dog wanders away to play with the nice kid next door.

The author, who is feeling slightly queasy after her vegetarian Reuben, can be reached for comment at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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