Consumers Meet The New Age - Technology and Service
Do we want a world that wants our money, but not our business
Copyright © 1998, 2001
Dorian Scott Cole
When I was a kid I thought how great it would be to sleep on water -
it would conform to your body and perfectly support it. There was a host
of technological miracles young people dreamed up that they thought would
make the world perfect. Someone invented waterbeds. About the same time
I was about to have kids and I developed back trouble. I'm sure the two
developments weren't coincidental. I bought a posture mattress and put
a 3/4 inch plywood sheet underneath it. When I later tried out a waterbed,
I hated them. So much for waterbeds and a perfect world - disillusionment.
I have a technical background, but I have to say that technology can
be very disappointing; even a royal pain. On my previous computer I spent
more time installing programs and reinstalling programs, and straightening
out hardware and software conflicts than I did using the thing. Some conflict
that I never could find prevented me from using my floppy drive except
in DOS mode.
My wife tired of hearing me complain and purchased a state-of-the-art
computer from a manufacturer whose superior technology I have been associated
with for over thirty years. It had the next generation of a foolproof operating
system. It was three times faster than my previous computer. And best of
all, it was blessed with two errors that regularly occured when it started,
so it took three times as long to start. Three of my Windows 95 programs
wouldn't work properly, and I had to call one manufacturer to properly set
up one new peripheral after spending two days trying to figure out why
it wouldn't work. Why? Undocumented essential setting. The computer freezes
more often than my old computer. I loved the thing. I don't dare tell my
wife - I suffer in silence. Hurrah for this technological triumph.
The computer desktop had a great facility for contacting the manufacturer
- several different ways including the Internet, fax, and phone. Very confidence
inspiring in the computer store. Late one evening when all should have been quiet,
I gave them a ring. It's a toll call. After wading through five minutes
of automated message instructions which sort out their paint division from
their automotive, and trivial service calls from serious sales calls, I
hung on for another fifteen minutes of expensive silence, interrupted occasionally
by apologies and sales spiels. I finally got the message: they don't want
to hear my problem, they're only interested in my money. It's funny, the
more customers complain about automated phone services and not being able
to talk to a real person, the more managers push to justify how well these
things serve the customer. I guess if you say it often enough everyone
is supposed to believe it. Hurrah for tech.... Bunk. Hire some real people.
A year later I downloaded an update from Microsoft and the problem went away. Another year later I bought a new computer, again three times faster than my previous one, from the same manufacturer. Similar problems - two errors on shutdown that interfere with Windows ME. What does this mean?
I again used this manufacturer's warranty service for my new computer for the shutdown problems. The automated service was much more direct, and the representative was very helpful and did resolve the problem - temporarily. I restarted the computer and it again provided two errors on shutdown, and then for my enjoyment lost the CMOS settings. I'm a technologist as well as a computer user, and I can clearly see that it is often easier just to put up with the problem and wait for the "fix" release. Well, I did call again and the technician talked me through the problem. The DSL modem causes the problem - all I have to do is unplug the modem from the computer before shutting down. So now I get to wait another two years for the modem people to either send me new software or give Microsoft a fix. Aargh!
My previous computer also came with a superior technology virus checker which
I have often purchased for previous computers. It potentially is the cause
of one of my computer start-up problems. What to do? I see it conveniently
updates from the desktop - click and update. Great - I clicked update and
it connected with their Internet site. But before it would download the
update, it wanted a little information. I filled in the boxes until I came
to phone number. Sales calls. I don't need that aggravation - forget
the update. I got their "message" and I left their site. Technology - the
way to get easy sales leads and annoy people. Get the message? I bought their competitor's virus and system tools. They also ask for my phone number, but give me a box to check stating I don't want sales calls.
Technology is making it way too easy to get personal information. I
started to subscribe to a magazine about Internet technology which I often
use on my web site. The magazine would be free to the likes of me. I filled
out the free subscription form until it asked for my date of birth to use
for a secret password. Probably innocuous - maybe they even wanted to send
me a card - who knows.
Since credit information and other personal information is often obtained
by supplying such information, I'm not about to give it out. And information
is often traded or sold to other businesses who might misuse it or be careless
with it. And even if they don't misuse the information, it wasn't being
given over a secure connection and they might not keep it on a server that
is secure from break-ins. And even if the information never was misused,
every time some future anomaly happened regarding my payments or credits,
I would be worrying that the information was being misused. I personally
know people whose identities have been stolen and the hell they have gone
through for months trying to put out all the fires that got started. Forget
the magazine - I don't need the headache.
For every step forward we seem to take two steps backward. My father
would never buy a new lawn mower - it was always a used one. I typically
had about an acre to mow. I got warmed up starting the mower. Yank, yank,
yank, yank, you get the idea. I grew to love lawn mowers that won't start
until you yank your guts out. In forty years we should have made some
progress, right? Tired of paying others to mow our yard, my wife looked
at my expanding mid-section and bought (me) a self-propelled mower with
electric start. No key in the box. Yank, yank, yank...
She purchased a leaf blower. Blows air at 165 MPH. What a sales person.
The instructions for starting it cover a full 8 1/2 x 11 inch page in small
print. Most of the instructions refer to getting the gas mixture right
for cold, medium warm, and hot engines, specifically after you have yanked,
yanked, yanked the cord. I believe this gasoline tool may be an improvement
on the Tin Lizzy, which is one of the oldest automobiles. This open-air
car that looked like a buggy separated from a horse, started with a rotary
crank at the front of the car.
First you got in (or on) the car, set the throttle, and adjusted the
choke. Then you got out of the car, went to the front, and put all your
energy into turning the crank. It wouldn't start, of course. So you went
back to the cab and adjusted the throttle, returned to the front, and cranked.
Then back to choke and throttle, then front to crank. You get the idea.
After a few too many cranks, the engine flooded. You can only unflood an
engine by - you guessed it - crank, crank, cranking on it with the choke
and throttle off.
After starting the car, you quickly jumped in and frantically adjusted
the choke and throttle trying to keep it running, then you laid in the
grass for a while to recuperate. If it didn't start, you simply hitched
your horse to it and dragged it to wherever. If the engine backfired, the
crank turned backward and broke your arm. Hurrah for technology.
I used the leaf blower once. Later I got it out to help with
mulching the leaves. I took the manual with me and carefully followed the
instructions. Yank, yank, yank, hurrah for technology, yank, yank... It
wouldn't start. But it is an improvement over the Tin Lizzy in that it
doesn't break your arm. I called the manufacturer and got the usual automated
torture service. No one would talk to me, but I finally got a message
that said, "Hurrah for you, there is actually a repair service in your
state." The cost of getting it to the repair service should be just slightly
less than the cost of buying a new one. Marketing. Now I know why the instruction
book has printed in large letters, "For occasional use only." It's a disposable,
single use tool. It is going back to the store and I'm getting an electric
So I raked all of my leaves onto my yard and got out my mulching mower
and turned the key. It started, ran for twenty seconds and died. It wouldn't
restart. The battery ran down. I tried again later, yank, yank, yank...
You guessed it. I got out my older lawn mower - I love old lawn mowers.
Yank, yank, yank, yank, yank... yank.... my arm fell off. It wouldn't start
either. Technological marvels, all of them.
My leaves are laying on my lawn, killing it. Hurrah for technology -
next year I will have no yard to mow.
Two years later the electric blower still starts without yanking on it, it has never died, and it still operates well.
The Lawnmower saga continued mercilessly for two years with the key start mower that I had purchased at a warehouse type shopping center that has made its name and fortune competing on the low dollar. The mower and I finally reached an agreement: it would live at the repair shop, and when I wanted to mow my yard I would go get it. After some tinkering and cajoling and yanking, it would start... if it felt like it. Finally one day, an hour after leaving the shop, in a prima donna fit of unreasonableness, it simply refused to do any more. Fed up with lawnmowers that make promises they won't keep, I went to my old standard place which seemed to have conquered its former arrogance and would actually sell to people at some kind of reasonable price without having the FBI do a background check before accepting their business - they actually accept cash now, not just their own credit card - a store that has been around for over a hundred years and sells tools that craftsmen swear by, and I have similarly had good luck as long as I stuck with their top of the line appliances and tools. Not so with their second line - that's the story of the clothes dryer that almost would. It never quite got the idea that it was supposed to actually dry the clothes, not simply sit in the store as a marketing ploy.
Back to lawnmowers, sick of bs engines that have caused me trouble all of my life, I made sure I got a dependable "T" engine, with which I have had few troubles in years of use. Further, I got a mower with an alternator on it instead of a temperamental magneto. With 6.5 horsepower, electric start, and self-propelled gear drive, it was almost too heavy to lift out of the trunk - nothing should stop this beast.
My yard gained three weeks of growth while I wrestled with lawn mowers that wouldn't. I plowed eagerly into my grass, which the mower hardly realized was there. At the end of half-an-hour, the mower... sputtered and died. Wouldn't restart. I drained the entire fuel system, looked everything over carefully, but nothing would get it to restart. I took it to the service center and got a receipt with a written "Promise date" of seven days later. My grass would have to wait. Nine days later I returned to pick it up. "Sorry sir, didn't anyone call you? Your mower isn't back yet - and there is no truck due for two more days." I have never, never, never, never, never been called by a repair service to let me know of a delay - service organizations are not able to handle that kind of emotional discord over the phone - it is simply easier to let the person make an unnecessary trip, full of expectations, and let the counter person see the disappointment and anger in their face firsthand. Being one step removed from the customer means the trail of responsibility is lost.
The store had asked me to buy a service contract, which I refused. I had to wonder, "My previous mower lived at a repair shop not five miles from my house, and it took two or three days to repair it on site. These people want me to buy a service contract from a pickup point twenty miles away, to house my mower at some more remote repair center that takes a full two weeks to do anything?" Does this make any sense?
Finally two days later the mower was returned with a written note to simply get a new one because they couldn't repair it. A cam broke in the engine. So I took it to the store and, you guessed it, there was none in the area and the wait would be another two weeks. This late in the season I could find no adequate mowers that you didn't have to yank, yank, yank. My lawn now mocks the America The Beautiful line, "amber waves of grain," and my neighbors have asked the state road mowing crews to bring their tractor mowers to my grain field until I can get a lawn mower that actually works.
All around the world there are garage and basement inventors who have
been dreaming up better ways to control gasoline engines. They have been
doing this for as long as I can remember. Please, call your nearest gasoline
engine tool manufacturer and tell them your ideas. Tell them I sent you.
If this article didn't give you a laugh, that should.
My latest consumer odyssey involves dealing with a national consumer oriented building supply company, "Hype." My house was at the fix it up or sell it stage so I refinanced and my wife and I began the long and arduous task of finding all of the right material to replace doors, windows, etc. The sales people at Hype were at least as helpful as those at Home Depot, when you could actually get time with one of them at either store. They try, but they are continuously understaffed. Once we had finished this task, we had accumulated a number of expensive orders for both special order stock and "in-stock" merchandise - all at Hype. Having had delivery problems with this company a year before (three missed deliveries without notice), I specifically asked the sales person, "Do these items need to be placed together? Do I need to be here to supervise when they collect the material for the delivery?" No, of course not, what do I think, Delivery is manned by irresponsible half-wits? That was a question that hung heavily in the air over the next three weeks. We set up the delivery with the commercial counter, who noticed with disdain that we weren't commercial contractors, and acted like they could care less. Eleven thousand dollars in material doesn't qualify you as important, and I'm actually OK with that, I just think everyone is important. "Morning or afternoon," I asked, since I would have to be home for the delivery. The guy flipped a coin and smiled. Sometimes you just know trouble is smirking at you.
They missed the delivery day altogether, and didn't bother to call. I called. "What delivery?" they asked. Not this again. I called the store and asked the delivery manager what he was going to do about the consistent delivery problems. "uh...." That told me everything I needed to know, but I then received a long list of excuses for punctuation - the same ones I had heard a year before: "the commercial desk failed to set up the delivery, we have a new delivery manager, we are a little behind." This was good, the manager was prepared with a list of excuses for managing crises. But he obviously had no intention of fixing the underlying problems. Isn't a year long enough? I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and enough slack to keep relations pleasant and work bearable, and I hate to complain, but enough is enough. I got on a consumer site and created a complaint letter to the CEO of Hype. Of course it actually went to someone called "Web editor." I considered talking to TV consumer reporter Clark Howard, the Better Business Bureau, and Hype's board and stockholders, but who wants to invest the time - wouldn't a responsible CEO look into the larger problem. Right. I received a polite reply from a service representative who I doubt has any power to do anything but answer letters to assure people of their commitment to service... and confirm through corporate inaction their complete inability to deliver service.
A few days later a delivery truck arrived. "We apologize, we're a couple of days behind," the driver apologized. I looked in the van. Only half the order was present. I asked, "Where is the rest of the delivery? All of the items were in when I requested the delivery." The man looked puzzled. "What rest of the delivery?" I groaned. We all make mistakes - I had to take some material back because I specified the wrong thing, and on on item the sales guy was gracious enough to let me exchange a special order. So I tried to be patient.
After unloading, the delivery guy said, "If you need to coordinate a delivery, just call me." Right. I had little doubt his performance would be on par with the service representative. I waited for the next delivery. It didn't come and I received no communication. I called the delivery guy. Of course he wasn't in - he was doing deliveries - and he didn't bother to return the call... ever. So much for his promises. Finally I went to the store on a weekend and again asked a manager, "When will they deliver the rest of my orders?" He looked in his computer for my orders. "What orders?" Again I groaned. I reminded myself that the only reason I shop at Hype is because I like some of Hype's material just slightly better than Home Depot's across the street. But actually I would rather do business with a cement block - at least your expectations are never disappointed by the block since you know for certain it isn't going to do anything. I spent a couple of hours preparing four copies of a detailed list of purchase order numbers, sales receipts, and material quantities and descriptions and again visited the store on a week day - more time away from work that pays. I presented the list to a customer service representative who assured me she would give a copy to the delivery guy and to the manager who was conveniently out.
Two days later I had heard no communication and again stopped by to see the manager. "What list?" He had no trouble finding it, but does he ever check his in-box? Communication problem? Just another minor crisis - no real problem here to address? He pledged delivery would be the next day. Finally most of the material was delivered - besides the hassle, I was shorted five items, and two doors were delivered without hardware that is essential for installation. Not to mention the doors were displayed with screens, but are sold without them. I stopped in later to pick up the hardware, and the Sales guy tried to fix the multiple entry problem in the system for the second time. But the system wouldn't let him make changes. Congratulations to Hype whose chronic true problems with communication and delivery (only actual facts and my perceptions or misperceptions are reported here) have worn out even my patience, and become infamous enough to make it into a story. Imagine if you were a home builder and had to work around this kind of nightmare to keep relations good with people you build homes for. If I was a builder, I know that I would need to keep one full time employee at Hype to take care of Hype's internal and external communication, to take care of coordination of orders in Hype's uncoordinated computer system, and to assure Hype's delivery, because they simply find it all impossible to do.
Note for Hype: Service is not an appendage that some other group takes care of. Services like delivery have to be integrated into every facet of a business, including the computer system, and sales people and managers have to have time available to deal with business, not just run around in crisis mode. The identity of the company is protected and only the actual facts are reported to prevent damaging the company or slander, which isn't something I wish to happen - I hope Hypes conquers their problems and does well in business, and the employees retain a good income.
Much of the Internet has now been targeted to get more deeply into the pockets of those who visit commercial sites. Like most things, this isn't necessarily bad in itself. The theory is this: the people who you do business with are the ones who are most likely to purchase more from you. It's a relationship, and it pays to treat people well. Even non-profit organizations do their fund-raising using this philosophy. This philosophy is highly promoted by everyone who wants to sell their products to ecommerce sites. The Customer Relationship Management people beat it to death. At first the emphasis was on cross-selling and upselling - getting people to buy related items and more expensive products. It didn't work well enough to justify the money for the expensive programs. Next they promoted the idea that 20% of your customers are actually responsible for 80% of your revenue. So you should identify and be extra nice to those 20%, and identify the rest as unworthy of service. Which basically means that some (not all) Internet sites have bought in to providing no service for 80% of their customers, and many others provide tiers of service. Many of these sites are willing to share this financial data with other sites so they can treat you the same way. It is interesting that these short-sighted sites don't realize what they do to their profit margins when they shun income, and what they do to their future when they fail to cultivate customers - or even ostracize them through poor service.
I have long suspected that the email service on my Internet site host was losing email, which affects visitors to this site. They built their business on low price, getting thousands to host on them by luring them away from other hosts through the offer of expanded services, and requiring them to buy years of service and pay up front. This is a business model building a business based on numbers, and then offer a larger business. It works. Their emphasis for the last couple of years has been on converting their Internet hosted sites to more expensive hosting services, citing what poor service you "could get" on their less expensive service. One wonders if poor service is purposefull? The basic services they offer, if real, are adequate for most small businesses - there is no justifiable reason for going to the more expensive service. Recently I received a lot of errors when trying to send email, knew they had been having problems, and asked them to check it. They came back and said, "You must receive your email before sending - we have definitely fixed your problem." This is impossible for a busy email system. So I asked a second time and got the same response, and now even the error messages say the same thing. So I'm helping with their email problem. I was to put up a site for another small business, to be hosted by them. I simply said to the business, "We'll have to put your site somewhere else - you can't count on this host's email, and it will hurt your business." I know the hosting service doesn't care - this isn't the business they currently want. But I also influence where the businesses are hosted that they do want. Interesting how badly they wanted my money when I moved my site to their service, but now they no longer want to support my business. Pattern here? The hosting service that I moved from to take their service, that was displaying the same pattern as they are now, is the one they recently bought. Interesting how when you fail to cultivate the 80%, your larger business goes elsewhere. Is this a harbinger of a business about to go the wrong way?
Technology and service are only as good as the people who make the product and stand behind it. The lowest price unfortunately usually means buying from the manufacturer who is most willing to cut corners on quality and service, and as long as we continue insisting on the lowest price, we get what we pay for. Large warehouse style shopping centers are predicated on high sales volume and "no service" to create highly competitive prices. I'm not against them. But competition without responsibility, accountability, quality, and service is probably not a world we want to live in. Each day we get a step closer to that world. Each technology driven item I bring home seems to have a defect. Manufacturers see no value in offering anything that makes them less competitive, and it is naive to expect them to get there on their own. We are unlikely to get quality and service unless we as consumers demand them.
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