Where’s the service?

Feb. 9, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

Anyone who was around during the 1980s is no doubt familiar with the phrase, “Where’s the beef?”

The line was delivered by character actress Clara Peller in a marketing campaign that aired during 1984 and 1985.

In a series of Wendy’s ads, the white-haired Peller played a feisty customer who plagued competitors’ establishments suggesting that their hamburgers lacked beef.

The phrase has been adopted by others, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, who used it during a debate against his opponent, Senator Gary Hart, in the 1984 presidential campaign.

It is now used in a general sense to question the substance of a thing or idea.

Peller died in 1987, but if she were alive today, she might modify the phrase to “Where’s the service?” in assessing what passes for customer service at some companies today.

I recently moved to a new residence, which has required me to contact several companies to cancel and start various services.

This has given me the opportunity to make some observations about the state of customer service (or the lack thereof).

Some companies treat their customer service employees the way a nervous father might treat his only daughter when confronted by a Hell’s Angels rally next door.

They do everything in their power to keep the customers (the bikers) and their employees (representing the daughter) apart.

They have devised elaborate phone systems to limit the possibility of a paying customer actually getting through to a live person.

They discourage customers from calling by forcing them to navigate endless phone trees with long lists of options, all apparently designed for the convenience (and perhaps amusement) of the company, and the inconvenience of customers.

The goal is to keep customers locked up in digital hell for as long as possible with no way out. Many companies have even eliminated the option of dialing “zero” to escape the menus and reach a real person.

While we are on the subject, I have yet to get a satisfactory answer as to why these companies require callers to enter all sorts of information including account number, address, blood type, and shoe size, before actually reaching a customer service representative, when we know perfectly well that we are going to have to repeat all of the information when we get a person on the line anyway.

They claim it is to allow them to serve us faster and better, but I am convinced that it is just a ruse to distract us so it doesn’t seem like we are waiting so long.

I have discussed this with several customer service representatives (if discussed is the word I want), but they have apparently not been programmed to answer the question about why we have to provide the information twice.

There seems to be a correlation between the size of a company and the complexity of the walls they build between themselves and their customers.

I have had the good fortune in the past to be able to do business with some smaller companies that really do understand customer service.

When contacting these companies, I have always been able to reach a person who is helpful, who understands what needs to be done and how to accomplish it, and for whom English is not a second language.

Often, these people have remembered my name and situation, and gone out of their way to be helpful.

Some companies use technology as a barrier rather than as an aid to customer service.

The fact is, some companies take a laissez-faire attitude toward the very subject of customer service.

Some of them don’t want to talk to us at all. If one does manage to slip through the cracks and make contact with a live person, that person is likely to act bored, rushed, or as if the call is a terrible inconvenience.

The prevailing attitude at some businesses is that they would like us to shut up, send in our money, and not bother them by expecting them to do anything to earn it.

Not surprisingly, this seems especially true with those that have a virtual monopoly in a territory, such as utilities.

One large company that I contacted recently employed a new technique.

After going through a menu of options, a computerized voice told me the length of the wait I could expect for the department in question, and then insisted that I enter my phone number and say my name so a representative could call me back.

I did receive a call back in the allotted time, but it was from another computer, not a person.

The digital voice instructed me that when I came on the line (presumably in case someone else answered my phone) I was to press “one,” and I would be connected with the next available representative.

These companies don’t mind keeping customers waiting, but they have no intention of being kept waiting themselves.

My recent experiences have led me to appreciate good customer service and the people who provide it more than ever.

They understand that the customers are the reason they are in business, and they treat them accordingly.

Some companies ignore this, and while that is their choice, they should at least get the words right.

Instead of calling it a customer service department, they could call it a customer annoyance department, or something that more closely resembles what really goes on there.

As Clara Peller would no doubt point out, whatever it is, it isn’t service.