Remember Customer Service? Me NeitherBy Ann Brenoff Senior Writer, The Huffington Post


Forbes contributor Larry Downes predicts that Best Buy will eventually go out of business. He based his prediction not on market share or holiday sales volume or any of those typical measurements of a retail company's health. It had to do with just one thing: lousy customer service. Amen, brother.

I'd actually like to take Downes' prediction and raise him one: I think there are a whole lot of retail companies that will wind up in the same out-of-business boat. Why? Because boomers still have the bucks and most of us still remember a time when the customer was always right. Heck, some of us still remember Ma Bell -- the mega-monopoly that managed to deliver excellent communications service without market competition until the government thought that was a bad thing and insisted it be broken up.

Businesses today pacify their bottom line by hiring cheap and inexperienced labor and skimping on staff training. As a result, customer service is a quaint custom of the past and retail stores today don't realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot for short-term profitability.

I'm talking about the Target kid who thought "I don't know" was the appropriate answer to "where is the Hanukkah gift wrap?", and the Albertson's bagger who offered to help me to my car with my $200 worth of groceries but then got distracted from the mission at hand to answer his cellphone; and the Macy's manager who told me I'd "just have to wait" -- not a "yes" or a "no" -- when I asked if another register was open. (And Mr. Macy's, just so you know, I actually don't "just have to wait." Another option is that I walk out of your store and never return; guess which one I picked?)

Yes, I know it's unfair to blame the hapless overstressed workers, who, in my more generous moments I'll allow are merely inexperienced and untrained (and when I'm feeling less generous I might wonder whether they are really as vacuous and ill-mannered as they seem and why they were given jobs in the first place when the country's unemployment rate remains so high). But the blame falls squarely at the feet of those who hire them, who give them responsibilities they are ill-equipped to handle and who set a low bar of expectations when it comes to customer service.

The premise of the customer always being right died when the Mom and Pop shops on Main Street died. Workers today are rarely invested in the store's success. They don't own it, don't have a future working there and don't care if a customer is happy with the service they provide. Trust me, Mr. Macy's really doesn't give a damn if I ever come back.

While Forbes writer Downes had his own Best Buy experience to share, I also had a recent tale of woe there. It took almost four hours at my local branch to get new cellphones and renew my family's service plan. Four hours.

First it required lasso-ing a sales clerk who knew nothing about the features of any of the phones he was charged with selling (he did allow that "a lot of people your age like Blackberrys" -- a comment I took to mean his mother has a Blackberry) and then losing him in the bowels of the store as he searched for someone -- The One Guy -- who knew anything about the phones' features.

Completing our order moved slowly because of the many overtures to sell us warrantees and additional services we didn't want, store computers that froze regularly and lost information, and The One Guy repeatedly being interrupted by the lesser mortals who couldn't answer their customers' questions. I feared a visit to the bathroom might cost me my place in the waiting-for-someone-to-help-me line, so I just stayed in place.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, you just can't find good service nowadays. From voicemail loops that exist to avoid letting you talk to a human being, to the expectation that you will be waiting on hold for hours -- and does the cable company really think by telling me that I will have a 40-minute wait to speak to a customer service representative ease the insult of that? And this is somehow my fault because I had the audacity to call at peak hours? Better I should call when no one is there, right?

Truth is, customer service is why I shop at Nordstrom's. In October, I splurged and bought myself a not-on-sale sweater there. I wore it twice and took it with me to San Francisco for a weekend, where I wore it some more. When I got it home, I noticed a bad pull smack in the front.

I returned the sweater to the store and explained that I had worn it several times and had neither the tags or the receipt. I was hoping they would simply exchange it and was prepared to point out that for the price, I expected more durable merchandise. But no bluster was necessary on my part. They not only took it back with apologies, but noted that the sweater was currently marked down by 50 percent and asked whether I would prefer a cash refund or a credit to my account. All delivered with a smile, speed and an acknowledgment to the customer behind me that she would be waited on momentarily.

I was so impressed that I bought two sweaters and renewed my pledge to always try Nordstrom's first. Macy's, are you listening?

Most of our efforts to seek customer service involve a telephone. According to this Cyber Monday StellaService study, it takes Nordie's (sorry, but I feel like I'm a first-name basis with them) just 18 seconds to get you a live person when you call, compared to Best Buy's 3:43 or SonyStyle.com's 11:20.

Sure Nordstrom's isn't cheap, but neither is my time or blood pressure medication.

Follow Ann Brenoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnnBrenoff


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