In Praise of Corporations and Other Leviathans

Recently, I’ve had a series of interactions with large organizations that have been shockingly…pleasant.

Some of you may wonder why this qualifies as news, but I suspect more share my sense of wonder that I could string together enough positive experiences to break through my day-to-day mindset that it’s a good day when I only get roughed up a little by the large institutions in my life.

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “isn’t this supposed to be the ‘Age of the Customer?’ Didn’t all that harping in business books and by consultants about being customer-focused, customer-centric, service-oriented make every consumer a member of royalty? All that data they collect, all that processing power, all that data mining and real-time CRM tools available to frontline employees; isn’t that supposed to make sure that every facet of every organization recognizes us and our preferences? Didn’t the rise of the global supply chain, the Internet and the long-tail theory make the phrase ‘mass customization’ a reality?”

Yeah, right. Press or say “1” to hear polite guffawing. Press or say “2” to hear outright braying.

The reality, as most of us know, is way short of the ideal. The reality is that, despite the lip-service about how important their customers are, most businesses are customer-focused in the same way that Willie Sutton was bank-focused; because that’s where the money is. The reality is that the technologies that were supposed to let businesses find new ways to please customers are more likely being used to analyze the potential profit-maximizing strategy for each consumer. The reality is that the global supply chain is a wonderful thing…until it breaks and the seven businesses that brought you your widget decide the problem isn’t theirs. The reality is that Amazon is a wonderful embodiment of long-tail theory, but God help you if you want to get someone on the phone.

From a day-to-day perspective, the trends of the last two decades mean that end consumers are doing more work for themselves – we make our own plane reservations, pump our own gas, check out our own groceries, perform “some assembly required” tasks – and that more customer services processes are automated – we check our bank balances on line or over the phone, get money from ATMs, check the status of a shipment, all without a human on the other end of the transaction.

When stuff works, these trends have been good for most consumers (though not all; good luck, for example, if you’re one of the cohort of senior citizens who don’t like to use computers). I like – for the most part – being able to book my own travel and such. I don’t miss having to race to the bank by 3:00 or wondering when the FedEx guy is coming.

The system breaks down, though, when your issue or need falls outside the parameters of the system. When that happens – because something is unclear to you, because something got lost, something broke, because your needs are unique or your request is unforeseen – you’re sunk. If there are ten options on the phone tree and your issue doesn’t fall into one of them, odds are good that there’s no help for you. Pressing “0” for a human might work, but you’re just as likely in my experience to get a person who is about as rigidly scripted as the automated system you just ran from.  If there’s a page in their manual or in their knowledge base that pertains to your issue, great.  If not, though, you can pretty much expect bupkus in terms of satisfaction.

But, I digress.  I really did start this post with the intent of praising a few organizations who have made a positive experience in my life recently:

  • Apple.  The company that Steve built (and saved) is far from perfect, but in the last two weeks Grace, a Genius in the company’s Uptown store, has given me two very positive experiences.  The first time I came in with two – that’s two – broken iPhones that I fully expected to have to replace because of the nature of the damage and the time left on the contracts.  Without being asked, Grace replaced them both…for free.  Yesterday, I brought my broken iPad into the store and received the same relaxed, positive “let’s just replace it” treatment.

Bless you Grace and kudos to Apple for giving frontline employees the latitude to make expensive decisions like that because they’re in the best interest of the customer.

  • Mozilla:  If you use Firefox, you are a Mozilla customer.  Yes, it’s free and your expectations have to be set accordingly, but even so, you have the right to a certain level of performance.  Thus, I was thrilled – thrilled I say again – to find that in the latest version of their software, the developers have fixed the memory leakage problems that used to drive me crazy.  Huzzah to all the unpaid developers out there who contributed to the improvements.
  • And, finally, to the Hennepin County Government Center in Edina for being a model of how local government can provide services efficiently and beneficially for their constituents.  I think the longest I’ve ever waited there is maybe 30 minutes and generally – like today – I’m in and out in 15 minutes or less.  Really, really excellent service.  Lest you Minnesotans take this for granted, please take it from someone who used to take a full day off from work to get his license renewed in DC that this is not the norm.

OK, enough about me.  What’s been your experience – good or bad – with large institutions lately?

– Austin

11 thoughts on “In Praise of Corporations and Other Leviathans

  1. Joe Loveland says:

    I had a good experience with a financial advisor from Wealth Enhancement Group. For reasons I’d rather not go into, they waived a sizeable annual fee without us requesting it. I’m sure it’s been a tough year for them, so that was impressive. It’s a big company, but I didn’t get cookie cutter treatment.

    I also had a good encounter this week with a much bigger company, Comcast. Everyone loves to hate their cable company but… I got a letter in the mail suggesting I swap out my cable modem for a new and improved one that takes full advantage of new bandwidth capabilities. No additional cost, free shipping. I called, navigated a phone seedling instead of an old growth phone tree, visited briefly with someone who was conversational, efficient and nimble instead of stiff, process-laden and overly scripted, and was off the phone in a couple of minutes.

    As a certified Grumpy Old Man in good standing, I am now obligated to insert a “it’s the least they can do for as much as I pay.” That said, it was a good day for The Cable Guy, and I appreciate it.

  2. Momkat of Apple Valley says:

    I had puzzling results from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans when cancelling my mother’s supplemental health insurance policy.

    On the same day, Thrivent received my cancellation letter, deducted Mom’s premium from her bank account, sent a refund check for a slighly different amount, and sent a bill for twice the premium. It took two phone calls with 3 different people to learn I should ignore the bill and that Mom’s policy was indeed cancelled.

    It does make me think my mother would have been baffled handling it on her own.

  3. OK, I’m prepared for the shit storm that is sure to follow when I say this…so shit away…but corporations are just like people.

    OK, they are nothing more than a large group of people. Some are good. Others, not so much. Some are greedy. Some are philanthropic. Some you would trust to supervise your kids. Others….well. Like people, most companies try to do the right thing, for their customers, shareholders and employees. Others, like your no good, drunken uncle, just don’t give a fuck.

    Pick the companies you do business with like you pick the people with whom you sleep (OK scratch that)….like you pick your friends, neighbors etc. The overwhelming number of companies I’ve dealt with have given me good service, a good product and I’d buy from them again.

    That said, Charter Communications sucks. I’m thinking of dumping it for Dish Network. Service often sucks and I pay through the teeth for it.

  4. john sherman says:

    Nothing like being on a phone endlessly as every so often a robovoice breaks in to explain how much the corporation values me. On the other hand, some services allow you to shout some version of “give me a human” and actually get one. I did this with Amtrak and got the nicest most helpful guy after the automated stuff froze in complete stupidity.

    A while back, I had two rather different experiences. I had to go into the DMV–as Austin suggests to those experienced with the east coast, the DMV is not a destination but a punishment–and the line was short. the people were nice and the whole thing was as pleasant as anything that involves paying money can be. The next day, my wife and I went to a Verizon center to replace our phones. I expect them to be slightly contemptuous of a cheapskate technophobe like me, but did they have to make it so obvious and take so long doing it?

    Incidentally, I like the Post Office. both the letter carriers and the office itself where the clerks go out of their way to find the cheapest alternative for me.

  5. I came here looking for your “My Rocky Love Affair With Gary Eichten” post, but it isn’t here.

    Is it possible you did what I decided? Looked over the rocks and warts and nice guyisms decided it was better in this moment to say nothing at all.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Precisely. I drafted a post that couldn’t decide what its position was. So, like Gary, I decided to just sit back, listen and be a nice guy, instead of taking on messy analysis that might make someone mad at me.

  6. Since you asked … T-Mobile’s phone support is remarkably — eerily — polite, regularly apologizing for whatever you’re calling about every 30 seconds or so … while doing next to nothing to resolve your problem..

    The big firm “discontinues” its roaming agreement with ATT in the area of our north Wisconsin cabin/redoubt/fortress/Mitt Romney-like alternate mansion. The service is simply gone one day. No “heads up” to the few customers its system could have told it were regularly using the agreement.

    Calls one through about five to T-Mobile ascertain what has happened and that, no, I am entitled to neither a reduction in monthly billing or release from my T-Mobile contract since my “main” base of activity is in the Twin Cities.

    I write one of my classic indignant letters to T-Mobile corporate. They respond politely that there is nothing they can/will do.

    I write the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, file a complaint and CC T-Mobile corporate. Within a week I have three different T-Mobile middle managers falling over themselves to release me from my contract.

    Moral to the story: Sic Big Gummint on ’em first, ask politely second.

  7. August 28, 2011 3:00 PM Annals of Commerce: The Customer Service Function

    By Michael O’Hare
    Facebook Twitter Digg Reddit StumbleUpon Delicious

    Thank you for reading. To assure quality, reader clicks and keystrokes may be recorded. [music you don’t like, or at least the middle frequencies of it that a telephone can transmit]Please enter or speak your account number, followed by the pound sign…You entered …if that is correct, press one [music] We are experiencing a high-than normal reader volume. Your insight request will be served by the next available post. [music] You can do a variety of interesting things on our website, though not what you placed this click for. [music] Your opinions are important to us, and after this visit, we would like you to take a survey. Please click “1″ for yes, “2″ for no. [music]….

    This post provides a translation of some common specialized language in the world of customer service, a land in which many seemingly simple English phrases and constructions have specialized meanings only taught in advanced MBA courses.

    To assure quality, this call may be recorded.

    Certainly not ‘listened to’; do you think we are going to spend actual money paying someone to listen to this drivel? But we need to scare our agents into thinking we are listening in, and maybe you will think that will improve their performance, so it doesn’t hurt to make everyone a little anxious.

    Please enter your account number

    We will not transmit this to the agent, so you get to say it again later. But if you’re in this queue with a problem, you’re obviously so stupid that you can’t buy stuff from us the way we have in mind: playing with the keypad probably amuses you.

    Please listen to this menu, as our options have changed.

    You are too dumb to remember what number goes to what queue, and need to be retaught no matter how often you come here.
    We are experiencing higher than normal call volume….
    Please do not confuse normal with typical. Normal for us is no calls, because these calls do nothing but cost us money and annoy us. We have done an excellent queuing analysis of our call pattern, and the call volume now is exactly typical, right at the mean level predicted for this day and hour. Wait time is high because we have carefully understaffed the CS function to assure (i) the minimal idle time for people on our payroll, and therefore (ii) a long waiting queue for you, who are not, and have no real option but to wait for us. Ideally, you will get fed up, disconnect, and not bother us at all.

    This staffing also assures that everyone our undertrained and overworked agents talk to will be furious, like you, so their job is soul-crushing, but unemployment is very high and what are they going to do about it, quit?

    Shorter version: we think your time is much less valuable to you than ours is to us, and it is especially worthless to us.

    Unfortunately, I’m not able to help you with that. Please hold while I transfer you to our senior bedbug division.

    If you’ve stayed around this long, you really need to get a life. I’m going to put you in another queue for twenty more minutes so you get the idea and leave us alone. If this happens again, I will drop the call so you can call in again. And if you do, I will be on break, or my shift will be over, so you can really start from the beginning.

    Your opinion/experience is important to us …[survey].

    This one, recently grown into a pervasive plague, has two interpretations:

    (1) When it is, we have legitimate ways of learning it, and a random survey soaked in selection bias like this is not one of them. On the other hand, pretending to ask you for your response might make you think your views are of interest, and as the survey is automated, it costs us nothing to let you pretend and then throw away the results. Also, if you get to vent to the machine, you might not call us again to complain that this call didn’t solve your problem!

    (2) We really hate paying money for consulting and research so we prefer to draft you to do this for us for free.

    Have a nice day!

    So long, sucker.

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