Illustration: Fotolia
Illustration: Fotolia

Customer Disservice

Thousands of Business Jet Traveler’s subscribers are CEOs or in other senior positions at corporations, nonprofits and political organizations that deal with the public. If you’re in such a role, perhaps you’d be interested in some of the reasons why at least one member of that public (aka me) is running low on Excedrin. Maybe you’re even in a position to help alleviate my pain. In any case, here are seven of my gripes:

1. Intimate strangers. I regularly receive emails that say things like, “Jeff, I was just talking with John”—that would be the recently resigned House Speaker John Boehner—“and he wanted me to make sure you’d heard…” Then there was the one from the First Lady that began, “Jeff, it’s me—Michelle.” Right, Michelle. I’ll get back to you just as soon as I hang up the phone with Barack but, meanwhile, exactly how na├»ve do you think I am? Also, I must receive half a dozen emails a day from PR reps I don’t know who begin their pitches with “I hope you’re well.” I’m tempted to reply, “I’m feeling all right but my daughter has a stomachache. And how are you and your family? Did you sleep OK last night?”

2. Scripted nonsense. It’s not enough that some companies provide awful service on their customer-support phone lines. Many of these same businesses also insist on preceding that service by announcing, “My goal today is to provide you with exceptional customer service.” Then after the reps tell me that, unfortunately, there’s nothing they can do to assist me, they end by asking, “Have I exceeded your customer-service expectations?”

3. Returns rigmarole. When I have a problem with a product from Amazon, Apple, Costco or L.L. Bean—to name a few of the most customer-focused retailers I’ve encountered—they simply fix it. They don’t ask lots of questions and sometimes don’t even request proof of purchase or care how long ago I bought the item. With other companies, I’m often told that I need to fill out long forms or talk to a supervisor and then that a return can’t be accepted because my receipt is a photocopy, I’m missing the original box or the warranty doesn’t apply to my situation. When I return something to one of the customer-focused stores, I’m frequently so impressed that I recount the experience to multiple friends, some of whom probably wind up shopping there. When I try to return something to one of the other retailers, I may also tell friends what happened—and vow to not shop there again. Never mind my plight; guess which companies do themselves more good.

4. Recorded-message hell. Why does nearly every business in America always answer its phone with, “Please listen carefully, as our menu options have recently changed”? Also, how come I keep hearing, “We are experiencing higher-than-usual call volumes and wait times.”? If they’re almost always higher than usual, isn’t it time to redefine “usual”? And if “your call is important to us,” why don’t companies hire enough operators so they can answer their phones? As for voice-recognition systems that can’t seem to recognize my voice, suffice it to say that I’d rather talk with a human than repeatedly press 9 to return to the previous menu.

5. Clueless “team members.” Brick-and-mortar retailers can’t compete with the Web on selection and have a hard time competing on price (some won’t even match prices on their own websites), but service is one area where they really do have a shot. That’s why I’m perplexed by how many department and big-box stores don’t even seem to try. At some retailers, you can easily spend 15 minutes hunting for someone to help you—and when you finally track down an “associate” or “team member” (as companies now like to call the folks who used to be employees), they often either don’t know the inventory or tell you that they’re from a different department and can’t help.

6. The third degree from “Mrs. N.” I can understand why credit card firms and health insurers in particular want to ask me over the phone for everything from my account number to the date of my last doctor appointment, but I’m not sure why I have to repeat all that info every time they transfer me to another rep. Nor do I understand what happens when—after disclosing everything but my mother’s maiden name (and often that too)—I ask for the names of the people I’m talking to. They either tell me that’s not important because “anyone here can help you” or they give me an answer like, “Mrs. N.”

7. The "Do Not Call" fiasco. I felt hopeful in 2004 when the Federal Trade Commission introduced its Do Not Call Registry. Maybe now, I thought, I could make it all the way through dinner without having to get up from the table to explain that I wasn’t interested in a no-obligation quote for new windows. No such luck. The registry has flopped because companies have ignored it and the FTC—which received more than 3.2 million complaints about unwanted calls in fiscal year 2014—has been unable to enforce it. In fact, the situation is so out of control that scammers are now phoning people and falsely claiming to represent the registry; they say they’ll sign you up but instead simply take your personal information. Meanwhile, I’ve filed countless complaints but am getting more sales calls than ever. And no, I still don’t want new windows. I want to finish my lamb chop.