Some experiences recently have convinced me the world of bricks and mortar stores that truly service customers may well be reaching the same type of population collapse that we see in endangered species.
The pressures are immense. The price of goods have dropped rapidly. The complexity of many items has gone up astronomically. Being an expert in even a few areas is nearly impossible, and if you could find one, you could not afford to pay the person what they are worth.
More and more we are going to depend on reusable assets such as web pages and FAQs or "Frequently Asked Questions" for any expertise we might find. Even the supposedly good information on the web is often worthless. The "experts" there are often jaded and actually just professional test people whose evaluations of a product have little to do with the needs of normal people.
More and more in high tech items, I expect to move my purchases to the web. It's only there where large customer bases can support real expertise. Even in companies which have hundred of stores and should be able to support expertise, it seems to be impossible for that expertise to be widely distributed.
I recently went to Ritz Camera to ask about a wide angle lens for my Nikon D50. I had actually purchased the camera there in December 2005. I did so because the people were much more knowledgeable than the sales people at Best Buy. The sales person at Ritz had a wide angle lens for my Nikon and actually let me take a couple of pictures with my camera body. He quoted me $99 for the lens. I told him I would view the pictures on my computer and decide if the lens did what I needed it to do. He mentioned nothing there being any need to rush my decision.
That night we had a few inches of snow which quickly became ice on our hill. I did check out the pictures and decide the lens was right for the house pictures that I need to take. It was a little less than forty eight hours when I finally made it back to Ritz Camera. The sales person I had talked to was on the phone, but a younger fellow offered to help me. I told him which lens I wanted, and he took it to the counter and said that it would $179. I was a little shocked and told him that I had been quoted $99 by the gentleman on the phone. He said I would have to wait to talk to him. Well I waited while he finished that call and did another one. Finally he came over said that , yes, the younger sales person was right, the lens, which was the same one that I had looked at, was now $179.
There was no apology and no remorse at all. I merely got a shrug of the shoulders. I told him I couldn't see paying that much extra for a lens that was only $99 a matter of hours ago. He offered no real explanation other than the price went up. I asked some questions about some other cameras. He obviously knew less than I did and was uninterested in providing any real answers. I left the store, and I probably won't go back.
I went over to Best Buy, thinking that perhaps they might have the lens that I needed. The sales person hardly knew where to find a lens must less anything about them.
I eventually did some extensive research on my own and ordered from Amazon.com a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2K camera to take pictures for my websites to market homes here on the Carolina Coast. The camera has turned out to exactly what I wanted. It also does a great job on sunsets and landscapes.
Amazon did deliver exactly what I ordered exactly when they said they would at exactly the price I ordered it at. I guess that is all I can expect these days.
A few days later I needed a small jewelers screw driver and rushed over to a local hardware store. It was exactly 5:20 pm when I walked into the store which had a posted closing time of 5:30 pm. The staff was already walking out of the store. The lights had been turned off. I looked at the cashier and said are you closed and she nodded yes. I didn't even bother to ask why.
The final event has to be the best and goes to the heart of customer service. I was instant messaging a friend from State College, Pa. who had gone on vacation in Florida. The morning after he got there, he reported that they had been awakened by the front desk at 4 am with a request that they pack up and move from their room since apparently they had been placed in the wrong room and the people who had reserved the room were now there. My friend told me his wife had some choice words for the staff, and they went back to sleep. I haven't heard whether they moved or not.
Of course there are some places that still value customer service, but they are getting few and far between. No longer is the customer always right. The customer sometimes isn't even relevant to the employees.
That's a sad commentary on the state of business in America. It is the customer who pays the bills, and that customer will find a better place to spend their money.
I don't think there is chance to revive customer service unless we become more discriminating shoppers.
The NY Times editorial on March 11, 2007 had this to say.
American consumers are so angry that companies are assessing the new level of customer rage. A study by Arizona State University found that 70 per cent of customers who had problems were either extremely or very teed-off as a result of their complaints. Scott Broetzmann, president of Customer Care Measurement and Consulting, which helped with the university analysis, said, “You have to go back more than 40 years (i.e., Ralph Nader’s heyday) to find the acrimony you now have between consumers and businesses.”
....But he also says that many consumers say they would be satisfied with respect or an apology rather than, for example, a replacement iPod.
My guess is that customers are expendable for many giant multinationals.