(Dec. 11, 2006) — I'm usually a fairly calm, easy-going guy. And I typically don't air my laundry in public. But a series of recent personal events have led me to blow a gasket more than once, and have made me wonder how the United States can continue to function as a world power if it can't do some basic tasks even moderately well. Like provide reasonable product quality and customer service.
The levels of incompetence are so extreme in some cases that I find it difficult to believe that the disease hasn't infiltrated all aspects of business life. I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, but I haven't seen much evidence recently.
The worst saga relates to my wife's widescreen Toshiba laptop computer. If I hadn't bought the extended warranty, I would have paid for the $2,500 machine twice over by now. Hard-drive failure. DVD-drive and motherboard failure. Battery failure — twice. Now the DVD drive appears to have blown up again. I could have coped with all that if Toshiba's customer service had handled my case properly. But I got to know their call centers way too well. In one case recently, they put me on hold for nearly an hour, to reach someone in the wrong department, and then put me on hold for another hour, only to cut me off as soon as someone answered. And the person, who had my number, did not call back.
Another example: We built a new house in early 2001. Late last year, we noticed some bad deterioration toward the bottom of the exterior wooden frames on the top-of-the-line French doors leading out to our deck. By this summer, I could put my fist into one rotten hole. When I complained, based on my description and digital photos, they determined that it must be “installer error.” Now I'm spending $2,500 to install new doors — of a different brand.
I have a list of similar service problems: our 27-inch flat-screen TV, the U.S. Postal Service, a car rental issue, a $30 cordless sweeper … too many to go into detail.
When I call certain customer service telephone numbers, I always find it amusing to hear recordings declare that they are experiencing “unusually high call volume” (which hardly seems unusual, since I get the same message virtually every time I call) that is prompted by “strong demand” for their products. I feel like shouting, “No, it's because you are cheap, understaffed and because so many people have problems with your damn products that nobody can get through!” I then prepare to spend the next half a week on hold — only to be cut off or misdirected later.
Obviously, these are my issues, not yours. But unfortunately, I suspect they are all too familiar to many of you.
I hear a lot from companies that complain about unfair trade, brutal pricing, unlevel playing fields, and the like. Some of that is true, and very valid. But then I also think that we all need to focus more on those things that we can control. Like providing world-class customer service that far exceeds anything your competitors offer. In a crowded, cutthroat market, that could be a product differentiator that truly makes a difference.
Grace is Plastics News editor and associate publisher.