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I Can Certainly Help You with that

Well, it's finally behind us; all that Christmas shopping, eating, shouting and fun-filled times. I miss it already... all that is, except the hustle and bustle of trying to buy gifts. It seems, as the years progress, my patience wears thin much sooner than it used to; or is it possible that service has declined to a level below mediocrity?

I have actually come to realize that perhaps it is not the level of service that has declined, but instead, the quality (or lack thereof) of processes put in place by corporations. I believe that it is a catch-22 circle that has brought us to the highest level of frustration ever faced when dealing with large retailers. I purposely avoid big box stores whenever I can, and seldom visited the Targets of the world. Sure, I feel bad that I am the foremost reason the giant U.S. retailer went out of business in Canada, and can only hope that others take heed.

I do most of my shopping in small, privately owned shops, in small towns, and am usually pleased because I get what I want, I deal with owners and people who care and I have a chance for some festive conversation. So what is it about the conglomerates that kill the customer experience? What are they doing that forces people to shop online, head for the small villages or just give up on buying gifts and making them yourself?

After having analyzed the situation I have concluded that, as I said before, the level of processes has diminished to the lowest common denominator, albeit people or quality of service. There was a time when I could call a company and get a fairly straightforward answer to a simple, but challenging question. Not anymore.

About three years ago I bought something at a large U.S. retailer and in order to obtain an additional 50 per cent discount I was offered a store credit card. I filled in the paperwork, bought my purchases and went to customer service to pay the bill. No problem! Since then, when I buy at this store I pay the bill at the same time. A few months ago I forgot and promptly received a bill in the mail. I sent a money order and another bill arrived, which not only included my outstanding balance but an added interest charge of 50 per cent. I called to rectify the problem and the fun started.

After 45 minutes on the phone and dealing with everyone from the fraud department to customer service, I was told they could not access my account without my social security number. I explained that as Canadians we do not use those so I offered my SIN. Nope, won't do! The simple answer was we cannot access the account. I was transferred to customer service and the line went dead.

I redialed and went through the same process again, except this time the hold was 30 minutes. Before I could speak to someone I had to enter my account number and my social security number… difficult to do when you don't have one. I could not get any further, so I called a third time. The line was answered by someone who fortunately felt my pain. She still couldn't access my account, but confirmed my payment had been received and she would credit the interest and then cancel my card. Wow, I thought, what a solution. Cancel my account and all the problems are solved… except for possible future business.

I also had dealings with my phone service provider and ordered a new phone. It took four hours (four separate calls) to transfer my previously number to my new device. Finally I was told it can't be done (I cringe at the word “can’t”). I was told they had made a mistake when they initially processed my order and that I would have to return the phone at which point they would send me a new one. I asked what the difference in phones was and she said none, so I asked why I had to return it. She said that was the policy. I paused and simply said it's a SMART phone! Push a button and reprogram the thing, but she stood fast and the answer was still a firm “No.”

I asked to speak to a manager who, after 20 minutes resolved the problem. He was friendly, efficient and got the job done. I explained the process had taken over four hours of employee time, a lot of dollars in credits (I wanted to be compensated for my time) and a lot of wasted conversations. I then asked if it would heighten the service level of their processes if they raised the skill level of their employees. He paused, and laughed. It was a laugh that secretly said “I agree with you but I don't dare voice that opinion”; after all, every call is recorded for training purposes. Perhaps one day someone will listen to those recordings. Of course the challenge will be what to do about them. Oh look, it's time to go Valentine’s Day shopping. Here we go again.