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The Day Customer Service Died: Editor’s Notebook

In the big-box store was the corpse of customer service, cash register tape spittle dangling from the corner of its mouth.

Did you know your stove probably has a mother board, something like the one that controls the Starship Enterprise? (Photo: startrek.com)
Did you know your stove probably has a mother board, something like the one that controls the Starship Enterprise? (Photo: startrek.com)

(This op-ed column by Michigan Patch editor Beth Dalbey previously appeared on Patch.)

Customer service died the other day. I could picture it convulsing on the floor, clutching its little magnetic “Hi, I’m Joe and I’m only here to help you because they pay me to do it” badge of a heart, gasping its last.

It has long suffered. Looking back, there were little things we should have noticed.

For one, what is up with clerks whose idea of counting back change is to sandwich it between bills and flimsy receipts, where it rests precariously and could spill at any moment in a floor-game of heads-or-tails? But I digress.

Perhaps die is too strong a word to describe what happened to customer service.

As an institution, maybe it’s just on life support in some places, but alive and thriving in others, say locally-owned mom-and-pop businesses. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

But first, a story, every word of it true:

After an 8-hour power outage, though the range worked fine, the electronic controls on my oven were locked and I could neither bake nor broil nor – not that this happens much – clean it.

It seemed a simple problem, surely one addressed in the operator’s manual. There's a whole long story about how, among dozens of manuals for appliances, big and small, past and present, this particular book was missing. But it's irrelevant, except to explain why I didn't try to fix it myself.

So I called the big-box store where I bought it.

I didn’t expect the lonely Maytag repairman to show up at my door, but I did think someone might troubleshoot over the phone. Was there an easy fix?

“You might have had a power surge,” the clerk said, hesitantly enough to betray that she was guessing.

Then, feigning authority: “If those motherboards go out, it's usually just a whole lot easier and cheaper to replace the stove.”

My stove has a motherboard? Like the Starship Enterprise has, where Spock and Kirk fuss over the logic of, I don’t know, replacing a four-year-old appliance that doesn’t exactly take a beating like Bobby Flay’s? No way could this be a $500 or $600 or who knows how expensive a problem. Really?

“How expensive is it?” I asked.

“Very expensive.”

Who was she? The clerk in the swanky dress shop who refused to wait on Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman"?

“Any way you can quantify that?”

Silence. Perhaps she didn’t understand the word. I clarified: “Can you give me a dollar figure?”

“It’s outrageous.”

I could see her rolling her eyes, flailing her arms dramatically.

“Most times, people just replace the stove.”

Circle talker. It’s her job to sell stoves. Got it. Keep your cool, Beth, I told myself.

“Is there maybe someone else who can help me?”

“There’s the manager,” she said, “but he won’t know, either. He’s new.”

I finally did find someone who knew what to do, but wasn’t interested in unloading a brand new stove on me.

Unplug it, leave it off for a minute or two, then plug it back in apparently is a universal fix that works on everything from the kitchen stove to television station control boards, according to a friend who used to work in TV news.

“No kidding,” he said. “We used to laugh about it when the engineers suggested it, but it works.”

That’s genius.

As promised, the moral to this story:

The next time I buy an appliance, I’m going to buy it from a local business whose future depends on customers coming back.

Besides customer service, what are some of the other benefits of supporting small businesses? Tell us below in comments.

sue s April 07, 2014 at 12:11 AM
Is this writer this clueless? In store service department left the business a decade ago, any programmable appliance/radio/phone/computer/vehicle with a digital readout has a motherboard, manufacturers have made service information available on their websites for, well, at least a decade and lowest price stores have given least/worst service since forever. Quite frankly, one would not expect the car salesman to fix the car s/he sold or a realtor to fix damage to a home after the sale or any other type of salesperson to repair the goods sold. Those of us that work in electronic sales are expected to complete elearnings weekly to stay up with technology and manufacturers want customers calling them directly. One is wise to add power surge devices for digital devices and swap them out after a power surge. This is common knowledge. Nothing new here. So, why the rant on a sales person who was giving correct answers?
K. Scott April 07, 2014 at 07:52 AM
Turns out sue that replacing the appliance was not correct. Replacing the mother board was not correct . Many good points made. Personally I find most independently owned business have better customer service. I find that if you press in certain situations you may start out with less then stellar service, but go a little higher on the food chain and most problems can be resolved. I find this method works with almost everything but government.
sue s April 07, 2014 at 08:46 AM
K. Scott you have hit upon why stores counsel employees not to respond to this type of question on the phone. No salesperson, even the expert, can be expected to accurately diagnose the unseen over the phone. We may know what is likely and offer that but, the customer should be directed to the manufacturer contact (web site or 800 number) or if they have purchased in store/local extended warranty refer them to that group. But, the argument in the article does not consider the assistance during the sale, whether the writer purchased the quality vs low end product or whether the writer took the 'nothing can go wrong with an electronic device plugged into a wall socket' tack and passed on the extended warranty which assures a local company will service them. This rant is less about whether the store responded appropriately than an uninformed writer with a public platform to share less than the whole story for personal gain. This reader would expect more 'customer service' from this media. And 'no' this reader did not personally take this call.
Steve Woznicki April 07, 2014 at 10:38 AM
She called the big-box store to ask for help. That was her first mistake, they don't even know where things are in the store. Customer service died years and years and years ago. It's rare to find anyone at a store, much less the actual manufacturer who understands anything. Very disappointing.
sue s April 08, 2014 at 01:38 AM
The stores are in tough competition with online buying where deep discounts can be offered on items that can be shipped from warehouses w which do not share the same cost of doing business as the brick n mortar stores. After last holiday season retailers are restructuring and resizing their staffs just to keep the doors open. Remember, chain stores or, big box stores, employ your neighbors. When customers purchase online or buy only the loss leaders, it is your neighbor that you have out out if a job. This is doubly devastating for independents that have no network of stores to help the ones that falter.the folks still in the job are grateful to have a job and for the most part go out of their way to help within the culture of the store. The author of the original rant should proceed directly to a mirror and stare deeply into their reflection because half of the problem in the original article lies there.

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