Service errors

I already knew there was a lack of good customer service in the world.

But during my recovery, further proof has been everywhere, from banks to insurance companies to even a department store whose bull’s-eye logo seems to have popped up on every highway.

Not long ago, good customer service was a staple of commerce. It was expected, it was understood and it was everywhere.

When I was growing up — which wasn’t that long ago, really — dedicated customer service was the exception, not the norm. When you had a problem or question while in a store, a knowledgeable clerk, or even the store’s manager or owner, would talk to you personally to understand your problem and then solve it. That’s not always how it worked, of course, but it seemed that most of the time it did.

Now, however, we have grown to expect ignorance and incompetence in service. We avoid calling companies on the phone because we know we’ll be confronted by a byzantine maze of “press 1 for this” and “press 2 for that” covering every option but the one we want. We slump in the seemingly never-ending customer service line knowing that we’re probably going to have to explain the problem three times.

What happened to “the customer is always right”? For one, it seems the corportization of America has produced a profit motive so strong that customer needs have become an afterthought. Not to be overlooked, either, is the sterility and homogeneity of the modern consumer experience.

When local ownership was the norm and proprietors knew their customers, it made for a healthy, wholesome relationship. But with the rise of corporate chains, thousands of customers cycle through stores each day. They might as well be nameless and faceless, because no one knows anybody on either side. The outsourcing of customer service has only made that worse.

Take my experience with HSBC. It’s an international bank that’s the sixth-largest public company in the world, according to Forbes magazine. Speaking of six, I’ve been an HSBC customer for about six years and until now, thankfully, seldom had to deal with its customer service department.

Then my wallet was stolen in this incident. My family called HSBC while I was in the hospital to report my card stolen. In the meantime my attacker rang up almost a hundred dollars in charges before the card was suspended because of “suspicious activity.” You have to ask yourself how any charges were made at all when he didn’t know my PIN. But I digress …

After I returned from the hospital, I called HSBC to report the fraudulent charges. This began an incredible series of phone calls in which I was transferred and/or directed from the main “customer care” line (or whatever it’s dubbed) to the fraud department and back several times. A service rep told me I had to file a fraud claim before I could do anything else; the fraud department said I had to cancel the card before I could proceed.

During one of my many calls to the main customer service line at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday, the voice on the other end informed me, “I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to contact the fraud department, and because it is after 5, you will have to call back tomorrow.”

“Uhhhh, it’s only 4:40,” I said, checking the only clock around, which happened to be on my iPad.

“Oh, um … I am very sorry, I must be looking at the wrong clock,” said the voice.

Of course, by the time he transferred me to the fraud people, there was no one left who could help me that day.

This was just one of an outrageous series of calls I made to try to get the fraudulent changes rescinded and a new card sent.

During a call I made on my last day in the hospital, I was told I’d have to visit a branch in person to file a complaint; there are only three branches in Maryland, and the nearest is 50 miles away.

How that would be acceptable in the digital age is beyond me.

On another occasion, I was told that a new debit card was being mailed. It never showed up. I called back about 10 days later and was told it would soon be here. Still no card.

I called again. Oh, oops, the card was never sent after all, the rep said, apologizing profusely. But this time it would be mailed. Pinkie swear. (I still haven’t received it.)

Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of companies out there doing things right. TD Bank has been a pleasure to deal with, and Toyota needed only a couple of minutes to cancel the extended warranty and refund my balance. They even backdated it to the day of the theft and didn’t ask for a copy of the police report.

That kind of smooth, helpful service is what we must demand as consumers. Companies that act too busy to provide good service should be out of business.

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