Whatever Happened to Good Old-Fashioned Customer Service?

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Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of"Supernatural Romance in Film: Tales of Love, Death, and the Afterlife."

A call center in Bogotá, Colombia.

Years ago, furniture stores used to ship what you purchased to your home -- completely assembled. What you often buy now is a box full of parts that you will use to complete the assembly that used to done routinely on the factory floor. And it is up to you to pick up the box (as often as not at a remote warehouse), unless you wish to pay extra for delivery. If you want someone else to assemble the furniture, the store will refer you to a different vendor. You will often have to deal with this other vendor on your own.

What happened?

Years ago, the makers of appliances would brag that “one simple twist of the dial” would make the thing run. In today’s new world, the makers of hardware -- as distinct from the software, which is often confusing in its own unique way -- seem bound and determined to design their contraptions for maximum confusion and misery. The remotes for many high-definition TVs have over fifty different buttons, bearing gnomic text such as FAV, My DVR, EXIT, and AUX; the remote that is used by Comcast has a series of buttons with similar words -- buttons labeled All On, On, and On-Off, for instance -- that serve completely different functions, confounding even to veteran users.

Years ago, it was standard practice to include printed service manuals with newly-purchased appliances. That’s increasingly rare: the new standard procedure is to make the user go to the company’s website (if the company is still in existence), find the model in an ever-changing menu of model numbers, options, and names, and then plow through bewildering text.

This problem is poignant indeed if the issue of the moment is ... setting up your computer for the first time, as many older people have learned to their chagrin.

In From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun ascribed these developments to ... decadence, the loss of coherence and focus in a dwindling civilization. He observed that “the term user-friendly has had to be coined to lure the purchaser, who frequently finds the reassurance in the printed leaflet rather than the object itself.” True, except for the fact that there is usually no “printed leaflet” anymore.

The causes of these troubles can be found within a multiplicity of trends: the narcissism of the techno-inventors (some of them fabulously rich celebrities) who design a great deal of the hardware and software; greed (as reflected in the way the manufacturers and sellers save the cost of assembly and foist the work onto us); the understaffing of so many organizations that forces us to waste such a huge amount of time in the infuriating mazes of voicemail menus; the volatility of market conditions that has made so many businesses ephemeral presences that float in and out of existence -- what economist Joseph Schumpeter hailed as the process of “creative destruction.” But can any economist compute the cost in productivity (the “diseconomies,” to use their own profession’s shop-talk) for all the work-time lost as we try to puzzle through the dysfunctional procedures that the ever-shifting techne of the marketplace are forcing upon us?

These sorts of lamentations should be balanced by acknowledging the obvious: many of today’s new systems work well. Anyone who uses Google or buys online has very little trouble. And for all the complexities of today’s new digital systems, the younger generation grows up in a culture where they learn it all at school -- or from friends. So the poor old fogeys who grew up in pre-digital days are left to vent their frustrations more or less alone.

But the cultural and technological changes that are generational in nature have a downside as well. The phenomenon (by no means restricted to the younger generation) of “multi-tasking” has created a climate, at home and at work, in which our focus is increasingly lost amid a swirl of interrupted effort.

Which leads to the issue of today’s communications technology: the cost in sheer ease of using cell phones, Blackberries, Twitter, Facebook, etc. It’s true: some of this gadgetry is easy to use once you get the hang of it. The rising generation absorbs it all by osmosis.

But for all of the teens texting merrily away, there are others who complain (or confide) that their texting has become an addiction. “The average teen processes ... 3,700 texts a month,” reported journalist Tony Dokoupil in a recent issue of Newsweek (itself being phased out as a print magazine after being purchased by the new media Daily Beast). Next year’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will include a new category: “Internet Addiction Disorder.” The brains of “internet addicts” often scan like those of drug addicts and their test reactions sometimes approximate those of people who suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder.

Even for the older generation, the cost-benefit calculus is becoming (for some) quite severe. At least email, when used in a judicious manner, can preserve some vestige of serenity: we can check our message box when it’s convenient (or so we tell ourselves, but convenience is just a click away on a smartphone).

Great attention has been focused on the dangers of “texting” by drivers on the highway. But things are now so bad -- Americans are now so grotesquely out of control -- that even doctors and nurses in the operating room have started texting in the course of surgery. According to the New York Times, “examples include a neurosurgeon making personal calls during an operation, a nurse checking airfares during surgery and a poll showing that half of technicians running bypass machines had admitted texting during a procedure.”

Some of these tendencies are aggravating without being lethal. The ease of sending these messages creates a nasty overload, which creates more unease for many others -- more fragmentation. We are all inclined to gab on the phone, but things were different not so very long ago; the forced break-up of AT&T -- fragmentation for sure -- ushered in a new world of cacophony.

Our telecommunications used to be provided by a dull, efficient, and beautifully reliable utility, “Ma Bell.” Everything used to be straightforward. Now, we are assailed by the tribes of raucous hucksters, who babble at interminable length about the differences (in most cases trivial) between their rival products and services. It would be an interesting exercise to compute the amount of our GNP that is devoted to -- or diverted into -- the advertising wars that are often nothing more than mere vulgar exercises in gabbing (at interminable length) about gabbing.

An anecdote: I had trouble months ago in installing a WiFi device that was ordered by the (snail) mail from Verizon. No matter, I could surely get Verizon to send out a serviceman who would install the new device directly. But no, this could not be accomplished: Verizon is not geared up to perform in this fashion any longer. I spent over two hours on the phone being passed back and forth between “1-800” receptionists, none of whom knew how to place the order for a house call. (A sidelight: when any of these staffers tried to make the connection directly for me, each one of these Verizon employees had to go through the very same infuriating automated “prompts,” and even listen to the very same aggravating mechanized advertising messages, that I did.) At one point, two different “1-800” staffers referred me back and forth (to one another) for the better part of an hour. Before long, the whole experience was equivalent to an episode from Franz Kafka’s Castle. And I never succeeded in finding the department with authority to schedule service calls. A generation ago -- or two generations ago at most -- one could reach the service department of AT&T within seconds. You just picked up the phone, pushed “O,” and then the operator made the connection.

More disturbing from the standpoint of civic culture is our current world of cable TV when compared to the old days of broadcasting -- the days in which the old “big three” commercial networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, were in their prime. Cable TV was touted in the 1970s and ‘80s as a way to reduce the gab of the advertisers: the cost of the service would be covered by the fees of the users. But that never happened. We now pay for programs that we used to get for free, and yet we still have to listen to the hucksters. But that isn’t the worst of it by far. Historian William T. Horner offers commentary on the fragmentation of our public life that the proliferation of cable channels has caused: “When there were only a handful of channels in each market, each of which broadcast news at basically the same time, people were not able to avoid news if they were going to have the television on. Now, there is always a re-run of Friends on somewhere, and viewers can easily choose not to watch the news. ... As the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported, use of all news media declined from 1996 to 2004.” And so the ignorance of voters has worsened.

Many will aver that these problems are predictable side effects of “progress”: technology evolves, and such awkward transitions may be unavoidable as civilization progresses. True, but the subculture of our techno-designers gives them much more choice and flexibility than many of them probably think; certainly these people, if they wished, could try to think as their customers -- laymen -- will think instead of simply presuming that their own fascination with esoteric systems and lingo is perforce a universal trend.

Once again, consider what we all have to do as our digital systems malfunction. If you seek to find the answer in the guts of your computer, you will probably emerge ... empty-handed? No: depending on the way in which your software works -- and depending on the text that the system’s designers have composed for the help menu -- you may very well emerge with a head full of rubbish, composed by designers who prefer to converse among themselves instead of talking to the customer -- you. Or else the fixes that you get are out of date. You will not find the answer you are looking for. And we all know what has to come next.

You will have to try a Google search and regale yourself with all the horror stories posted by other users all over the world and try the fixes that might have worked for some of them.

Now how long has this process been taking you?  Is this the highest and best use of your precious time?  How much of our professional work time -- productive time with an hourly dollar-value attached to it -- gets flushed away in our economy because the designers of high-tech hardware and software cannot make simplicity, reliability, and ease of use high priorities?

What’s done is now done, and Ma Bell is long dead -- though the old dame should have lived longer -- and the rising generation takes the new technology in stride, so everything is fine, or so the Pollyannas claim. And yet it isn’t. Think it over when you get the next meal you didn’t order, when you can’t figure out what’s wrong with the remote, when Microsoft creates its latest and ever-more-tyrannical version of Word, more unfriendly than ever, full of baffling features that you surely never asked for and don’t really want.

The point is this: would it not be a blessing for us all if more providers of our goods and services discovered the values -- reliability and continuity -- that were used generations ago to promote volume sales? Vast profits could be made by rediscovering the market appeal of any product or service that is easy and efficient to use and that promotes sane structure in our lives. Perhaps this problem in Barzun’s long critique of our culture might prove to be reversible in time. But how long will it take for the designers and the managers and entrepreneurs to discover there’s an old new world -- or a new old world -- just over the horizon if they take us there? It’s the old-fashioned world of the loyal customer, whose loyalty is based upon his gratitude for services, dependable services, rendered.

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