Displeasure Doing Business
Customer service has gotten worse, and the pandemic alone is not to blame.
“Customer Service Is in Decline” read a headline last year from Barron’s. “Customer experience is getting worse,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Customer satisfaction in the U.S. is now at its lowest level in 17 years,” said the national American Customer Satisfaction Index.
I can attest to this, and I’m sure you can, too.
A few weeks ago I took my seven-year-old son to buy new baseball cleats at our local sporting goods store. We ambled over to the athletic shoes section of the store, not a single employee in sight. Instead, there stood a kiosk. You input all your preferences—shoe size, brand, color—and request the shoes be brought to you. After a number of failures (several brands had nothing in my son’s size), we finally found something. “Someone will be with you shortly!” the kiosk declared, before returning to the home screen.
Five minutes later, an employee appeared, said he couldn’t find that size, brought us one size smaller and one size larger, and promptly disappeared. Obviously, neither of those cleat sizes fit. Wasn’t there anyone who could just tell us if there were any brands in my son’s size? I noticed a pair of children’s cleats lying on the ground, carelessly left outside a box. My son tried them on; they seemed to fit OK, and so deciding there was little use in waiting to query the “expertise” of some absent employee, we headed for the cash register.
This is not what I remember of buying athletic shoes when I was a child.
I remember my parents taking me to the store, where we encountered eager, available employees asking about shoe sizes. They would measure my feet (my narrow heel was always a problem), and give my parents a bunch of options for me to try. We always walked out feeling good about our purchase.
Those days are long gone. As are many similar experiences associated with caring for the customer. On a recent cross-country flight, I realized I couldn’t buy a meal (or a beer) because they only accepted payment through the airlines’ unique app, which of course I could not download once we were in the air. Are businesses so eager that I don’t procure their services?
At Forbes, Charlene Walters blames the problem on a decrease in human interaction that began during the pandemic, as well as staffing shortages. Given the two examples I cite above, that is probably true. Digital technology gives customers the initial illusion that they are receiving the same old customer service they are accustomed to expect, but also enables companies to slash teams and costs. But, of course, the technology often doesn’t work—on my return cross-country flight, the airplane’s WiFi service was out for most of the trip. So much for watching movies or television programs on your personal, hand-held device!
The pandemic, with its resultant “contactless payments” so that we don’t have to touch people’s dirty hands, breathe their dirty breath, and touch their dirty money, certainly accelerated this trend towards a more impersonal, faceless digital economy. But Forbes was commenting on this downward trend in customer service years before Covid-19: A 2019 article noted that “across the United States, there seems to be a steady decline in the customer service levels of nearly every type of business.” And in 2017, Forrester featured an interview entitled “The Decline Of Consumer Trust And What To Do About It.”
I would speculate that there is something else behind declining customer service as well: a concomitant decline of a robust middle class.
In the last half-century, the middle class has considerably contracted, a trend that seems likely to continue, especially in light of our increasingly vulnerable economy. Indeed, Americans’ purchasing power is more or less equivalent to what it was in the mid-1960s. As of last year, the average American has lost the equivalent of about $4,200 in annual income because of inflation and higher interest rates.
The connection between a contracting middle class and a decline in customer service is this: People inhabiting a healthy middle class in strong, robust communities, expect professional, timely treatment from companies who want their money. Those businesses are forced to compete over customers who want a good product and who can "take their business elsewhere." And, when we are talking about a strong, interconnected community, these middle class shoppers can lodge complaints about poor customer service that are likely to affect business decisions.
In contrast, in societies with small or non-existent middle classes, in which people are increasingly atomized and anonymous (so neighbors are less likely to know a business owner and personally complain if he offers an inferior product or service), there is less reason for businesses to change bad behavior. In such societies, only the wealthy can afford to shop at businesses who employ workers who care about ensuring customers get the right product and are concerned about avoiding complaints.
Indeed, some of the countries with the worst customer service are countries with a massive divide between the haves and have nots, such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. One could easily throw in those countries reputed to be the worst for business, such as Venezuela, Algeria, the Philippines, and Nigeria. Thailand, for example, where I lived for three years, has notoriously bad customer service, despite its nickname as the “Land of a Thousand Smiles.” When I once tried to return a pair of pants, the cashier looked at me as if I had spat on the grave of a dead relative and forced me to wait until every other customer in the store had been served. While trying to order take-out over the phone, a cashier on the line screamed at me and hung up because they were “too busy.” Lodging complaints about such behavior accomplishes little. Everyone just smiles.
Thailand is also known for its huge income inequality. There is a ridiculously wealthy upper class tied to the royal family; a small, merchant middle class largely concentrated in Bangkok and to a lesser degree Chiang Mai, and a large underclass of impoverished Thais and economic migrants from elsewhere in Asia. Thus, for most Thais, and even many expats, there is no recourse if you encounter bad service at a restaurant or shop (unless it is owned by an expat). Take it or leave it, “ka,” as Thai businesses implicitly tell their patrons.
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There is another aspect to the connection between a shrinking middle class and declining customer service: a globalized economy, prioritizing the cheapness of goods, tends towards inferior products. Cheap goods, of course, are made by cheap labor. Many of the items in our homes are no longer made by middle class fathers of three in Youngstown, Ohio, Bakersfield, California, or even some town in post-war, Marshall Plan-rehabilitated Western Europe. Rather, those products are made by an impoverished man or woman in a factory in a foreign province whose name you cannot pronounce.
The companies that sell you those products are not located in the town in which you live, nor are they sold to you by your neighbor or acquaintance from church or PTA meetings. They are, in many cases, sold to you via an anonymous, giant, online behemoth such as Amazon, whose rating system obviously benefits large companies with offshore labor who can fix that system to benefit their mass-produced, foreign-made products. Sure, you could spend all day writing bad reviews on the pages for these products. But it won’t make a difference.
As our society becomes ever more dependent on technology, and our middle class continues to shrink, it is unlikely that the negative trend in customer service will reverse. We are a people so socially isolated from one another and the businesses we rely on that we have become accustomed to sub-par service. It is all about efficiency, even if the results are inferior products purchased online, or, ones we self-scan while an employee more invested in his smartphone than your shopping acts as “gatekeeper.” Has it really been a pleasure doing business with you?