Where Did Customer Service Go?

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Let's discuss an appropriate topic for this time of year: customer service, or the lack thereof. Companies always talk up their high levels of customer service. I wish I knew why. For the most part, it's lousy ... and getting worse. Forget the special offers and convenience of shopping online, I'd venture a guess that not having to deal with poorly trained sales associates is a major reason people turn to the Internet to do their holiday shopping. They'd rather do it themselves.

It's because people are tired of waiting 15 minutes in the checkout line at Retailer X. It's because they're tired of asking, "What's the difference between these two items?" and hearing the reply, "Well, this one is more expensive, so it must be the better one," from a clerk who must have started working there, oh, two days ago. They're tired of being put on hold while ordering a shirt from a certain big-name catalog, then the "customer service rep" forgets what the item was.

It's because they're tired of squinting their way through a store dimly lit (my eyes aren't that bad!) in an effort to set the mood for a young, hip crowd. Oh, yeah, don't forget the music that's blasting away so loud you have to shout so the person next to you hears what you're saying. Yes, maybe those are some of the reasons people would rather wait online than in line, and they gain a feeling of empowerment by doing it themselves.

Still, e-tailers have their own set of challenges, but at least they're coming up with innovative solutions. Take Talbots, which has put the inventories of its 1,000-plus stores online so customers can browse the Web site, check whether an item's in stock at a nearby store and reserve it. The service is called Style Search. Since 70 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet as an information source when shopping locally for products and services, companies need more features like this, especially as everyone works to achieve that true multichannel experience.

I'm reminded of business guru/speaker Tom Peters' speech at Donnelley's Privacy Summit in Aspen, CO, this summer. He told the crowd that it's not about customer service but opportunity: "Why get out of bed in the morning unless your goal is to change the world? We have the tools to re-imagine marketing and the idea of a truly no-bull customer-centric enterprise." Good point. It's not just about customer satisfaction. You have to achieve customer loyalty to get a truly profitable customer relationship.

Got a favorite customer service experience? E-mail me and I'll include it in a future editorial.

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