A recent survey found that over ninety percent of consumers are unhappy with customer service. Automated phone systems are often frustrating. Agents are untrained in the product or service. Offshore call centres are staffed with people who cannot understand or speak English. Large companies, mostly cable and telecom giants are viewed as greedy and out of touch with their customers.

What’s wrong here?

For whatever reason, companies have insulated themselves from actually dealing with customers. They put all kinds of walls up to protect themselves from criticism. They all profess lofty goals of offering exceptional customer service, yet their policies and procedures fly in the face of this goal. Call centres are measured on taking the least amount of time to deal with customers on the phone and not on the results of these calls.

My own experience over many years clearly shows the decline in customer service. Just a few examples –

I got word that the call centre where I work was looking at upgrading all their antiquated computers. Given that this was my business for almost twenty years I wanted to submit a proposal. I am a Dell fan, so I contacted their Enterprise sales department to build the initial quote for 600 work stations here in London. I also told them there was a potential 30,000 if we won the world wide contract, which only a company like Dell could handle. I got the usual form response that someone would contact me soon. Despite follow-up emails no one ever responded. Is Dell so comfortable that they can afford to ignore this type of contract?

Having been a fan of President’s Choice products since the day they came out, I sent a proposal to Loblaws suggesting they try a new concept store where you would be able to eat healthy meals, eat-in or take-out and sample their PC products. Nearby there would be a PC store where you could only buy PC brand products, along with fresh produce from only local growers, who would also setup farmers’ markets on Saturdays to promote their products carried in the store. I had researched a location here in London that would be perfect, a closed fast food joint out front and a closed dollar store, the perfect size for the PC Brands store. The response? Thanks for your letter. blah blah blah. Yeah, I’ll be really ticked off when they open this concept and it goes across the country.

After lying in a filthy bed in forty degree heat at a shelter I designed a shelter that provided some dignity for residents. I saw it as a public/private partnership. I overheard a staff member talking about a new resident and how they could make sure they got their $46 a night. Seriously? This for a disgusting bed in a dorm and eating mostly donated food? That’s over $1,200 a month. Where is all the money going? I contacted several local builders and sent my detailed renderings of a better shelter concept. Not a single one responded. One in particular owns several empty buildings around town which could easily be converted to my concept, but he would not even meet with me.

Thirty years ago I was involved in installing computer networks, desktop software and even computer furniture. It was the early days of both networking software (Novell ELS 1.0) and Microsoft Windows (3.1). On one customer site I had a particularly challenging install that involved an issue with the network card in the server. At 11:30 PM I called Microsoft and was soon on a conference call with customer service and a technician, who helped me solve the problem. Fast forward to today and just try to speak to a real person at Microsoft. They want something like $90 for fifteen minutes and that’s after you go through a myriad of pushing buttons trying to get to the person you need.

Even more telling is that over ten years ago, when I was working for Northern Computer in Kelowna, I developed a detailed proposal for what today we call the Cloud. I had worked with a number of small businesses who needed access to a computer network, but did not have the funds to buy their own hardware or software licenses. I worked with a local ISP (Silk Internet) who committed to buying the required hardware for a data centre where customers would share server space. I got all the way up to an assistant to Bill Gates, who told me Microsoft would NEVER share software access over the internet. How things have changed today! After I had developed a full desktop model for Windows and access from anywhere, something common today, Microsoft refused to even look at the site for fear of intellectual property concerns by their lawyers. Instead of losing market share to companies like Google, today Microsoft could have been the market leader without question.

Of interest is that, after Microsoft refused to look at my proposal, I contacted Google, Netscape, Apple, Facebook and several venture capitalists who had been involved in the internet. Not one of them responded, yet today they are all using some form of what I had proposed. Shortly after I had contacted Microsoft they launched several of the features that had been part of my proposal. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Over the years I have sent proposals, large and small, to many companies. Here in London Tim Horton’s has a small store downtown, with no seating and it’s always a crush of people trying to get their coffee fix. They also close at 6:00 every night, even though the downtown is swarming with people who would want Timmies. There was an empty store in a building right across the street, and next to McDonald’s, with plenty of seating and right on the corner where all the buses meet. I wrote to Tim Horton’s to suggest this was a perfect location. I got the typical “thanks for contacting us” form response, but nothing else. I sent three follow-up emails, again with no response, most importantly one after Quiznos had closed in the location, mostly because it took way too long to get service for people on limited lunch hours. Nothing. I sent a letter to Tim Horton’s Head Office, expressing my frustration that no one had responded to my emails. No surprise. No response.

After a poor experience with a filthy washroom at a McDonald’s I sent a letter to their Head Office. An exec did call me and tell me he was contacting the manager at the store and that they would “get back to me”. No one has called. I also sent a letter suggesting they use those little plastic shot glasses to sample their new smoothies. I have never been a fan of yogurt, but I would be willing to try a small sample. He also informed me that I could ask for one with no yogurt. Who knew? I think they would double their sales if they offered small testers, but, again, no one responds.

Probably no surprise that I’m dealing with the government on an issue that dates back over twenty-five years ago and I’ve written to everyone from the Prime Minister to the Governor General, but haven’t had a single response for three years. What happened to government for the people?

I spent several weeks developing a business proposal for a new way to connect job seekers with employers (www.PrismCareerNetworks.com). As a fan of the show Dragon’s Den I researched Robert Herjavec of the Herjavec Group and sent him the complete business proposal suggesting a partnership. His response? Nothing.

As consumers our voices are being heard less and less. These companies are putting systems in place to insulate themselves from their customers. They simply don’t listen anymore. Do you think if they did a survey asking if customers would prefer to deal with an automated phone system over a real person that these frustrating systems would have ever been implemented? No way. It’s amazing that companies are now promoting connecting with a real person as something new. Seriously?

My all time favorite was Rogers, with whom I had a disastrous experience. They frustrated me at every turn over three days, seventeen phone calls and trips by bus to their local store, only to discover that some idiot technician had disconnected my service by mistake. After all the wasted hours with them I remembered a site called IHateRogers. I went to the site and sent a detailed email to the contact number shown on the site. It came right back as “undeliverable”. I did some further research and discovered other contact addresses and sent emails off. All of them came back as “undeliverable”. I finally went to WhoIs, a site that provides the registration details for a website. Guess who owned the site? You got it – Rogers! They bought it to stifle complaints against them and promptly disabled all the contact addresses. How’s that for listening to customers?

The paradox of all these pathetic customer service failures is that other studies have shown that over ninety percent of consumers will return to a business based on the customer service they receive initially. Go figure.