Whatever Happened to Customer Service?

I’ve gotten a whole lot of new traffic on an old blog post of mine entitled, “Why That Prescription Takes So D**M Long to Fill and Why It’s Not Your Pharmacist’s Fault After All”.  There have been comments on both sides, of course, from  pharmacists and pharmacy customers.  Both have their frustrations and some seem more than frustrated – irate is the word.  People on either side of the counter can be rude and incompetent sometimes but when I ask myself where good old fashioned customer service went, I say, “It’s the system, Stupid.”

I was born in the 50’s, the halcyon days of good customer service.  Milk was delivered to our door.  The garbage men (we didn’t use the term “sanitation worker” then) came to the side of the house where the trash cans were kept and took them to the truck to be dumped.  Gas was pumped for you.  Humans answered questions on the phone.  Your neighbor worked at or managed or even owned your favorite store and always gave you free stuff.  You were pampered in airplanes.  In my lifetime customer service has gone from the very personal to the totally impersonal.  If you’ve ever tried to get an airline or a computer manufacturer on the line, you know what I mean.  What few customer service reps remain are outsourced to countries where problem-solving is limited to a script and communicating in English is a challenge.  Self-service is pushed on us on the phone, at the store and at the airport.  I get a lot of emails and store receipts asking me for feedback but if I complain, no one follows up.  Nothing seems to change.  If corporations are people, there’s not a one I’d like to go have a beer with.  Corporations, it seems, simply do not give a damn.

The lack of caring on the part of corporations is not limited to customers.  It’s aimed at employees, as well.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, worker productivity grew 80% from 1973 to 2011 while wages, after inflation, grew by only one-eighth that amount.  The minimum wage is still an unbelievable $7.25/hour.  (I was making that much in 1978.)  This year Forbes Magazine reported that CEO’s make 331 times as much as average workers and 774 times as much as minimum wage workers.  Benefit packages, health care, pensions and vacation time are shrinking.  If the compensation picture weren’t bad enough, the American worker has been vilified by politicians and the press.  Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, portrayed public workers as fat cat ripoff artists who receive “rich benefits” paid for by the citizens and referred to the teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), as the “National Extortion Association”.  Nice.

The purpose of a corporation is to act in the interest of its shareholders, in other words, to make money.  Ethical and social concerns, therefore, are not only irrelevant – they are obstacles to this fundamental mandate.  The Citizens United decision has allowed corporate rights to further trump employee rights by granting them “personhood” and allowing a flood of corporate money to buy influence in Washington.  What does all of this have to do with customer service, you ask?  A system that exploits its workers cannot produce quality service.  Not consistently, anyway.  Dedicated professionals like healthcare workers, teachers, firefighters and cops give their best despite the squeeze being put on them but the burnout rate is high.  The new graduate nurse turnover rate in the US is about 30% in the first year of practice and as much as 57% in the second year, according to the journal American Nurse Today.  Low job satisfaction is related to inadequate staffing, insufficient time with patients, low wages, and dissatisfying relationships with peers, managers and interprofessional colleagues.  In short, a pressure cooker work environment breeds discontent.  Discontent does not lend itself to good customer service. And the story is the same, whether we’re talking about McDonald’s or the corner drugstore.

Turning this around will take a monumental effort.  I hope we will all educate ourselves about workers’ issues and get active. Speak out. Vote. Until then we can help one another by re-establishing another forgotten American virtue: mutual respect.  People on both sides of the counter, the desk or the bed deserve it.  We’re all in the same leaky boat that this country has become and we’ll paddle or sink together.