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Customer service so bad it wins an award

I don’t know if it’s because we have a client whose software helps companies vastly improve their customer service, or whether we, like most others on this planet, rage against lousy customer service when we are victims of it, but it simply defies comprehension that companies would willingly lose business because they can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that effective customer service is the most potent — indeed, maybe the only — sustainable competitive differentiation in an environment where price advantage will evaporate thanks to offshoring and technological advantage will be leaped over by another’s innovation.

Just this past week, I had a couple of truly outstanding examples of mind-numbingly poor customer service. The first was the Chapters cashier who blithely dismissed my bringing to her attention a major flaw in the company’s online search engine. One of my sons needed a replacement copy of a book he was studying for school and had lost. I went online to make sure the book would be available at the store before I actually went. Chapters’ computer system told me there were no copies anywhere in the city. When I mentioned this to my son, he said the computer had told him the same thing when he had looked for the book a week or so earlier, only to find at least a dozen copies on the shelves. So I ignored the computer system, went to the store and found many, many copies were, indeed, available.

When I mentioned this to the cashier and suggested she might like to bring it to someone’s attention, she brushed me off, saying the shipment of books probably just came in and that it took their computers a few days to catch up. When I said my son had experienced the same thing a good week or more earlier, suggesting it was a more persistent issue than her first glib response would suggest, it was as though she wasn’t even listening; she simply repeated the same pat answer.

Now, I wasn’t complaining. I wasn’t bitching. I was helpfully bringing to the store’s attention the fact that there might be a serious problem with their online system that, had my son not let me know differently, would have cost them this sale as I went elsewhere to get the book. And she simply couldn’t care less. Either through deliberate training or a complete lack of interest, she had a stock answer that allowed her to avoid any meaningful attempt at genuine customer engagement.

For what it’s worth, five days later, the book is still showing completely out of stock all over the city. The kicker is, it’s Orwell’s 1984; at least the concept of doublespeak is alive and well and living at Chapters!

The second unbelievable episode happened yesterday when our phone system went down. We couldn’t get an outside dial tone. Our landline provider is Rogers, so we called them. It took fully 45 minutes — yup, you read that right! — for them to find our account, even though we gave them the phone number in question, the account number at the top of their invoices, every phone number on the account, the name of the company and the name of the key contact on the account! Turns out, Rogers has yet to integrate into their main system the operations of Group Telecom they acquired several years ago when they bought up Sprint Canada. So although everything about our phone service is striped Rogers, we actually had to call a completely separate customer service number, where we told there was a system-wide failure.

But neither of these meets the standard for wretched customer service set by the first-ever winner of the Air Canada-Harold McGowan Memorial Award for Truly Egregious Customer Service. The award is named for Air Canada’s baggage-handling chief at San Francisco Airport who said to me, when I started telling him why my bag had failed to arrive with me on a flight from Calgary, “Keep talking sir, it’s going in one ear and out the other.”

Now, Air Canada is truly a leader in finding new ways to treat its customers like crap. But even by the high standards for low service set every day by the legions of couldn’t-care-less agents of this near-monopoly carrier, Harold’s performance was a jaw-dropping standout. With my journalist’s training, I immediately wrote his statement down on the back of my boarding pass, along with his name. I carry it around with me to show people who, like everyone at the baggage counter who heard Harold that night, simply can’t believe anyone in a customer-facing position would ever say such a thing.

And in his memory, I inaugurated the Air Canada-Harold McGowan Memorial Award for Truly Egregious Customer Service. The key criterion that must be met goes beyond mere incompetence or indifference; to win the award, an individual or company must essentially invite me to take my business elsewhere.

And so the first ever Air Canada-Harold McGowan Memorial Award for Truly Egregious Customer Service goes to — drum roll, please! — Petra, of Zip.ca Member Services, who last week explicitly invited me to cancel my subscription to this online DVDs-by-mail since she and Zip had no intention of ever addressing the increasingly poor customer service I had been experiencing for some time. Without going into extensive detail, what had started as a marvelous experience, degraded over the past year to the point where Zip was unable for more than a week to ship me even one of the 15 titles I had on my list. And all Petra and others at Zip could say was that I should add more titles, and maybe pick less desirable movies or settle for standard-format versions instead of the Blu-Ray titles I was seeking. In short, please don’t ask us to improve our service so it meets what we advertise; restrict your use of us so it falls within our limited ability to meet the promises we made you.

Congratulations, Petra, you’ve won the award and lost my business.

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