Warning: Improve Customer Service—Or Else

In 1982, In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. was the right book with the right message and at the right time: It told of companies that had done exceptionally well during a substantial downturn in the American economy. The simple and eloquent message was that certain firms can outperform the market no matter what the economic conditions, because their primary motivation is consumer satisfaction superior to any other competitor's. Then again, that was 27 years ago.

Earlier this year in a column for BusinessWeek, I suggested that the real underlying problem with the economy was the fact that the baby boomers had not just locked up their spending, but were reconsidering their past impulse purchases. They weren't just reducing debt, they were also re-evaluating the types of products they would buy in the future—everything from luxury cars to their homes. Because it is becoming harder than ever to separate customers from their dollars, customer care and the buying experience are more important than ever. The problem is that, at least if my experiences this year are anything to go by, that experience is so unrewarding that I, and many other consumers, may keep right on sitting on our wallets.

How many individuals are out there trying to spend their money, but the sales process is such an obstacle that they're holding back? I'm not a demanding buyer. I've been a salesman and know how tough it is. A top-flight salesperson can usually show me and sell me just what I really need, but I'm fairly happy with just an average salesperson; as long as the experience is not negative, it works for me. Yes, that's a very low standard. Yet even so, my purchasing experiences in 2009 would never serve as a shining example of customer care.

And I can't believe I'm alone. So I thought it would be a good idea to write down a few of my experiences, some are even pretty humorous, to see if readers have had the same problems as I had. But the primary audience I am writing for is the companies themselves. Attention CEOs: Now, more than ever you can't afford to let sloppiness, misinformation, or poor service cost you any more customers.

And I'm not talking about Manny's Discount Hut. I am referring to big companies such as Apple (AAPL), AT&T (T), and Lowe's (LOW).

Example No. 1: The manager in the men's department at the Dillard's (DDS) store in Fort Worth could not have been nicer. Yes, sales were down but so were the prices on Polo Ralph Lauren shirts. (Yes, America, there are bargains everywhere today) There was one color I was interested in, but the store didn't have it in my size. He apologized profusely for the lack of inventory. Later at another Dillard's, the shirt was again not available in my size in that particular color. Only this time the salesperson offered to look it up in the store's computer system and ship the shirt directly to me. Now, that's real customer service, so I paid for a number of shirts—and to this day they have never shown up. This marks twice that I've had this experience with Dillard's; to date I'm out $780 with nothing to show for it.

Lesson Learned: It's easy enough to order these shirts from Ralph Lauren directly online and receive the merchandise in just two days.

My next bad experience came at the hands of the phone company. I know this may come as no surprise to millions of Americans but I offer it up as a cautionary tale anyway. AT&T was making an offer that seemed exceptional: 500 channels of television, Internet download speeds of 18 mbps, phone service with every bell and whistle, and free nationwide long distance—and all for a figure that would save more than $150 off what I was paying for my phone lines and cable TV with Charter Communications (CHTR). Once the order was placed the U-Verse system was installed within days.

But here's what happened. First, the original converter box didn't work and had to be replaced the next day. Then the AT&T IP phone service not only delivered digital voice distortion, but its split-second delay echoed my voice back to me, making the phone extremely irritating to use. (Five service calls later it turns out the problem was U-Verse's IP phone service doesn't always work in some older neighborhoods.) But AT&T has in place an easy and fair solution: They take the phone service back to analog, discount the U-Verse package by $30 a month, then bill $30 for the new analog phone, but the customer keeps all upgrades, including free long distance. That wasn't so bad. But still it took almost two weeks before anyone could come out to switch my phone back to analog. That's a long time without a functioning phone.

Then came the real problem: Call Waiting. I wanted it disabled. However, to do so AT&T said my phone bill would rise to standard rates. Keep in mind, I wasn't asking for something for nothing; I simply wanted a feature that AT&T charges for removed. That it "couldn't be done" and honor that price was their only response. After numerous phone calls, AT&T would grant their discounted rate for only six months, then I'm on my own.

The U-Verse system is high tech and, except for the remote control, works well most of the time, but the master box failed again within months. And from time to time the TV sound or picture gets distortion in it; a few times it's required rebooting the system to get it operational again.

Lesson Learned: When I mentioned these issues on my radio show, AT&T's executive offices called to ask how they could correct the problems. In fact, they called twice. On their 3G service for the cell phone, the first gentleman admitted it has become overloaded in peak hours and isn't really delivering the promised speed improvements, but said they are working quickly to correct that. I believe it will be corrected in time if not quickly.

Then I pointed out that the only AT&T problem I had that they could resolve was the cost of going back to an analog phone, the price of which they wouldn't honor anymore because I'd removed Call Waiting. They said that certainly didn't sound right and promised to check into it. I haven't heard from them since.

Even companies that enjoy great reputations for customer care let me down. No company has had more influence on my career than Apple, inventors of the Macintosh computer. From 1989 when I brought my first Macintosh II cx to today, Apple's computers have been critical to my success. Steve Jobs is my hero. That being said, the last decade has been tough on the relationship.

Less than two years ago I purchased an expensive new Mac Pro for a primary work computer, and within 15 months it started writing excess directories all over the hard drives until it wouldn't function properly. In spite of its lack of age, this was not a major problem. (I am more patient than most about these issues.) I simply ordered another Mac Pro this past May. Within 90 days the 1 terabyte hard drive went out. Bummer. But they couldn't ship me the replacement overnight because it has no procedure for charging customers extra for expedited shipping.

When I had to replace my Apple 24-in. monitor I was told that their newest 24-in. monitor doesn't use DVI connections but mini-Display Port—and that means it won't work on their very expensive Mac Pros, of which I own two. It gets worse. The cables for the new 24-in. monitor are so short that I had to completely rearrange my studio to get the Mac close enough to hook up. Then, as icing on the cake, none of the USB ports on the back of the new Apple monitor worked.

Lesson learned: Dell makes an exceptional 24-in. monitor that works wonderfully on any Macintosh. Its cables are long enough to accommodate any office setup, and it costs hundreds of dollars less.

You've probably seen the commercials touting the ease of buying appliances from Lowe's: Free next-day delivery, installation and removal of the old appliance. So, it had come time to do some major remodeling around our house, and the first item on the list was a new Bosch dishwasher. It took more than 30 days to get it into the store, but on a Saturday afternoon recently Lowe's called to inform me the washer was in. "When are you going to come in and pick it up?" they asked.

I reminded the salesman of the company's ads: free delivery and installation, and haul-off of the old appliance. "Oh," he replied. "You want us to do that?"

Well, yeah. So it was scheduled for early that Monday. And promptly at 7:45 Monday morning, their driver dumped the new dishwasher, still in the box, in the middle of the kitchen and gave me the receipt. What about installing it and removing the old one, I asked. The driver said, "I don't do that; you'll have to call the store and have it set up." So I did. Their response was that in Texas you have to have a plumber's license to install a dishwasher, so they don't offer the service. Additionally, I was informed, unless you completely disconnect the old appliance and have it out in a convenient location, they don't haul it away.

My brother-in-law has worked for Sears repair for decades, so I asked him if a plumber's license is required to install a new dishwasher. He said it might be true, but even if it is, no one else selling appliances is leaving stuff in the middle of a kitchen floor still in the box.

Lesson Learned: Lowe's executives: That was the first of five major Bosch appliances to be purchased in our remodeling. I purchased the rest from AJ Madison online.

There are exceptions to today's sales and service malaise. Texas super dealer and author of Customers for Life, Carl Sewell has been dealt more than his fair share of disappointments this year due (he owns 3 Saab and 2 Hummer stores), yet he is easily on his way to his company's second most profitable year in its history—possibly his best. "Nothing has changed about exceptional customer service," according to Sewell. "It's just that," he says, "most companies don't fully appreciate the fact that in uncertain times organizations can not just capture and hold their current customer base, but actually extend it by catering to their needs in ways that others simply ignore."

I'm not saying that the economy would come roaring back quickly if America's sales people were playing their A game. But there's no doubt we will start to see winners and losers at retail soon. Those who win will be those that consistently give customers the best buying experience.