Issue #197, September 8, 1999  

Customer Service - It's The Real Thing

By Stephen Lawton

      In today's market, customer service is the holy grail. It's one of those make-or-break services responsible for most user complaints. It can kill a sale - or give you a customer for life. In the customer-service game, some targets are easy and some are hard. Nordstrom, the venerable retailer from Seattle, has earned a reputation for good customer service. Is it just an urban myth that Nordstrom accepted a return of a set of tires from a customer who insisted she bought them at the store, despite the fact that Nordstrom doesn't sell tires - and never has? Who's to say?
     It's easy to pick on the phone company for bad customer service. You call for an appointment and they tell you they'll be happy to come out - when it's convenient for them. And every time you get a monthly bill, it's an adventure to figure out just where they buried your latest increase.
     I called 411 today to get a local phone number. A recording reminded me that local 411 charges hadn't changed (25 cents per billable call - for now), but out-of-area and national 411 calls now cost 95 cents. Isn't this the same phone company that now charges extra for out-of-area phone books so you'll be encouraged to use 411? Just you try to reach out and touch somebody.
     Despite the recent rate increases for local phone lines, Pacific Bell isn't done yet. On Sept. 16, the California Public Utilities Commission will decide if Pac Bell can further increase its 411 and other rates. Here we go again. Will local service improve when competition emerges for local phone calls? Don't count on it - not if we're stuck with the same phone companies running the operations. Today we endure a "deregulated" phone system that, thus far, has no real competitors for Pac Bell.
      I wish I could tell you about some whiz-bang phone company that will solve all of your problems. I wish I could, but I can't. I don't think one exists. Other phone companies, such as Sprint, don't win kudos for customer service either. I purchased a cell phone a year ago, and the fun began.
      "You need a software upgrade," I was told when I called about poor reception. Several upgrades later (and several complaints to Sprint about the quality of the handset), I still lose a high percentage of my calls or get forced off the Sprint PCS network onto an analog network, even in such remote areas as downtown San Francisco, Oakland, Sunnyvale and Los Angeles.
      Sprint's answer to the faulty handset problem: buy a new phone. When Sprint was my long distance carrier, that service wasn't much better.
     Maybe it's time the telephone industry started hiring sales clerks from Nordstrom. It might not improve the telephone network, but it certainly would help customer service.

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