(This op-ed column by Michigan Patch editor Beth Dalbey previously appeared on Patch.)
Customer service died the other day. I could picture it convulsing on the floor, clutching its little magnetic “Hi, I’m Joe and I’m only here to help you because they pay me to do it” badge of a heart, gasping its last.
It has long suffered. Looking back, there were little things we should have noticed.
For one, what is up with clerks whose idea of counting back change is to sandwich it between bills and flimsy receipts, where it rests precariously and could spill at any moment in a floor-game of heads-or-tails? But I digress.
Perhaps die is too strong a word to describe what happened to customer service.
As an institution, maybe it’s just on life support in some places, but alive and thriving in others, say locally-owned mom-and-pop businesses. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
But first, a story, every word of it true:
After an 8-hour power outage, though the range worked fine, the electronic controls on my oven were locked and I could neither bake nor broil nor – not that this happens much – clean it.
It seemed a simple problem, surely one addressed in the operator’s manual. There's a whole long story about how, among dozens of manuals for appliances, big and small, past and present, this particular book was missing. But it's irrelevant, except to explain why I didn't try to fix it myself.
So I called the big-box store where I bought it.
I didn’t expect the lonely Maytag repairman to show up at my door, but I did think someone might troubleshoot over the phone. Was there an easy fix?
“You might have had a power surge,” the clerk said, hesitantly enough to betray that she was guessing.
Then, feigning authority: “If those motherboards go out, it's usually just a whole lot easier and cheaper to replace the stove.”
My stove has a motherboard? Like the Starship Enterprise has, where Spock and Kirk fuss over the logic of, I don’t know, replacing a four-year-old appliance that doesn’t exactly take a beating like Bobby Flay’s? No way could this be a $500 or $600 or who knows how expensive a problem. Really?
“How expensive is it?” I asked.
Who was she? The clerk in the swanky dress shop who refused to wait on Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman"?
“Any way you can quantify that?”
Silence. Perhaps she didn’t understand the word. I clarified: “Can you give me a dollar figure?”
I could see her rolling her eyes, flailing her arms dramatically.
“Most times, people just replace the stove.”
Circle talker. It’s her job to sell stoves. Got it. Keep your cool, Beth, I told myself.
“Is there maybe someone else who can help me?”
“There’s the manager,” she said, “but he won’t know, either. He’s new.”
I finally did find someone who knew what to do, but wasn’t interested in unloading a brand new stove on me.
Unplug it, leave it off for a minute or two, then plug it back in apparently is a universal fix that works on everything from the kitchen stove to television station control boards, according to a friend who used to work in TV news.
“No kidding,” he said. “We used to laugh about it when the engineers suggested it, but it works.”
As promised, the moral to this story:
The next time I buy an appliance, I’m going to buy it from a local business whose future depends on customers coming back.
Besides customer service, what are some of the other benefits of supporting small businesses? Tell us below in comments.