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At Your Service

by Stephen Lautens


September 14, 2001

I had to go to my bank this week. As usual, two tellers were open for the dozen or so of us in line. What I needed couldn't be done at the bank machine, so I took my place in line behind the velvet rope.

The two customers parked at the tellers seemed as unlikely to move as a shady lawyer at an accident. One of them was apparently paying off the entire national debt of Brazil in loose nickels. The other looked like she was trying to open an account with a fifty cent bill from Canadian Tire and was using a hospital bracelet as ID.

As my lunch hour dwindled away, I noticed a sign on the counter next to the teller. It said:

"Due to an increase in business, we anticipate heavy traffic in the branch in the last three days of the month. Our customer sales reps will be pleased to help you develop a banking schedule that will help you avoid long line-ups."

It's nice the bank is getting more business. I was worried their profits might be down a billion or two this quarter. But what their sign said was they had no intention of using the extra money to hire extra customer service reps during the busy hours caused by all this new business. Instead, the bank wants to "help" me find a time when they're not too busy to serve me.

In other words, buzz off and come back when we're not so busy or be prepared to hunker down for a long wait.

The Passport Office has taken a different approach to the same problem. They've posted a big sign in their waiting room showing all the hours of each days of the week. They show how busy each hour of the day usually is. The most unbearable hours are marked red, busy hours in yellow and the good times to apply for a passport are marked in green.

The only problem was there is no green on the entire board - meaning there simply is no good time to apply for a passport.

I have to point out that all the people I dealt with at the passport office when I was there a month ago were all helpful and nice. (It's true, and I'm not just saying it to make sure they don't cancel my passport next time I'm out of the country.)

And recently the phone company announced that a real operator won't answer anymore when you dial zero. Instead, you are greeted with a helpful menu of choices to make absolutely sure that you really do want to waste the time of a real live operator. Only after you've listened to the wide variety of helpful services ("press three now if your hair is on fire"), do you get a chance to talk to a human.

More and more the customer is being treated like an annoyance rather than the reason these companies exist.

I've worked on the front lines of customer service before, and the public can be a great big pain in the southern regions. As consumers, the great public can be rude, dumb and slow.

What these companies don't realize is that the secret of customer service is not telling us we're just a bunch of dumb time wasters that suck the profit out of their bottom lines ­ at least not to our faces.

© Stephen Lautens 2001

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