Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thoughts on competition, customer service and OCS*

* Offended Customer Syndrome

This post may be an instance of prostalgia, that pleasant feeling of longing expectation for the future, but a recent case of consumer dissatisfaction that I experienced related to my recent road trip has caused me to conclude that our competitive economy is making it harder and harder to get bad service.

The episode in question originated with service work I had done on my 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan on May 1st in preparation for the road trip. With 85,000 miles on the odometer, I knew that the car needed new brakes and probably some other engine related work that I knew the professionals at the local Plymouth dealership would be all too happy to apprise me of, so I expected a sizeable estimate. I was not disappointed in that prediction, but having earned my trust in past service efforts, I assented to the majority of items on the list, one of which was to flush the transmission lines.

I left my home in Minnesota early on Saturday May 5th, planning to arrive in Cleveland in the late evening. I hadn’t gotten more than 100 miles from home when my car broke down on the freeway near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The transmission line had come loose, spilling out all of the transmission fluid. Luckily I managed to get off the freeway and make it to a convenience store before I lost all drive to the wheels.

To make a long story short: through AAA I found a repair shop in Eau Claire that was open and that could tow my car to their shop. The repair shop discovered that when the Plymouth service shop flushed the transmission line they had neglected to clamp the line back in place. They put a clamp on, refilled the fluid, and I was back on the road within two hours of the breakdown, which in itself was an amazing feat which in the days before cell phones would hardly be possible.

Of course my breakdown story got great “mileage” with all my friends and family members I visited during the trip. Everyone was outraged on my behalf that my attempt to do the safe, cautious thing and have my car thoroughly serviced before the trip would actually turn out to be the cause of the breakdown. All were equally adamant that I call them as soon as I returned and get them to reimburse me for the cost of the repairs, at a minimum.

Their reaction was more than just concern over the money and inconvenience I was put through due to the faulty service work done. The incident evoked in everyone the universal antagonism of consumer against vendor, an antagonism that is only slightly less strident than that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between the English and the French. Everyone has at one time felt cheated, ill-served and oververcharged by commercial providers of one sort or another, and such feelings of injustice go beyond the monetary considerations involved. Bad customer service is a status crime, an insult against the honor and dignity of the person. When a consumer feels powerless to demand satisfaction from a company for shoddy service or merchandise, he loses esteem. He loses status. His place on the great hierarchical stepladder of being is lowered. Lets call this Offended Customer Syndrome, or OCS for short.

People who suffer OCS are driven to recoup more than just monetary compensation for their loss or inconvenience. They need, in addition to that, to obtain some symbolic pound of flesh from the offending company, either in the form of some additional compensatory reward or in the form of having to suffer an angry, denigrating and insulting harangue which will leave neither the offending company representative or any third party observers unclear as to where the company stands status-wise in relation to the consumer.

I’ve always tried to avoid contracting OCS as much as possible. To me it is just acceding to an additional, self-inflicted humiliation in addition to the poor service. I try to depersonalize my financial transactions as much as possible, so that my own sense of self is not dependent on how well I come out in disputes over customer service. There are those, I’ve observed, who take a totally different approach, who invest more of their own self worth in such disputes than is warranted. I’m thinking of people who call out the manager of the restaurant for even the slightest delay in service or perceived inattention on the part of the service staff. I’m also thinking of those nosy neighbors who need to know how much you paid for everything, so that they can smugly pronounce that you’ve been taken to the cleaners, whatever you paid. Of course these are people who, if you go by their own claims, never paid the asking price in their life, and who never failed to get anything but complete satisfaction for any substandard delivery of product or service.

Upon getting back from the road trip, I made the call to the service manager at the Plymouth dealership, preparing myself for whatever push-back he may give me on reparations for my additional repair bills. I needed no such preparation, as he couldn’t have been more apologetic and forthcoming with the promise to reimburse my expenses. Had I been in need of feeding my OCS condition with a heated back-and-forth expletive-filled exchange, I couldn’t have felt more robbed of my thunder.

In addition to the great strides that producers of goods have made across the board in the quality of their products, competition has driven companies to make outstanding customer service a bare minimum requirement for doing business, and not a differentiating value-add for premium product lines. Will this have the effect of making OCS, like the plague, an affliction of the past, or will human nature merely adjust to the shifting of the playing field by increasing the expectation for service to unheard of levels? Can people do without the ego-gratifying compulsion to complain?


Blogger monix said...

Great post and I like your naming of a new syndrome - everyone needs a syndrome these days.
I am not a complainer because I hate confrontation and I only think of clever things to say well after the event.
I once tried to complain about an expensive pair of shoes that let in water the first time I wore them. The shop assistant informed me that shoes are not designed to keep rain out, I should have bought wellington boots for that and I left feeling utterly defeated!

May 31, 2007 1:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Nice post Duck, it reminded me of this Scott Adams post.

Experts say that the most loyal customers are not the ones who had a flawless experience, but the ones who had a problem that was resolved. I think they’re right.

I suspect you're happier with your Plymouth dealer now than if they had done the job right.

May 31, 2007 3:14 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Monix, I'm the same way. I have to get really worked up to lodge a complaint, as the act of getting cross with people is not something that comes naturally to me, and I'm not very good at it. I'll be as sweet and reasonable as I can, and will only resort to being a hardass if there is substantial money involved. Usually the sweet talking approach works.

Your experience with the shoes demonstrates one of the pitfalls of OCS. If you make the complaint and don't succeed, you've suffered a double indignity. It can be a high risk maneuver.

May 31, 2007 3:15 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I'll gladly return for service but not to buy a new car. I've had it with Chryster products, or as the tow truck guy termed it, "Mopar". By his expereience the frequency of tows by manufacturer, in descending order, is Ford, then Mopar, then Chevy (GM) and all foreign makes. I've owned four Mopar products in my life, and all four have had major mechanical failures prior to 70,000 miles. Both of the minivans I've owned required new transmissions after 50,000 miles. Tow truck guy comfirmed my suspicion that Mopar vehicles are prone to transmission problems.

May 31, 2007 4:07 PM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Totally. Buy a Toyota (if you can stand how they look) and go ahead and weld the hood shut if you want too.

May 31, 2007 4:35 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 02, 2007 7:52 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Yeah. My Honda Civic barely gave me any problems for the five years I drove it despite my lackadaisical attempts at car care.

When it came time to upgrade (yesterday) I opted for a Toyota Lexus instead of the regular choices of a Mercedes or BMW.

Erp reports a similar tale of woe regarding Circuit City.

I've nearly been driven to sobbing by my attempts to tackle BT customer support after our previous ISP survivor went bust and we had to switch broadband providers.

June 02, 2007 7:57 AM  
Blogger erp said...

We loved our Dodge Caravan which gave up its ghost last year after 17 years of exemplary service. Drove it all over the country, out to the Canadian Rockies and south of the border down Mexico way with nary a problem. Our "new" car is a 12 year old Chrysler Concorde also a wonderfully comfortable ride (better than the Jags and Mercedes our rich kids drive). We won't be doing much driving any time soon, if ever, so our next car will be a cute little PT Cruiser. It's funny Chrysler went German after we bought our Concorde and now that we're ready to buy another car, it's back in U.S. hands.

Good timing because I can't bring myself to buy another foreign car even though we had three Hondas and five VW's when they kids were growing up . . . we actually had three VW's at the same time as well as an MG.

June 02, 2007 5:57 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Logical, strong consumer complaints would have helped Chrysler etc.
clean up their act well the MI legislators.
Practice of handing over the keys
after 2-3 maj. errors would have sharpened up the cos.

Taxes on foreign vehicles neede to be raised substantially 20 years ago in order to maintain our own economy.
Too many Americans don't get it.
You've been dealing with Japanese, and other countries mercantilism.

You've been helping bankrupt your own country.
Has been a need for 20 yrs. to raise the taxes, raise the tuitions, drop medical insurances...or let the Japanese & Germans pay for your medical, if you want to buy foreign vehicles.

June 03, 2007 2:45 PM  
Blogger David said...

Americans no care auto cos. Big waste resources. As easy say Unions old, archaic, antiquated -- let's ban em.
MI leg can't pick nose, let alone winners/losers.
Nippons/Deutchs tax selves, send us cars, take paper back -- Good Deal.

June 03, 2007 4:03 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Alex, I favor free markets rather than the government trying to even things out by levying taxes on imports. The law of supply and demand works if the "experts" leave their mitts off.

Another thought on OCS. I've noticed that dealing with the various people who control our lives has become progressively more difficult as there is no accountability at any level. This is true across the board. As Ali noted (sorry that link isn't working) we had an episode of out-and-out lying by Circuit City personnel from the sales clerk to the president's office and I'm sorry to say the Florida Attorney General's office didn't even reply to our complaint.

Notable exception - Bright House/Roadrunner cable TV and internet provider. Can't say enough about the attitude and competence of their people.

June 03, 2007 7:26 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Please, do not ever say I didn't warn you that your purchases (and your family members if think the same) are contributing to the downfall of the U.S. economy and this country.
You're a fool if you think
these other countries like
Japan, S. Korea, China are in any way involved in "free market" system.

Japan, etc. are "Mercantilists".
The are kicking you and your offspring to grand kids in the butt.

June 04, 2007 10:12 AM  
Blogger David said...

Mighty Japanese crush puny US economy.

June 06, 2007 6:52 AM  

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