Thoughts on competition, customer service and OCS*
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?