What Happened to Customer Service in America?

There was a time in America where the customer really counted to Corporate America.  The customer could do no wrong … or if they did corporate America would not let them take the blame for it.  What happened?  What went wrong?

angry chicked
Figure 1:  Angry Chicken from the Internet

Have you tried to call some of today’s larger companies (I refuse to mention names for fear that I’ll be sued for libel) that deal with human beings day in and day out and that are considered Public Companies because their stock is sold on one or more stock exchanges?  When calling about an issue that is of importance to you have you ever been made to believe that it is not of importance to the company you are calling or the person you happen to be stuck talking with?


And, when you finally do get someone on the line … does it thrill you to find out that you cannot even understand the person you are talking to because they are from some country other than yours attempting to speak in a language that is nowhere near English or American – though they and their company thinks it is?

Let’s not forget those wonderful phone messages when you do call in … “After speaking to our customer service professional please press #1 if you would be interested in taking a brief survey and #2 if you would not be.”  Personally I always press 2.  I have found corporate America writes survey questions in a way to get the answers they are looking for so that they can put out propaganda discussing how good their customer service is, when it is not necessarily so.

"Your call is important to us, just not as important as whatever else we're doing."
Figure 2:  From the Internet

What about the hold times?  I called a national chain pharmacy the other day about a drug my wife has to take.  I needed to verify something I’d read with the pharmacist.  I was put on hold at the outset with the message … “Due to high call volume … etc.”  After about 15 minutes on hold I got in my car and drove to the pharmacy with my cell phone still on hold and in my hand (the store is only 90 seconds from my house).  I walked in and up to the counter.  There was about 10 people behind the counter talking and filling prescriptions.  The phones were not ringing … I held up my cell phone and asked … “Could someone please pick up the phone so I can asked to speak to the pharmacist.”  Needless to say … I am now doing business with a “mom and pop” pharmacy that will answer the phone when their customers call.  Why?  Because they are more focused on making a living than they are what there stock of their store is doing in the stock market.

And therein lies the biggest problem of all.  CEOs today are so focused on the big picture of what their company’s stock is doing on the stock market that they seem to care less about the thing driving the company … the customers!

You see, many of today’s CEOs get compensation in the form of “stock options” on their company.  “Why the option and not the stock,” you ask?  Well, let’s say XYZ company is selling on the market today for $110 per share.  If the CEO is awarded shares of stock at $110 per share he must hold it for a period of time (usually 9 months or so) before he can sell it.  A lot can happen to cause that stock to appreciate or depreciate in value over a 9 month period.  If the stock goes up let’s say 10% … it is valued at $121.00.  If this is the value it is at when the CEO can sell it (remember it is part of his/her compensation) they would not only get the $110 awarded to them … they would also get the $11 profit the stock made.

Now if the CEO’s compensation portion of stock is $100,000 … this means he/she would be awarded about 909 shares of stock.  So when they sold it months later they would actually receive 909 shares times $121 per share = $109,989 for their compensation of $100,000.

If, however, the board of directors of the company chose to award options on the stock instead of the stock … the options for an at the money call when the stock is at $110 per share would be about $9.85 per share rather than $110 per share.  This means with the $100,000 of compensation the CEO could get a total of about 102 contracts on the stock.  Since each contract is = to 100 shares of stock this would put them in control of about 10,200 shares of stock.

The greek delta (a pricing data point of options) says that if the stock goes up $1.00 in value or down $1.00 in value the option will increase or decrease by $0.5125 in value.  This may not be the true delta on each stock valued at $110.00 with an “At the Money Call” but it was on the stock I was looking at today.

So, let’s assume the stock does go up 10% to $121 in value.  The option will go up 0.5125 x 11 = $5.64 becoming worth $9.85 paid plus $5.64 increase in value or $15.49 in total value per share in the options contracts.  Now the CEO could sell his options for a total of $15.59 per share x 102 contracts x 100 shares per contract = $159,018.  I don’t care what you think … $159,018 is a whole lot more than $109,989 for their compensation by about $49,029 or 44.57% more.

CEO’s understand this and as such make short term decisions about their company that could adversely affect the long-term health of their companies.  You see, stock prices are driven primarily by corporate earnings and profits.  If a company can hire people overseas to do the work for less than it can be done here in America (even if it just to answer the phone as a customer service specialist) they add to the bottom line of the company, short-term, and add to their top-line short-term.

I found and interesting article on the internet that states the following when talking about why CEOs are compensated with stock options rather than real money:

ceo compensation 1
Figure 3:  Source Here

Let us remember the Public Company who says, “Our Customers Come First,” may not really be telling you the truth.  With most companies the senior leaders come 1st, stockholders come 2nd and finally customers come 3rd … just before the lower paid employee.

An article in a 2015 publication of Fortune Magazine – Why you should care about how CEOs get paid had this to say …

Sam Pizzigati, author of The Rich Don’t Always Win, told me that with these “outrageously huge awards, [the CEOs will ] do whatever it takes to raise stock price” and “by offering such a disproportionate amount to one person or small group, the company undermines morale and attacks the productivity of the enterprise.”

This strong incentive to control stock prices can result in corporate decisions to hide bad news and to manipulate their financials. It also compels executives to engage in behavior directly tied to the mood of the market. When the market is exuberant, CEOs will take on excessive risk to boost a company’s stock price. When that works, like a monkey with a lever for a grape, the CEO will do it again—and again and again—until the market overheats and the bubble bursts. And that’s how paying in stock and stock options creates economic bubbles, researchers and university professors at Columbia and Pace, John Donaldson and Natalia Gershun, say. Once this happens and the market becomes fearful, CEOs will cut costs to boost their company’s stock price. When that works, CEOs will again keep cutting costs repetitively until that stops working. In so doing, they create deeper recessions and economic volatility, which when mimicked and multiplied across the economy devastate the finances and health of ordinary people.

It seems to me that if a company CEO really wanted to increase the value of his company he would start at the bottom … with the consumer in providing excellent customer service (like days of old before mass computerization) … but they don’t.  The only bottom they start with is the bottom line.  If they can hire a person overseas to do the job for a fraction of the cost it would cost them to hire them in America … why wouldn’t they.  This would reduce expenses … increase profits and increase their compensation.  Thirty, Forty or Fifty years from now that CEO will be long gone with his millions or billions of dollars and why should he care about the company or the customers at that time?

Unfortunately, that train of thought that starts at the top of many of America’s Largest Companies finds its way down the corporate ladder to the person who is supposed to be the Customer Service Representative or Specialist.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people in my own family talk bad about the customer with statements such as, “I am getting sick and tired of Joe Public calling and yelling at me about something he does not like about the company.  There is nothing I can do to change it and the public needs to learn that customer service representatives are also human and should be dealt with, with respect.”

Well dear family members – and others – that may think like this … I disagree with you.  It is true that you are human and should be dealt with, with respect.  But it is also true that if you hold yourself out as a customer service specialist you should be able to deal with any crap thrown your way by the buying public … the consumer … your customer.  That is why you are being paid.  Learn to deal with irate people … learn to defuse their anger and make them as happy as you can.  That is your job … so that they will continue to use your companies products and/or services.  If you cannot do this without becoming one of them … you have no business being in customer service and need to get the hell out of it.

I worked for a company for 42 years.  When I started in 1976 the company was 84 years old and still relatively small.  Over the past 42 years the company grew by several times through various mergers and acquisitions, and as we got larger I realized customer service at the corporate level was a dying skill.  The company is now 126 years old and if you called them with a problem – unless you call the agent in the field – you are likely going to get a person off shore that is hard to understand.

Now don’t take this the wrong way.  I have no hard feelings for those folks overseas working to make a living to support their families … and I am certainly not upset because they have jobs with American Corporations.  I too, married a person form overseas that speaks broken english well enough for me and my family to understand her.  She has held positions at American Corporations as well.  However, when I owned my own business I would not allow her to answer my business telephone line for fear a client may have a hard time understanding her.  To me that would be unforgivable as it relates to good client/customer service.

Pure and simple:  If foreign people (and there are some very smart ones that could solve problems) are going to answer American’s phone calls … the Foreign people need to learn to speak American without their foreign accent.  They do this in Hollywood all the time.  For example – Pull up on You Tube a video of Colin Farrell doing an interview on Jay Leno https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvqtfHIQMew and see if you can understand him better there vs. a movie he has made such as Phone Booth or Miami Vice.  You can go to Youtube and get these full feature films or the trailers to see what I am talking about.

Better yet, check this out … a Russian Actress speaking perfect American:

Hear Lana Speak without her Russian Accent

I once had a friend from Iran, in Texas, that spoke with no accent whatsoever and he used to get so mad at his Iranian friends (and my wife) who thought they had to speak with an accent, especially if they were dealing with the public – which his business required him to do.  He kept saying to his friends, “All you have to do is imitate the Americans.  They don’t say please seet here.  They say please SIT here.”

You see, I believe as he did, that foreign people who are going to work with the American Public at large should be coached to speak without an accent so that the people they are working with can at least understand them.  It’s not enough to just be able to speak and understand the language … you must be able to do it without the foreign accent.  I told the company that I worked for on several occasions that if they were going to hire foreign people to speak to our American Customers they should take some of the savings and have voice coaches for the foreign people to help them temporarily get rid of their accents while on the phone … of course this fell on deaf ears because that would adversely affect our bottom line.  But, I believed if they could do it in Hollywood, they should also do it in Corporate America.

We sometimes have the same problem within the confines of our own country.  There are many times when people from various parts of the country find it hard to understand people from other parts of the country just due to accent.  Sometimes it is people in the south trying to understand faster talking people from the north … or vice versa … and sometimes it is people anywhere trying to understand people from the New England states that drive a “caa to a potty” rather than a “car to a party.”  But if you are in Customer Service and want to be the best you can be … you must understand to speak the language that your customer speaks the way they speak it.  If you are from the north talking a person from the south … slow down.  If you are from the south talking to a person from the north … speed it up.

I am far from being an engineer … but when I was a financial planning professional I had a lot of clients that were engineers because I learned to talk in terms that they would understand.  I also had some clients that were artists and happy go lucky type people.  I learned to relate to them as well.  Now while I was in sales … isn’t every customer service representative somewhat in sales.  If they don’t think so … they should not be in customer service.

Would I attempt to be a customer service rep for a company in Mexico where more than 90% are speaking spanish?  Not until I was sure I could speak spanish with a Mexican Accent vs. Spanish with say a Cuban Accent.  The same bar should be set for foreign people working with an American Public.  It’s as simple as that.

Next, if you do understand the person in customer service and they don’t seem to care about your problem … don’t be afraid to ask for their supervisor.  Supervisors generally take their jobs a little more serious than the run of the mill worker … I mean after all … isn’t that why they are the supervisor?

If and when you determine the supervisor is not going to help you on that infamous “800” number that all companies love to give out … go to the internet and locate the phone number for the corporate office.  It usually will not be a toll free number.  Once you get an answer simply ask for the CEOs office.  You will not be able to talk to the CEO … but guess what … you will easily get to the complaint department which is usually known as the Enhanced Customer Service Department or some other such ridiculous name.  Tell this person your problem and usually it will be dealt with in an adequate amount of time.  When you do this make sure to provide information from your notes of the people you have already talked to and the time and date you talked to them.  This will help the company find who’s at fault for poor customer service.  Only when a company knows something is broke will they set out and try to fix it.  Most senior leadership teams in corporate America don’t know they have lousy customer service because the customers never complain directly to them.

Does all these steps take time that usually is not worth it?  That depends on how you look at it.  I’ve always believed that Customer Service was the most important thing a company could focus on so for me it is worth the time I spend in reaching out to the headquarters of a company.  Believe me, if Headquarters does not know there is a problem in customer service … customer service will only continue to get worse … the problem cannot be fixed if the ones who are suppose to fix it does not know about it.

If the time spent is not worth it to you … well continue trying to get what you need with poor customer service … and continue to be mad when you don’t.

In closing I will tell two stories of good customer service.

I had a client that was a little leary of the stock market in 2007.  He called me in October and told me to sell everything he had and to put the proceeds in cash.  I tried (while driving my car to another clients home) to discourage him from doing this but he would have nothing to do with it.  He only had about $200,000 with me at the time between his and his wife’s accounts.

After discussing it with him and seeing that I was not going to get him to change his mind I asked could it wait until the next day because I was driving.  He said, “Sure you can wait until tomorrow … but if you do once you have sold all my stock … send me the cash.”

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the market closed at 3:00 Central time.  I told him, “Mr. Client, don’t you worry … I will see to it that it gets done before the market closes today if I don’t have to send you the cash tomorrow.”

He said, “That will be fine, but call me when it is done.”

I found a place to pull off the interstate and tried to locate a place to get on the internet … but that was not happening in 2007.  I got on the phone and called the corporate office trading department and told them it was a must that we get all these trades done before the market closed.  The last trade was done at 2:59 PM Central Time and I was calling the client by 3:00.  He seemed pleased.

There were a total of about 20 trades that had to be made.  If I could have made them myself on the internet it would have cost me at $15 per trade (what is known in the securities industry as a ticket charge) a total of $300 to take care of this clients wishes.  However, calling the trades in was more expensive.  The fee was $50 per trade … so in this case it cost me (out of pocket) $1,000 to place these clients trades.

Even if the client would have called the company direct, the company would have still charged me the $1,000 to place the trades because I was being paid a fee for helping the client manage his money.

Now a lot of people would agree that this was excellent client service … but it was costly to the client service representative (which was the role I was playing in my business with this client at this time).  Yes, that is true … but here is the rest of the story.

Within two months of the date I transacted this business for the client I was sitting with him and his wife face to face doing a review of their financial progress, which was not great considering the nation was in a down market. I made sure that all of my clients who were willing saw me face to face at least one time each quarter (four times each year), regardless of how good or bad the market was.  At the end of this meeting the clients decided to move 100% of their Fidelity Accounts to me for managing because I was able to do something for them within the time frame they’d requested it be done.  The total amount we brought over was about $1.3 million dollars or so.

I think of these, and all my ex-clients, often and still wonder if there was anything else I could have done to provide better customer service to them than what I did.

Another story is this:  When I first transferred from Baton Rouge, LA to Jackson, MS to work as a manager for my company … (yea I was leaving the commission world and going into the employee salary world) … there was a Steak & Ale Restaurant across the street where I ended up eating many lunches.  I’ll never forget the conversation with the waitress the first time I went there.

She approached my table and gave me menu and said, “Do you know what you want to drink?”

“Coke,” I responded.

“Sorry,” she said, “We don’t have coke products … only Pepsi products.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess Pepsi will have to do … but I really must find a restaurant next time that serves Coke products,” and I said this with a smile on my face.

She smiled back and said, “I will see what I can do.”

Low and behold, when she came back to the able she was carrying a class of Ice and a 16 Oz. bottle of Coca-Cola.  She looked at me as said, “We’ve purchased a 12-pack for you and as long as you eat your meals here the manager has assured me he would keep it on ice for you going forward.”

Needless to say … no lunches for the next one year (until the shut the place down) was eaten anywhere else and I always had Coke with my lunch as sometimes dinner.

A lot of companies will say “The Customer Comes First,” but until they can advance that vision on down to the people that actually have do deal with the customer – regardless of the mood the customer may be in – it is nothing more than empty words.

If you deal with customers … please make sure you put them first and foremost!

Thank you,

Jerry Nix, FreeWaveMaker, LLC.



2 thoughts on “What Happened to Customer Service in America?

  1. kimberly

    great article uncle jerry! 🙂 i love the voice coach idea!
    i def give my best customer service now as a micro mini mom & pop biz owner…
    i really really like my customers and would do just about anything for them! (& have)
    but i learned how … while being a waitress in a sports bar in a suburb of chicago …
    not a lot of room for error … usually the place was packed past capacity and people wanted what they wanted NOW and don’t interrupt the game! lol!
    Super Tips, but don’t take too long and don’t dare bring the wrong drink, or forget the sauce for the wings and always Always have a smile! you really do earn your tips!
    women were always the best tippers!! once i got $60 on a $40 tab for a table of 6 ladies! 🙂

    1. Kim, I agree that women were the best tippers. I used to be a waiter when in the military at Ft. Hood, TX at a dinner club. I was the best waiter I could be and everyone claimed they loved me and always wrote notes to the owner about my service. Yet when it came to tips … the waitresses always got more than the waiters and the waiters not only waited … but they also bussed all the tables while the waitresses took time to remain looking pretty. Eventually, the owner – who really believed in his employees – made all tips go into a jar to be split evenly at the end of the night. I did not like that either because there were some that should not be getting tips at all, except possibly the tip of another job someplace that did not allow them to deal with people. Ha Ha Ha. When I was even younger (about 12-13) I was a caddy. I loved to caddy for the ladies … they would tip $10 for 18 holes while their rich husbands (doctors and lawyers) would only tip $2. Thanks for commenting, Uncle J.

Leave a Reply