How to stop the customer service apocalypse of 2014

Stokkete/Shutterstock
Stokkete/Shutterstock
When you spend most of your waking hours advocating for consumers, it’s easy to lose your sense of perspective. Complaints pour in, often hundreds per day. I can’t help but feel like the customer-service apocalypse is imminent.

My New Year’s resolution is simple: Stop Servicemaggendon by putting what really matters in my consumer advocacy crosshairs and keep the discourse civil and fair.

What matters? Well, from my point of view, it’s obvious that we’re halfway down a long slide into the customer-service toilet, with only a little pipe to go before we’re flushed out to the sewer. How we approach this precipitous decline matters. It requires a clear-headed, well-reasoned and polite discussion — otherwise the problem could get worse.

In 2013, companies stayed busy segmenting their “best” customers with gimmicky loyalty programs while relegating the rest to smaller plane seats and rooms with fewer amenities. They merged into enormous, customer-hostile companies over the objections of watchdogs and their own customers. They outsourced more of their basic service functions and, in some cases, simply walked away from their obligations, both written and implied.

Even many of the card-carrying elite customers I sometimes poke fun at, bless ’em, found they no longer were being treated as pharaos, thanks to some incredibly unpopular loyalty program “reforms” last year.

It’s hard to understate how awful things have become for the average consumer. But let me offer an example from my own experience: I started the year with a promise to focus on positive customer-service stories. By the spring, I’d run out of material.

There were no stories left to tell.

Read the archives of my consumer advocacy site if you don’t believe me.

The takeaway: It’s more important than ever to focus on the big issues affecting all of us and to ask the big questions. What can we, as customers, do to improve service? How do we make it worth the companies’ while to treat all of us like humans?

When critics attack

Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Well, apart from the companies who abuse us and whose profits would be threatened, that would be the people who like the status quo -— the critics who regularly take little swipes at me online. They claim that far from helping consumers, I’m creating a class of uninformed and entitled customers. They say that if I just took a few minutes to understand the company’s perspective, I wouldn’t be so negative.

That’s ridiculous. My advocacy practice is all about helping consumers. The solutions I promote are practical: better service, fair prices, reasonable policies. I want my readers to be knowledgeable as much as I want companies to be responsible. When it takes an “expert” consultant to make sense of some of these bizarre and often unintelligible corporate policies, which are designed solely to separate you from your money, then I believe the problem is the company’s, not the customer’s.

Studying the rules isn’t the answer; changing them is.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss

All of which brings me to the subject of good manners. They’re our most effective weapon in the battle for better service. Manners separate us from the animals and from people who behave like animals.

I enjoy a lively back-and-forth debate with my colleagues and site commenters, both inside and outside the travel industry, but I insist on keeping it professional. We should criticize ideas, not people. We shouldn’t say anything online that we wouldn’t in person. And we definitely do unto others as we would have them do to us.

When manners go out the window, we become no better than the companies trying to rip us off.

In 2013, many of you wondered why I didn’t engage all of my opponents. That’s a perfectly reasonable question. Usually, it was because it took me away from my important mission of helping you, the consumer. Often, it was because there’s no point arguing with with folks who have already made up their mind. But increasingly, I refuse to respond because there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from fighting back against impolite adversaries who think the only way to win an argument is by mischaracterizing my eminently logical arguments and resorting to snarky, below-the-belt attacks and juvenile online call-outs.

So, listen up, critics: If you’re wondering why I ignore you — why I never quote you in my stories, never ask for your “expert” advice, and don’t even respond to your emails, tweets and Facebook posts — well, now you have your answer. I love the fact that you care about the same issues I cover, but maybe it’s time you read a different site.

These two issues — being aware of the big picture, and politeness — are essential to keeping corporate America honest in 2014. Now, more than ever.

If you lose sight of what matters, you’ll quickly find yourself deep in the weeds arguing with obscure bloggers, as companies laugh all the way to the bank. If you lose your manners, you hasten our descent into the septic system of customer service. Because bad manners beget more bad manners, and before long, we’ll all be lobbing dung at each other from the sewers.

Do you really want to go there?

Would you rather have a low price or good service?

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