SPECIAL REPORT

DISHING OUT RUDENESS

Complaints abound as customers are ignored, berated

RAE CORELLI January 11 1999
SPECIAL REPORT

DISHING OUT RUDENESS

Complaints abound as customers are ignored, berated

RAE CORELLI January 11 1999

DISHING OUT RUDENESS

SPECIAL REPORT

Complaints abound as customers are ignored, berated

RAE CORELLI

It is Saturday morning in Vancouver and the breakfast-and-brunch eatery on Davie Street in the city’s west end is packed and noisy. Outside, patrons waiting for tables form a restless lineup a block long. Inside, a customer half shouts to make himself heard: “Hey, could we have more coffee over here?” A passing waiter yells over his shoulder: ‘You want more coffee, get it yourself.” The customer only laughs. Another diner complains loudly that he and his party are running late and need their food. Replies manager Patrick Savoie: “If you’re in a hurry, you should have gone to McDonald’s.” More laughter—for this is the Elbow Room Café, a daytime-only restaurant with a 100-item menu and the most abusive waiters west of the Rockies. Now and then, they even ask dawdling diners to leave. The whole performance is, of course, a purposeful parody of dreadful customer service. “It’s almost like coming to a theatre,” says Savoie, who spends much of his time inventing new ways to insult the clientele.

But for thousands of Canadians, bad service is neither make-believe nor amusing. It is an aggravating and worsening real-life phenomenon that encompasses behaviour ranging from indifference and rudeness to naked hostility and even physical violence. Across the country, better business bureaus, provincial government consumer-help agencies and media ombudsmen report a lengthening litany of complaints about contractors, car dealers, repair shops, moving companies, airlines and department stores. “There’s almost an adversarial feeling between businesses and consumers now,” says Valerie MacLean, general manager of the Vancouver-based Better Business Bureau of Mainland British Columbia. “I find that some businesses are less and less inclined to want to resolve complaints.”

Experts say there are several explanations for ill feeling in the marketplace. One is that customer service was an early and inevitable casualty when retailers responded to brutal competition by replacing employees with technology such as 1-800 numbers and voice mail. Another factor is that business generally has begun placing more emphasis on getting customers than on keeping them. Still another is that strident, frustrated and impatient shoppers vex shop owners and make them even less hospitable—especially (and ironically)

at busier times of the year like Christmas. On both sides, says Robert Warren, a University of Manitoba marketing professor, “simple courtesy has gone by the board.” And for a multitude of consumers, service went with it.

Last June, Mark Starowicz, executive producer of documentaries for CBC television, rented a car to take six of his teenage daughter’s girlfriends to his farm north of Toronto for her birthday. When he tried to resume his journey after a brief stop in Peterborough, the ignition key wouldn’t turn.

“I call the hotline number on the rental agreement and the woman who answers is in Oklahoma,” Starowicz says. “She has never heard of Peterborough, but when I spell it for her she says I’m about two hours from Toronto. I say I know that, I drive it every weekend. I might as well have called Paraguay.

“At one point, I had Oklahoma on the payphone and the Toronto rental guy on the cell phone and six 14-year-old girls looking very bored. It took them four hours to send somebody and get me under way. ”

The Better Business Bureau of Mainland British Columbia gets 250 complaints a week, twice as many as five years ago. The bureau then had one complaints counsellor and now has four. “People complain about

being insulted, having their intelligence and integrity questioned, being threatened—you know, You’ll be sorry you complained,’ ” MacLean says. ‘We hear about screaming matches and profanity between customer and clerk, about people being hauled almost bodily out the door by somebody saying things like ‘I don’t have to serve you!’ or This is private property, get out and don’t come back!’ ”

One home renovator threatened a senior citizen with violence if she refused to write the bureau a letter saying her complaint about his work-

manship had been resolved, MacLean says. “I became suspicious and called her, but she was too frightened to go along with me.” When a group of dissatisfied homeowners threatened to report another renovator to the bureau, “he said he would not complete the work and would abandon the project” If the bureau’s arbitration process fails to settle a dispute, a customer’s only recourse is to sue in small claims court But because of the costs and time it takes, relatively few ever do.

However, MacLean has discovered an informal avenue to consumer justice that works well: she goes on TV. Says MacLean: “The best way to hurt bad business is to go to the media and expose them.”

Gillian Shaw, The Vancouver Sun’s consumer affairs writer, went to a suburban department store with her three children last fall to buy back-to-school clothes.

“We couldn’t get a changing room because they were all locked, and,

of course, there wasn’t a clerk on the entire floor. I was getting annoyed and ready to dump this pile of clothes when I came across a little old lady who is sobbing and banging on the door of a change room trying to get in.

“I finally found someone who worked for the store. But opening changing room doors wasn’t in her job description and she wouldn’t do it. However, she was very sympathetic and said this happened all the time.

“It was like being in a Monty Python skit. ”

There is a lot of support for the notion that service has, in part, fallen victim to generational change. MacLean says many young people regard retailing “as just a dead-end job that you’re just going to do temporarily on your way to a real job.” Prof. Andrée Roberge, a consumer science specialist at Laval University in Quebec City,

says young clerks often lack both knowledge and civility. “What we find,” she says, “is that employers are having to train young people in simple manners because that is not being done at home.”

The University of Manitoba’s Warren agrees. “Salespeople today, especially the younger ones, have grown up in a televisioncomputer society where they’ve interacted largely with machines. One of the biggest complaints I hear from businesses when I go to talk about graduates is the lack of interpersonal skills.”

And there are companies that need sensitivity training themselves, says Warren, particularly the ones that fire employees to save money and then try to attract more customers. For example, he says, “the airlines make the seats a little narrower or they put the rows closer together, and if you’re more than five-foot-10 you’ve got your knees planted against your chest. Then, they out-and-out lie to you about departure times and overbook the seats. They push back 10 feet from the gate to preserve their on-time departure record and you sit there for an hour. The crew tells you nothing, they don’t come around with the drinks, and at the end of the flight there’s no apology for any of it.”

During her lunch hour, legal secretary Lucy McHugh went shopping in a downtown Toronto mall and came across a store that had blouses on sale for $14.99.

“I took three or four off the rack,” she says, “and went to the back where they have the change rooms. ” As she stood there, another woman was shown into one of the rooms ahead of her.

“As the clerk walked past me, I said, ‘Oh, I’d like to try these on,’ and she said, “Come back later.’ And I said, ‘Pardon me?’ She said, ‘Come back after the lunch hour, maybe about three o’clock. ’ I asked, Why is that?’ And she said, ‘So people can try on regularly priced clothing.

Those blouses are just $14.99. ’

“I stood there, kind of stunned. Then, I said ‘Fine’ and put the blouses back on the rack and walked out. ”

Asked to let a customer into a change room, the clerk said: 4 Come back later. Those blouses are just $14.99 }

For Michael Pearce, director of the University of Western Ontario’s undergraduate business program, consumers share responsibility for diminishing service. “Customers want the price, they want the assortment, they want the convenience, they want the service—they want it all,” says Pearce. But that has become impossible, he says, because duel-to-thedeath competition with no-frills discount outlets has forced full-service retailers to jettison staff and reduce service to stay alive.

“If you look at the department stores, that’s the kind of slippery slope they got on,” Pearce says. “They cut back the service because sales were down, they were hurting, so what do they cut back? Payroll. You cut back the service and the sales go down more. Via Rail did that. We’re not doing so well,’ they said. ‘Let’s cut the schedule. Gee, isn’t that interesting? Now, we’re really not doing too well. So let’s cut it some more.’ And so on.”

In the end, says Pearce, if customers want service they are going to have to subsidize the cost of training people to deliver it. Otherwise, he says, “the point of customer contact will be the lowest-paid person in the organization.”

Southern Alberta is experiencing a building boom, and complaints about bad service are rising as fast as the houses. Contractors anc renovators have been so busy, says Ellen Wright, operations man ager of the Calgary Better Business Bureau, that some are rushing from one job to the next, leaving shoddy workmanship and unhappy customers behind.

But builders are not the only offenders. Wright says that since Jan. 1,1997, the bureau has received 65,00C telephone complaints, nearly twice as many as in the preceding 18 months, “and they’re going to increase again.” Written complaints have doubled to 650 in the same period. “In some businesses,” she says, “there is that attitude of You don’t like it? Go somewhere else. Companies become verbally abusive.”

And flirt with physical abuse as well. Wright says one caller claimed that when he and the owner of an ice-cream shop got into an argument last summer over the amount of change given the customer’s son, “the owner went under the counter, came up waving a baseball bat and said, You want to discuss this further?’ ” An electronics repair store in Calgary kept a VO for so long that the irate owner showed up and de manded its return. The counterman responded by hammering a screwdriver into it. Among the growing complaints about moving companies was one from a householder who said that when he refused to pay 50 per cent more than the contract fee, the mover threw his belongings into the streel and drove off.

“People on the whole are putting up with less and less,” says Wright “Businesses are unhappy with customers and customers are unhappy with business.”

When Toronto lawyer Ian Outerbridge embarked on improvements to his summer cottage last year, he decided to get new screens,

among other things. “So I very carefully measure the old ones, very carefully, and order new ones. They make them one-sixteenth of an inch too big and they won’t fit. ”

Another supplier gave him “two right sides of something instead of a right and a left,” he said, “and I go back and they give me two left sides. At one shop, they start greeting me by saying, What mistakes can we make for you this morning, Mr. Outerbridge?’

“It’s just one thing after another and it isn’t just one supplier. Nobody seems to care any more. ”

At least two retailing giants have concluded that better service is clearly the competitive weapon of choice. The “Hi-how-are-you?” greeter has long been a front-entrance (and imitated) fixture at Wal-Mart stores across Canada, and Safeway, with 1,378 supermarkets in the United States and Canada, has ordered employees to comply with a “Smile-and-makeeye-contact” rule or risk disciplinary action, including dismissal. (Twelve employees in the United States—11 women and one man—have launched a grievance, claiming they are being propositioned by shoppers who mistake their warmth for a come-on.)

Other firms worried about declining sales are hiring consultants like Toronto-based Hepworth+Co. to show them what they are doing wrong. “One of the main reasons why service is so lousy,” says Hepworth executive vicepresident Paula Mateus, “is that companies put so much focus on acquiring customers, on growth and acquisition; it’s so much more attractive to get a customer than to retain one. Sales representatives never get incentives for keeping customers, but they get fancy commission cheques and trips and bonuses for getting new ones.”

What customers want, she says, is access. “They want to get through when they call, they don’t want busy signals, they don’t want interac-

tive voice systems telling them to push one for this and two for that— and they don’t want voice mail.” And if consumers do not get what they want? “Defect,” Mateus advises. “Go to the competition.”

And defectors are on the move—back to the future. Vancouver fundraising consultant Madeleine Nelson, fed up with “ ‘How are you?’ and Have a nice day,’ and all that crap,” now deals mostly with local small businesses: “the Asian greengrocer, a Greek baker and a Greek fishmonger. They don’t wear name tags, but I know them all by name. ”

The University of Manitoba’s Warren says he now uses a neighbourhood bakery. Toronto-based political consultant Patrick Gossage says he is patronizing people who own their stores in the small town north of Toronto where he lives. Self-employed bookkeeper Bonnie Forey of

Tsawwassen, B.C., has come to rely on a local garage. The reason? When she asked her dealership why her windshield washers failed to work after the vehicle had been checked, the serviceman replied: “They do work; they just don’t squirt your windshield, they squirt the hood. ”

When she asked her dealership why her windshield washers failed, the serviceman replied: 4 They do work; they just don’t squirt your windshield, they squirt the hood %

Amid the holiday season din and the clatter at the Elbow Room Café, in business since 1983, Patrick Savoie says: “Basically, people will pay to be insulted. We have developed this over the years, and each year I think we have got a little bit worse. What we are saying jokingly to our customers is what they would like so much to tell other people, to let off steam.”

Adds co-owner Soheil Sadri: “One day, a gentleman and his wife were paying their bill and they said they had a complaint. They said I was too polite. They said they had come here to be insulted. I referred them to Patrick and he took care of them.” With the practised vocabulary of the rudeness specialist. □