MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
It is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the bravest or - well, perhaps the most foolhardy among us venture out to take advantage of sales, and retailers hope their books will head into the black. It's also a perfect opportunity for us to take a look at the world of customer service for better, yes, and for worse.
Bad customer service is a staple of our pop culture. Take this scene from Seinfeld. Jerry and Elaine are trying to pick up a rental car at an airport.
(Soundbite of "Seinfeld")
Ms. JANET ZARISH (Actress): (As Agent) I'm sorry, we have no mid-size available at the moment.
Mr. JERRY SEINFELD (Actor): (As Jerry Seinfeld) I don't understand. I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?
Ms. ZARISH: (As Agent) Yes, we do. Unfortunately we ran out of cars.
Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
Ms. ZARISH: (As Agent) I know why we have reservations.
Mr. SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.
BRAND: We sent one of our producers out to Santa Monica to talk to shoppers about how they feel about customer service.
Unidentified Woman #1: If you make a fuss or you look fierce, they usually respond well.
Unidentified Man #1: The customer service in America is going downhill.
Unidentified Man #2: A $10-an-hour job people don't really care about, in California at least.
Unidentified Woman #2: You know, you need to be helpful and smiling and have a positive attitude. All of which we've experienced while we've been out here, so we've been - it's been a great time.
Unidentified Woman #3: Hey, best customer service was actually on the flight over here. Do you remember?
Unidentified Man #3: You know what, you just reminded me: two months ago I was traveling...
Unidentified Woman #3: Our flight attendant put over the loudspeaker "La Bamba" and made everybody sing along to it.
Unidentified Man #3: My connecting flight was about leave, I got to the gate, the plane was still there, they closed the door in my face and nobody can help me.
Unidentified Woman #3: And we were clapping along on the plane. That was the best.
Unidentified Man #4: I have a issue with cell phone companies. It's just very hard to get in contact with any human beings in there.
Unidentified Man #5: Most of our call centers, a great number, are now based in India.
Unidentified Man #6: They do like Americanization classes and they teacher them accents and stuff.
Unidentified Woman #4: I can't understand a word they say.
Unidentified Man #7: From a cost for a company, it's so cheap, and when Americans, now we buy things, we don't want to pay to customer service.
Unidentified Man #8: Not to be rush out to the store is what I'd like, you know?
Unidentified Man #7: I called in and they gave me somebody else's account balance, which was pretty much like zero.
Unidentified Man #8: It could be worse.
BRAND: Yes, it could be worse. You could be a customer at Championship Vinyl, the fictional record store in the book and movie "High Fidelity."
(Soundbite of movie clip, "High Fidelity")
Unidentified Man #9 (Actor): (As character) I'm looking for a record for my daughter for her birthday. "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Do you have it?
Mr. JACK BLACK (Actor): (As Barry) Yeah.
Unidentified Man #9: (As character) Great.
Mr. BLACK: (As Barry) We have it.
Unidentified Man #9: (As character) Can I have it then?
Mr. BLACK: (As Barry) No. No, you can't.
Unidentified Man #9: (As character) Why not?
Mr. BLACK: (As Barry) Well, it's sentimental tacky crap. That's why not. Do we look like the kind of store that sells "I Just Called to Say I Love You"? Go to the mall.
Unidentified Man #9: (As character) What's your problem?
Mr. BLACK: (As Barry) Do you even know your daughter? There's no way she likes that song. Is she in a coma?
Unidentified Man #9: (As character) Okay, buddy. I didn't know it was pick on the middle-aged square guy day. My apologies. I'll be on my way.
Mr. BLACK: (As Barry) Bye bye.
BRAND: Mike Elgan joins me now. He writes about the intersection of technology and culture for a variety of publications.
Welcome to the show.
Mr. MIKE ELGAN (Writer): Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
BRAND: Well, let's talk about today, Black Friday. And sure, customers can expect some low, low, low prices. But what about customer service?
Mr. ELGAN: Black Friday itself is not a good day for a customer service, and in fact people should be aware that many of the superstores will actually close their customer service desk for Black Friday. And they don't want lines and crowds and, you know, people doing things other than taking advantage of their Black Friday sale.
BRAND: So Black Friday, you have some tips that I've read about how to deal with it, because oftentimes the store will not give you the lowest price that you think that they're offering when they have their advertisements.
Mr. ELGAN: That's right. It's a lot like Las Vegas. They lure you in with the promise of coming out ahead in terms of pricing, but their whole business model is built around making sure that you don't come out ahead and making sure they come out ahead. So essentially how they do that is they advertise some incredibly low prices, and then once you're in they're hoping that you'll buy other things.
And in some cases, some of the more unscrupulous stores will actually kind of do a little bait and switch on you, and they will have the product with other things they didn't advertise at a higher price. So you can oftentimes on Black Friday find yourself at the register being charged a higher price than the one advertised.
BRAND: So do you have any recourse?
Mr. ELGAN: If you have the ad in your hand and you see a different price on the register, you can demand to be given the price, and of course if they don't give it you, you can ask to speak to the manager. You can threaten them with legal action or speaking to the attorney general or some sort of thing like that.
But if none of that works, you need to be prepared to walk away, and they're hoping you're so excited about buying that product, you'll just accept the price and take the product out of the store.
BRAND: So, you know, let's talk about technology and how technology has aided or not aided customer service. You'd think that technology would make it more efficient for customers and companies to communicate and to be satisfied on either end, but has it?
Mr. ELGAN: Well, I don't think so. I think, broadly speaking and on average, it's made it better for the company and worse for the customer. Companies are - in their desperation to undercut competitors with better prices - are getting very calculating about how they provide customer service.
You can see all kinds of ways that different companies are using advanced technology - powerful computers and really sophisticated databases - to provide the right kind of customer service, and right being defined by the company as the kind of customer service that is cheapest for the company to provide.
If you go to a Web site and try to get online customer service and think that they may be kind of hiding the phone number but making it very easy for you to go the message area where customers are helping each other, you're not crazy. That phone call can be expensive.
If you call a company just try to get tech support, that may be more than the profit that they made on the product you purchased. However, if you go to their Web site and just get your answer from another customer, they didn't have to spend any money at all.
So companies are increasingly doing that sort of thing. They do provide the phone number. You just have to work hard for it. You have to really want it.
BRAND: And here I thought they were just creating an online community out of the goodness of their hearts.
Mr. ELGAN: Well, they certainly will spin it that way, but the reality is that they are in fact providing you with what you have asked for, which is the lowest price. I mean, consumers are demanding low prices, and this is one of the many ways that they provide it.
BRAND: Mike Elgan writes about technology and culture for Datamation and other publications.
Mr. ELGAN: Thank you.
BRAND: So what can a company do to improve its customer service if it wants to improve its customer service? One solution: hire a mystery shopper. These are people who are given money to buy products and spy on the employees to see if they're giving good customer service. That information then goes back to the store and maybe, just maybe, that store will fix some of its problems.
So we have a mystery shopper on the line now, and let's just call her Natalie.
BRAND: Where are you?
NATALIE: I'm in Maryland.
BRAND: You're in Maryland. So you do your shopping there?
NATALIE: I do my shopping in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.
BRAND: And which stores do you go to?
NATALIE: Just about every store you've ever heard of or shopped at I've been to.
BRAND: So hypothetically, let's say you go to a Target. What would you buy there?
NATALIE: Well, normally the company that hires me provides me with a scenario and a product to buy so that I can question an employee about their product knowledge, their understanding of what's on sale, what they have available, comparable items. If I go in to buy new bed linens and I might ask the employee different questions about the different bed linens, what their thread counts are, what sizes they fit, what colors they come in...
BRAND: And what do you expect to hear from that employee?
NATALIE: I expect them to know everything about the product they're selling. I expect them to encourage me to purchase additional items that go with those bed linens as well. For instance, I may go in for bed linens, but I might not be aware that pillows are on sale as well.
BRAND: Ah-hah. Yet you, the mystery shopper, you do know, and so you're waiting for her or him, this person, to say, oh, let's look over here and buy some pillows.
BRAND: How often do you get that kind of service from the people who work there?
NATALIE: It depends on the store. But it seems to me that the more the stores are mystery shopped, the more they improve.
BRAND: You're hired by the store itself, like a Macy's, for example, to sort of, you know, check up on the employees to see how well they're doing? Or are you hired by the product manufacturer, the Martha Stewart linens, for example, that are then sold in the Macy's?
NATALIE: Actually, the businesses themselves hire mystery shopping companies and the mystery shopping companies contract with me.
BRAND: You buy almost anything. You shop for linens to hardwares to baby clothes to - I don't know...
NATALIE: Anything and everything. Sometimes the mystery shopping company will give me a specific product to ask about and purchase. And sometimes I'm on my own and just a regular customer and can ask questions about things that - items that interest me.
BRAND: How has it affected you when you're not working and just shopping for fun or for your groceries or, you know, when you have to do shopping for yourself?
NATALIE: Well, I'm much more observant. Actually, it's kind of difficult to go out to a restaurant and relax.
BRAND: So you mystery shop in restaurants and bars and things like that?
NATALIE: I do.
BRAND: You get a free meal.
NATALIE: You get a free meal.
BRAND: And all you have to do is say I had good service or bad service and here's why.
NATALIE: Well, you have to do a little more than that. You have to time every aspect of the service. You have to remember verbatim things that were said to you. You have to ask specific questions about the menu and remember what was told to you. You have to assess the cleanliness of the establishment and the overall atmosphere. And of course you assess the food. There are so many things that go into it.
BRAND: How long have you been doing this?
NATALIE: About five years now.
BRAND: When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
NATALIE: I tell them I work in customer service.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: Okay, Natalie, or whatever your name is.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: Thank you very much. Natalie is a mystery shopper in the Baltimore area.
One final cultural byte and one that illustrates the length we will go to in the hopes of getting good customer service or any customer service: In HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" this season, Larry David, coincidentally the co-creator of "Seinfeld," he fields a call from his wife Cheryl, whose plane is experiencing some difficulty and wants to talk to him in case she - well, in case she doesn't make it.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (As Larry) You know, it just gets a little frustrating every time I sit down and watch it, it's not working. Hello?
Ms. CHERYL HINES: (As Cheryl David) Larry.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Oh, hi. You couldn't call at a worse time. I've got the TiVo guide here.
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) Oh my god.
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Larry) You got the warranty?
Mr. DAVID: (As Himself) Huh?
Unidentified Man: The warranty.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Wait. Hold on. What...
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) We're going for a really big storm right now.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Hold on a second.
Unidentified Man: (As character) I need a warranty card.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Honey, let me ask a question. Do you have a - do you know what a warranty card is on the...
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) No, I don't. Listen.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) ...on the TiVo?
Ms. HINES (As Cheryl David): In case something happens to me...
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Is it in the kitchen drawer by any chance?
Ms. HINES (As Cheryl David): What?
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) I'm sorry, I can't hear you. What was that? What did you say?
Unidentified Man: (As character) Do you know who the guy was who came out?
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) No, I'm not talking to you.
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) Larry, I just want to tell you, just in case for some reason I don't make it...
Unidentified Man: (As character) Do you know who the guy was...
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Do you know who the guy was who installed...
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) I don't know. I don't know a thing.
Mr. DAVID: (As Larry) Was it Tom or something, or Don?
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) I don't know.
Unidentified Man: (As character) Was it Bill or James?
Ms. HINES: (As Cheryl David) Oh my God.
Unidentified Man: (As character) I'll come back later this afternoon.
BRAND: More great customer service coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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