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October 28, 2005
I, Customer

Moving puts one in a consumerist mindset, sometimes forcibly. Along with the excitement of finding a new home that fits one's wants and wishes comes the depressing drudgery of coping with the varied organizations whose products are essential either to one's household or to the government's sense of what is necessary to fund itself while keeping the populace from killing, poisoning, or intolerably irritating one another. In the same day one can play the role of omnipotent customer and powerless supplicant, depending on the transaction. The key is to maintain your dignity. They can take your money and your liberty, but never let them have what separates us from the animals and the French.

Keeping one's dignity during a three-hour visit to the Division of Motor Vehicles with three small children in tow, however, is no small feat. So sometimes it's enough simply to refrain from killing a state employee in the exceedingly slow and surly performance of his rote and ill-considered tasks.

I noticed something during that ordeal, and to explain it properly I first need to make clear that I am not someone who believes the word "literally" was invented so that the inarticulate could express how much something is way, way more/less/better/worse, etc., than their limited words could otherwise convey. In other words, it has a literal meaning. And I mean it literally when I say that these people move slower, literally, than any other collection of non-injured, non-geriatric individuals whose proximity I've ever had the misfortune of sharing. It's as if they were coated in molasses and force-marched through the North Pole.

I'm sure many of them would disagree. They are tired when they get home, and they believe they earn their pay just like anyone else. But they move at about two-thirds the speed of a well-supervised or well-motivated person. I watched one woman schlep every few minutes from her seat in one corner to a fax machine in the opposite corner, walking parallel to the walls so she could stay behind the long counters protecting her co-workers from the irritated citizenry (though that last word may not be entirely accurate). She was the only person I saw using the fax. Not only did she travel at the speed of a tire rolling uphill, but it didn't seem to occur to her that perhaps the fax machine should be relocated. Will it ever occur to her? No, because her life is the same whether we wait three hours or three minutes, except in the latter scenario she has to move a little quicker and solve more problems.

This isn't limited to the DMV, of course -- any organization can let its workforce become a wasteland where the goals and motivation are as bizarre and meaningless as a Kofi Annan speech. I wandered into a sporting goods store a few days later (hanging up a heavy bag, going to teach the little men to bring the serious, Bruce Lee, jeet-kune-do-go-tell-your-mama-how-bad-you-just-got-whupped smack), and noticed several customers standing in different sections looking for non-existent help. Only when I made my way back to the front did I see a clump of teenagers wearing shirts implying that in some vague employment-law sense they actually worked there. I told them they had customers in guns and shoes and I needed help as well, and so they shuffled back to work. The store will go out of business soon, and the owner deserves to lose money. The DMV, however, will likely remain until we invent teleporting, though I suspect we'll all have to start getting inspections and tags for that as well.

Though the convenience of dealing with bureaucracy by phone is preferable to dwelling for hours in one of its waiting-area purgatories, there is the added haughtiness that immunity from a physical beating inspires in some functionaries. Consider a rough transcript of the conversation my wife had with a representative from our local water company:

"What do you mean we owe you money? We've been gone for three years."

"You had an unpaid bill for $19.00, which has been reported to a collection agency."

"But when we closed our account you told us what we owed and we paid it."

"There were subsequent charges."

"We weren't informed that there would be subsequent charges."

"We sent you a bill."

"That's odd, because our mail was forwarded for three months, and we never received a bill."

"We don't allow our bills to be forwarded."

"So let me get this straight. We asked you to disconnect our service because we were moving, and you expect us to know about a bill that got sent to the house weeks after we've vacated?"

"The bill is your responsibility."

"That's ridiculous. And let me tell you another thing: I don't know what collection agency you hired to fetch your 19 dollars, but they have to be the worst collectors in the world because not only have we never heard a peep from them, our credit report is completely clean."

"If you want your water connected, we will require a $75 deposit."


And then there's the phone company. Thought I had their number, pardon the pun, by way of Vonage, one of these voice-over-Internet outfits salivating over the residential telephony market. But no such luck. Things never worked right, we couldn't place calls, the cable modem got messed up as well, and their fleet of earnest help desk operators in India were terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly unable to help us.

So I called to fire them. I explained to the representative that I was canceling because a critical part of telephone service, for our family at least, is the ability to make telephone calls. She listened politely, then offered two free months of service if I would remain a customer. You don't understand, I explained, it doesn't work. You could give me a hundred years free, and it still wouldn't do me any good. So she upped the ante: "How about three months?"

Sigh. And now they are jacking us around (what a punster I am today!) by refusing to refund various start-up and equipment fees. My revenge, should it come to this, will be to write something exceedingly snippy and funny and beg Instapundit to link it. I'm not important, but I do have very important acquaintances.

But at least, after a hard day of wrestling the consequences of poor management and overweening government, I can always go to my favorite family restaurant, a little place you've never heard of called Barn'rds. They, at least, know my name, and they are always glad to see me.

And isn't that, in the end, all any of us are really asking?

Posted by Woodlief on October 28, 2005 at 01:34 PM


Yes... and welcome to Wichita.

Posted by: greg at October 28, 2005 2:34 PM

Having just moved, I truly feel your pain. Good luck.

Posted by: Deoxy at October 28, 2005 3:54 PM

First time commentor, long-time reader. Your frustration is palpable. And like anyone who reads you can't relate? I don't know if you read Seth Godin, but you should. Stay with his blog for a month or rummage through his archives and you'll nod with glee and satisfaction as he rips a new piehole (my euphamism--not his) for every poor example of bad business practice, poor customer service, and general chasing the customer out the door. His blog is at:


Hope you find it theraputic.

On another note, it's great to find you blogging again. You are in my aggregator (you thought maybe I was going to say dreams?) under my top 10 "must read" blogs, along with Fallible and, ahem, Marginal. I'd been waiting months for your return. So when your column went active again a couple weeks back there was much rejoicing and feasting in our household. (We'll find just about any excuse for feasting). In any case, write as you are able. There are folks out here you speak to and inspire with your scribblings.

Be well.

Posted by: Michael O'Connor at October 28, 2005 9:22 PM

Tony, I'll vouch for O'Connor. He is One Of The Four Michaels Who Comments on fallible, a reputable fellow indeed.

As for the DMV, I lucked out, relatively speaking. A tiny installation of the huge Missouri outfit got put in near me some time back, but very few people have ever figured it out. The masses continue to do what the masses will do: go to the place they've always gone.

We must have had some hell-raisers at our little outpost, though. At least enough of them for the surly, molasses-covered staff to make a dozen handmade signs which are posted throughout: "No abusive language will be tolerated! We will call the sheriff." "Thou Shalt Not Whine, No Matter How Slow We Are." "Absolutely no public restroom. Do it at home, and leave your gun there, too."

You get the idea. Reading those signs is the best entertainment I get all year.

Posted by: Katy Raymond at October 29, 2005 7:36 AM

I have some thoughts on the root causes of customer service problems here:


Posted by: David FOster at October 29, 2005 11:29 AM

Vonage rocks.

Posted by: TallDave at October 29, 2005 11:49 AM

The root cause of bad customer service is very simple.

Customer service is a cost center.

And what do you do with costs, if you're a business? You minimize them. That, to a manager, is what costs are for -- to be minimized.

Everything follows naturally from this.

Posted by: Jerry Kindall at October 29, 2005 11:57 AM

Jerry...this problem can to some extent be minimized by proper organization structure. For example, consider a company with 5 product divisions. If a customer service function is centralized across all product divisions, it will receive less focus than if it's decentralized, with each of the 5 product division general managers having his own custsvc function. Because each GM knows he has to keep his customers happy, since his P&L measurement includes a revenue factor as well as a cost factor.

Analyses that claim better "synergy" or "scale economy" for the centralized case usually fail to consider this organizational dynamic.

Posted by: David Foster at October 29, 2005 12:04 PM

Customer service is not a cost center; it is a cost containment center (there is nothing more expensive than a dissatisfied customer) which generates easily visible expenses. My experience when involved in industrial sales was that your average manager would rather tolerate an unmeasurable thousand dollar loss of productivity than write a check for a one hundred dollar fix. The samme pennywise blindness applies here.

Posted by: triticale at October 29, 2005 1:21 PM

The funny thing is that one of the fastest movers I ever saw worked at a DMV. I was requesting a copy of my driving record, which took barely a minute once I got to the window (though that took 50), and he moved the bills with a quick snap that was reminiscent of John Cusack's filing speed in Being John Malkovich. Just slightly on the surreal edge of speed.

His last job had been at a bank. He told me they used to race the bill counting machines for fun.

Posted by: B. Durbin at October 29, 2005 3:39 PM

In an ideal world, with savvy middle management who understood how their decisions affect the entire organization, yeah, customer service would be a "cost containment center."

But in the real world, with mediocre middle management, customer service is a cost center, because the only other alternative would be for it to be a profit center, and those who run it can see it's not that, so it must be a cost center.

So we're in agreement actually, I think... the problem is how it's seen by those who run it.

Posted by: Jerry Kindall at October 29, 2005 4:15 PM

The decision on how customer service is to be measured--pure cost center or otherwise--and as to where it fits within the organization, does not really lie with the manager who runs customer service, but with executives one and two levels up.

Although CS managers need to do a better job of speaking up for themselves and recommending the proper measurements and organizational placement of their shops.

Posted by: David Foster at October 29, 2005 7:20 PM

The other problem with customer service is that people are unwilling to pay for it. Many more people take delight in relating how they saved a few dollars at the outlet mall on a pair of shoes than how they enjoyed the expereince of being waited on at a full service store.

In today's world, paying for good service is seen as wasting money. So, how come people complain about bad service from lost cost institutions that were never designed to provide service.

Posted by: superdestroyer at October 30, 2005 7:10 AM

I guess our mileages vary...

I moved to FL last year. Doing all the gov't paperwork--registering to vote, getting a new driver's license, even getting a fishing license--took 30 minutes from the time I walked in the door. I had my phone number waiting for me when I moved in, the local paper at the front door the next morning, my water and power phone all going. These took single phone calls to each provider.

The biggest delay was in deciding whether I wanted to use DSL or cable for my Internet connection, and that was caused by me.

Posted by: John Burgess at October 30, 2005 10:39 AM

In an ideal world, with savvy middle management who understood how their decisions affect the entire organization, yeah, customer service would be a "cost containment center."
The solution is simple. Make every management bonus dependent on excellent performance in customer service surveys. That's what Marriott does, and it works.

It works even better if you couple this policy with firing managers whose areas of responsibility generate bad customer service survey responses.

Where does this system not work? Unionized industries, and government civil service.

Posted by: Bill Quick at October 30, 2005 3:53 PM

In Ohio the process is annoying, but generally over in about half an hour. I never tried it with my sons in tow, though--you're a better man than I, Gunga Din.

That "terribly, terribly, terribly" line is from The Survivors, isn't it? Underrated movie.

Posted by: Ken at October 31, 2005 8:19 AM