One of the lingering problems from Hurricane Sandy in our rural, and less hard hit, area of New Jersey has been the loss of internet service in our home since the storm. Electric service returned on Friday, November 8. Landline telephone service reappeared on Saturday the 9th, but it was not accompanied by DSL. A call to the provider yielded the information that service would return in “a couple of days” after the voice service. By Tuesday the 13th, we felt it was time to call again; rumor around the neighborhood had it that when some households had called, they were told no outage had been reported.
Thus began a saga that would take pages to outline and bore everyone to tears. I’m saving my detailed log of events for my letter to the company’s management when I can get the appropriate information; their website is as nonfunctional as their DSL service. Some of the highlights will give you the flavor of the situation. On Tuesday, we were told that our line was working fine, and the problem was with the modem. After trying to reprogram the modem, my husband contacted NetGear, which does have technical people who can help. The ensuing two hours on the phone led to a conference call with the NetGear technician and, after several false starts and hangups, someone at the DSL provider who finally admitted that no, there was no DSL service on our line, and that he didn’t know when it would be fixed. After waiting two more days, we called again, and got the same story we had gotten before: your line is fine, it’s the modem. Interestingly, one of our neighbors had been told that the problem was a break in the line between Clinton (10 miles north) and Flemington (where we live). I might mention at this point that my bookstore is also in Flemington, and never lost DSL service, from the same provider.
This outline does not begin to cover all the phone calls and all the different excuses that those who live in our neighborhood heard. No service rep or technical assistant seemed to really care about solving the problem. By Friday, one said that he would schedule a technician to come to our home, and the person would be there within the next 24 hours. Well, it‘s Saturday evening, and we have had no technician and no phone call to reschedule. Like everything else, this request went into the round file, somewhere at CenturyLink. I usually use generic descriptions to avoid pinpointing a specific company, but this time I don’t care about them any more than they care about me.
We do now have internet service at home. In a competitive marketplace, the simple solution to bad customer service is to take one’s business elsewhere. A short visit to the Verizon store got us a “hot spot,” linked our iPads to it on one account (we both still have “dumb phones,” or we would have added those also), and one connection to an electrical outlet gave us all we need. The buzz at the Verizon outlet in Flemington was that they had had a rush of business this week; I wonder why? While we were at it, we changed our voice service. We had three land lines in the house, two of which had become unnecessary since the kids are gone; they are from pre-cellphone, dial-up internet days, but we had never bothered to change things. We also had a long distance calling plan from Centurylink. All about to be discontinued; for $19.99 a month we have wireless telephone service with unlimited long distance. Without DSL, there is no need for hard-wired phone. We still have the main telephone number we have had for almost 30 years. Even with the charges for the “hot spot” and a large amount of monthly data usage, we are coming out ahead financially. For those of you who might actually be aware of the ridiculous remnants of the old Bell system, or wonder why we don’t get Fios, Fios will never under current regulations be available in our area; during the monopoly days, our area was covered by a rural “independent” phone company, which has been bought and consolidated with others several times, but old agreements forbid Verizon (or any other carrier) from building land lines, even fiber optic, in this area. Wireless is another story, however; it didn’t exist when those agreements were made.
My reason for detailing all this is not to rant against a particular company, although they deserve it and I enjoyed it. This situation brought home to me once again the importance of customer service in a competitive marketplace, especially for any business in a market that is undergoing changes because of technology. Bookselling, of course, is one of those markets. When you can’t compete on price, you have to offer service that makes the customer willing to spend a little more. This week a new customer entered the store as I was shelving books; when I asked if I could help him he said, “You seem busy, but you could probably save me some time; I’m looking for….” Of course, I consider my first job to be helping the customer; this gentleman seemed to be used to shopping in places where you are on your own. He was quite pleased to be handed the book he wanted, but then spent some time browsing and found a few more. Special ordering new books we don’t have in stock, searching on-line for out-of-print volumes and ordering for those who can’t or won’t do it themselves, shipping books to faraway or homebound customers, asking the right questions to help a reader find a book they will enjoy – these are the services that keep the business viable. Even time spent helping customers that yields no immediate financial reward enhances the reputation that is so important; a customer tells a friend, “Go to Twice Told Tales; they’ll help you.”
Even when things do not go well, customers, myself included, are willing to bear a situation patiently if they feel that there is concern for their needs and they are being told the truth. I can’t count the number of times I have had to call a customer to tell them that a book Baker&Taylor was showing in stock and that I had promised for the next day was actually back-ordered. The response is usually positive and understanding; they know I am as disappointed as they are and are willing to wait. If they need it immediately, I will call other stores to see if it is available. It’s better to lose one sale and keep the customer. Lying, making excuses, or worse, not keeping the customer informed, are good ways to lose customers and generate unfavorable “word-of-mouth.” We would have waited out the DSL outage with CenturyLink if we had had any indication that someone cared about the problem or knew what was going on. Given the statewide emergency and damage done, a statement that they could not locate the problem but were working on it would have sufficed. The dishonesty and lack of concern was what lost them many, if not all, of the customers in our area.
Two other examples of markets that have changed dramatically in recent years come to mind. The Postal Service is bleeding money; yet their service deteriorates daily. They have made it more and more inconvenient for those who still do bulk mailings by forcing the customer to “regional” offices; just try to do a bulk mailing from your local post office. Delivery of periodicals is delayed with no explanation; I have not received the New Yorker for two weeks, but if history repeats itself, I will have three issues next week. I will refuse to pay the storage costs. I’ve been forced by the Postal Service to read on my iPad; when I give up on the print version, which I much prefer, whose fault will it be? When I mailed four packages of returned books to the same address, three arrived and one went around the country on vacation. The tracking system let me know where it was, but did nothing to get it to its destination; an e-mail outlining the problem did generate a phone call from the local postmaster, at the office where it was mailed. He couldn’t do much but give me the phone number of the most recent outpost where the package appeared to have decided it liked the weather and wanted to stay. The next time, it’s a different delivery service, a little more money but a whole lot less aggravation.
In contrast, my favorite newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, outdid itself in customer service during the recent crisis. I mentioned in an earlier post that on the Wednesday after the Monday night’s disastrous storm, I was shocked to see a newspaper in my box; I had just taken a four-mile detour in each direction because of downed trees and wires to get to town for coffee. Yet the delivery person had brought something I hadn’t expected to see for several days. That issue had apologies for missing the Tuesday edition because the entire city of Newark had lost power Monday evening; they had to move three times to get the Wednesday issue out. The Tuesday edition appeared inside the Friday issue; they had prepared it but were unable to publish and wanted those customers who enjoyed columns or features (or, in my case, the comics) to have them. The early storm coverage was also excellent. It may soon be impossible for any newspaper to survive, but I’ll be a print subscriber to the Star-Ledger until one of us is gone.
Bookstores, newspapers, postal service, telephone services. The world has changed and there are no guarantees of survival; the customer has choices and will exercise them. But loyalty to an established institution or way of doing things still influences behavior. That loyalty is easily destroyed by poor service, and strengthened by honesty, concern, and personal attention.