Commentary

'Twas A Bad Week To Be A Consumer

This is supposed to be the golden age of the consumer, isn't it? We have options. We rule. Let the marketer who is not responsive to our needs wither on the social networks. Then why do I sometimes get the feeling that it's all an illusion and that the big guys will just continue on in their mindless, lumbering ways?

There's an athletic shoe I like, the New Balance 373. I did an online search for it on my Firefox browser and found it going for a great price at Sears -- $34.95. They threw in free shipping, too. Clicked to check out. Nothing. Clicked again. Didn't get anywhere. After a few more attempts, I switched to Safari and the transaction went through uneventfully.

The shoes arrived and I liked the deal so much I decided to order another pair. Same problem with Firefox. I emailed Sears in the spirit of "I'd really like to see you survive and it doesn't help if there's a bug in the e-com component of a browser with about a quarter of the market." Received a "We are listening to what you have to say!" email and guess what? The shopping cart is all hunky-dory this morning. I must say that I'm surprised given my further adventures with employees who seemed to care not a whit about the customer experience.

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The second pair of shoes arrived with one of those hard plastic gizmos that will activate an air-raid siren if you attempt to leave the store with it attached to the eyelets. It looked unpryable. I called the 800 number. Let's just say that the overseas telephone rep was not processing the following sentence: "I don't want to take it to a store." But there was no return label enclosed -- or paperwork of any kind -- so, yes, I wound up taking it to the store in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

"Oh, we don't use those devices here," cashiers lolling around their eerily quiet registers on Saturday afternoon told me. It was as if their customers belonged to a higher caste of shoplifters. "You'll have to take it to Yonkers." My "but that's 30 miles away" protest elicited no sympathy or solution.

"Why didn't they just take them back and tell you to order another pair online?" my better half asked. "Because that obviously would have solved the problem," I responded, much too sharply. Anyway, add together the gas mileage and my time and ask me if my I think my 36% savings was worth it.

Then there was the adventure yesterday morning of trying to book a round-trip Amtrak ticket from Yonkers, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., for the afternoon. After going though the entire procedure of selecting my trains and getting to the shopping cart, I was informed: "Because of the close proximity of this trip, our online booking system cannot provide a ticket delivery option that will ensure you receive your ticket(s) on time."

"What, you never heard of an HP printer?" I yelled at the screen. No response. So I called, as directed, and was immediately put through to the chirpy "Julie, Amtrak's automated agent."

Let's just say that although Julie seemed to understand me in a way that no voice-recognition software ever has and I might have asked her for her cell if I weren't happily married, she couldn't seem to wrap her megabytes around the notion that I needed to transfer trains. So, "Yes, Julie," I replied. I'd like to speak to an agent.

Would it surprise you if I told you that call volume to Amtrak was abnormally high yesterday? Estimated wait? 25 minutes. In all fairness, it was only a 10-15 delay and the woman who took my reservation was very efficient. She gave me both a reservation number and a "boarding pass number" that I was to give to the conductor, who would key it into his handheld, see the details, take my credit card and issue me a round-trip ticket. Voila!

It didn't quite work out that way. The conductor on the first train told me he could only sell me a ticket to New York's Penn Station. Then I'd have to go upstairs to the ticket window to straighten out the rest of my trip which, because it involved transferring to another train, seemed much too complicated for his device, all due reservations aside.

Would it surprise you if I told you that the line in New York was abnormally long? And the ticket kiosks refused to do business with me, despite my having both a reservation and boarding pass number, because it didn't have any prior credit card number attached to those transactions. So rather than miss the train, I ignored the PA system and skulked aboard train 93 to Richmond without a ticket in hand. Somewhere south of Newark, I told my tale to two separate conductors. They wanted nothing to do with a "boarding pass number." They'd never heard of such a thing, and they didn't have a handheld.

"This isn't an airplane, you know, said one. But in the end, they blamed it all on the first conductor.

"He should have known that you were buying a conjunction ticket," one of them told me. "Next time tell him you need a conjunction ticket."

I duly noted that phrase on every paper notebook and e-device I carry. And then the conductor reassured me that I "had done nothing wrong." Phew.

The sick thing is that I did get the feeling in both these transaction that it was I, not them, who'd screwed up.

And now, as someone who fled from the utter nincompoopery of AT&T customer service for the 50/50 competency of T-Mobile reps years ago, I face a return to Ma Bell. All the headlines and ledes I've seen assure me that no good is going to come out of this merger for anyone but shareholders. And commentators.

2 comments about "'Twas A Bad Week To Be A Consumer".
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  1. Ken Kueker from Billboard Connection, March 28, 2011 at 2:56 p.m.

    Hillarious to read about. Not so fun to actually experience. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm when it comes to how companies treat their customers these days. More than 50% of my consumer experiences these days would fall into categoroes ranging from "not very good" to "unbelievably infuriating."

    I am keeping careful notes on those companies who treat me like a valued customer...and those who dont (I'm talking to you Capital One and Wells Fargo!). Those who don't will lose my business. The thing is, those companies who don't treat me well don't really care whether I remain a customer or not.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 18, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.

    And when there are no choices to "switch"?

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