A World of Pure Imagination

I think and talk about the declining service industry a lot. Probably too much, in fact.

The public looks down their haughty noses at service providers; organisations themselves see it as a necessary evil but underfund it as a form of passive-aggressive lip-service. A way to block, frustrate and demoralise customers into giving up.

In normalising shite service, they achieve acceptance and the removal of an obstacle to sales. It’s an effective way to control costs.

And to keep costs low, the people you hire to perform the menial tasks of service transactions are undisputedly those for whom the lift doesn’t reach the top floor.

So faced with a customer, the service advisor, who retains knowledge like an incontinent retains piss and who cannot fathom the notions of cause and effect, recourses to the only tool they have at their disposal – what their neurologist (but nobody else) would be pleased to call their brain. An organ that needs to apply itself to an unabating conveyor belt of puzzlers that rolls past grunts who have nothing in the tank but their imagination.

Here’s a recent customer experience. The other Friday morning, I realised that the oil cap had popped off my engine, most probably as a result of not having screwed it on properly.

I put a call into the parts department of my local dealer. Well 8 calls actually, but nobody picked up. I then called a different branch of the same dealer, who helpfully but equally unhelpfully provided the unmanned number.

Unwilling to make call number nine, I trotted off to the local parts store. There, I confirmed my car registration number so that they could ascertain the right specification (this is a standard and sensible move). No luck. No alternative suggestion and no extra mile contemplated to offer to source one for me. No single glance up from the screen. So much for your friendly local business.

Undeterred, I trundled off (silver foil affixed over the pipe with an elastic band – my solution not theirs) and headed to search for alternatives.

A local dealer said they could order one for collection on Monday morning. Price seemed ok, so I agreed. As he turned to revert to his coffee and the Internet, I questioned whether he’d like my name and contact number?

Oh, ok. But if you change your mind, no problem. We get the cap from our central stock’. I imparted the said knowledge and toddled off, a little surprised that he hadn’t seemed that motivated to gain a little commitment from me to the sale. And this is a car showroom, where your usual thin-tied, blue-suited-but-tan-winklepickered, slope-haired sales droid would typically shoot a puppy if it meant that he might lay his little palms, glistening with anticipatory perspiration, onto your wallet.

Usually, I would pour scorn on this, but I now found myself perturbed at the lack of avarice. I must be on the slope of normalised apathy.

Going down the road, I saw a leading motor retail store. In spite of a long and lamentable history of purchasing highly priced and unserviceable tat from the said establishment, I swallowed my experience and better judgement to see if they had a temporary solution that bettered the foil-and-band combo.

I went in and asked the question.

How foolish of me. Why would I think that a car parts store could help? I was directed to a competitor around the corner by a sales assistant who was apparently unconcerned by sales. Whether they didn’t make them, or their competitors did. This was getting bizarre.

So, after ignoring the incorrect directions I was given (I actually know my left from my right), I arrived at the specified location. They looked up the part on the proverbial system. ‘We can have this for you in an hour and a quarter’.

Holy shit, impressive. I’ll take this one, I mused, then call back the first dealer to cancel the one with them as was their wont.

Would you like to take my name and number?’, I offered.

No, that’s fine – it’s ordered under the registration number’.

You know, sometimes there’s a little voice inside you head, telling you that there’s going to be an issue, but I really wanted that cap. I mean, while the registration number would clarify the specification, it wouldn’t tell them anything about me – unless of course they had sneak-tapped into the DVLA database. Unlikely, even for a shyster motor parts vendor.

So, I waltzed away, buoyed by the thoughts of my impending plug. 90 minutes later, I returned.

Ah, there is a problem. I would have called you, but I didn’t have your number. They can’t find the part.’

At this point, I had an out-of-body experience with me sledgehammering the interior of the store prior to a quick but thunderous number-two directly onto the basket of furry dice. Back in the room, I politely leave.

I am now sitting into my unplugged motor, digging into the darkest recesses of my brain for alternatives. I phone a local specialist garage to whom I took a similar car for over 10 years. No joy, because they don’t provide parts. However, they do service and repairs, so you’d have to assume they’d probably have helped if I’d paid them for 30 minutes labour to screw it on for me. You’ve just got to love recognition for customer loyalty. I don’t venture that one to the service manager for fear of sounding unacceptably sarcastic, not to mention un-British.

So, off I went home, resigned to Monday for a resolution and no car at the weekend. The foil wasn’t working and the bonus for driving might have involved one or more of the following: dramatic oil loss, a catastrophic slick in the engine bay, a seized or contaminated engine, vacuum leaks, and if really unlucky, a fire.

And tellingly, in spite of me telling everyone I spoke to about driving with no cap, none of the people I met flagged any of these risks. Service extends beyond transactions only if it looks like leading to another sale. No transaction and you won’t be afforded the steam off their piss.

So, home I was, and a new possibility presented itself: an online order with same-day delivery, and 50% discount to boot. Back in the game.

In stock, so duly ordered, and the weekend’s plans were back on track.

And then an hour later, a phone call: ‘We can’t find it, so cannot fulfil the order’.

But then at least some redemption.

I apologise for the inconvenience. It appears that we made a mistake and hadn’t updated the stock record correctly. It was our error for suggesting that we could provide it’.

Eh? A service worker who has told the truth? Unbelievable but welcomed. For once, it wasn’t the system that had ballsed it up. And then normal service was resumed.

We can order it, but it will take a week to be delivered. If you do want to cancel, we’ll have to ask you to call Customer Services‘.

Clearly the urgency of the replacement had not sunk in. Nor had a sense that they might arrange the cancellation and refund as part of their service?

Nope. Snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Even though my plug was not materialising, he could have redeemed his organisation by ensuring that the aborted transaction might have been wrapped up with no further inconvenience. That would at least amount to good service, which is often when it comes to the fore – when things go wrong.

So, there you have it. After pinballing between various suppliers, it wasn’t possible to simply purchase an oil cap to pop onto my engine. What could be more straightforward? Well, tin foil and an elastic band, actually.

You see, nobody really wanted the business, nobody followed any tried-and-tested process to an outcome, nobody went the extra mile, nobody exercised any care or concern. One person actually passed me off to a direct competitor.

Whatever happened to growing the customer? After all, the guy buying the oil cap today might buy a new engine tomorrow.

But they don’t get it, do they. They don’t do strategic.

Welcome to retail service in the UK. Test drive it yourself today. You will be disappointed.

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