business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Los Angeles Times has a spectacular column by Michael Hiltzik in which he bemoans the state of American customer service...using a very real and close-to-home example. Here’s how he frames the story:

“Advance ticket sales for Angels soared after the team announced its 10-year, $250-million contract with slugging superstar Albert Pujols in December. That's the good news. The bad news is that over the last week, they've squandered considerable fan goodwill through an execrable display of contempt for their paying customers. Think of it as a blown save of a game the team should have had in the bag.

“The fiasco involves advance ticket packages. These come in the form of vouchers that have to be redeemed in person for seats in designated sections. Knowing that fan excitement would run high and that 7,000 packages had been sold, the team advised buyers by letter and email to high-tail it to Angel Stadium as soon as possible once the redemption period began last Tuesday at 9 a.m. to be sure of getting the choicest seats at the best games.

“Yet the team was totally unprepared to handle the crowd that materialized. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 customers showed up Tuesday, many arriving before dawn.

“They discovered that only half the 14 ticket windows (and sometimes fewer) were staffed. The line moved at centimeters per hour, so no more than a few hundred customers made it to the ticket counters before the box office closed for the day at 5:30 p.m. Those left empty-handed were told they could come back the next day, as though it's no big deal for anyone to take a second weekday off from work and to trundle over to Anaheim. Even Donald Trump would understand that's a heavy burden for a working person to bear.”

Now, Hiltzik concedes that he has a dog in this hunt - his wife was one of the people who spent all day in line, only to be told she had to come back the next day, when she waited another six hours before getting to the ticket window. But he rejects the accusation that he has a personal vendetta, and says that Angels’ management was “truculently defensive” - as opposed to apologetic - when confronted about the situation.

Hiltzik uses the column to make a larger point:

“This has become the American way, hasn't it? Many businesses regard customer service as an expense item rather than an investment and the workers on the front lines as their most expendable employees. The patrons in the cheap seats always can make do with fewer ticket sellers, fewer ushers. Have you tried lately to track down a sales clerk at your local Sears store, not to mention a knowledgeable one? How long does it take you today to reach a human being on the customer service phone line of your bank or cable company, equipped as they are with the latest technology in disembodied recorded voices?”

He goes on:

“Indifferent service doesn't save money in the global sense — the business saves only by pushing even greater costs onto you, the customer. Angels owner Arte Moreno can cut his $6 million Angel Stadium payroll a smidgen by staffing only half his ticket windows to service a throng of patrons, but what's the value to the customer of a full day of wages, maybe two, spent standing in line?”

Hiltzik concludes by saying that “poor customer service is not a great long-term business model. If Moreno really doesn't understand that the fan base of even an iconic ballclub can vanish in the blink of an eye, he should take a drive up the freeway to Dodger Stadium, which was only half-full last season in part because owner Frank McCourt pursued a screw-the-customer strategy not unlike the one Moreno unveiled last week.”
KC's View:
I want to run that one sentence again, because it ought to be emblazoned in the offices of every retailer:

Many businesses regard customer service as an expense item rather than an investment and the workers on the front lines as their most expendable employees.

Which is just plain dumb.

Workers on the front lines are not just the least expandable employees, but they are the people primarily responsible for whether or not a retail establishment succeeds or fails.

And thinking that cutting back on front line employees to save money is the best way to make a business profitable is just self-delusion.

Good job, Michael Hiltzik.