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The customer is never right, Part Deux

More tales from the shopping front: These anecdotes are not offered just to vent--though it does admittedly save me some money on therapy bills--but to sound another warning for the industry: Customers are fed up.

All I wanted was some paper.

Granted, it wasn't just any paper, but I shouldn't have been forced to waste two hours of my weekend trying to find it.

At the risk of sounding like a chronic whiner, I'm writing a second installment to my last column, which detailed my maddening fate at the hands of the so-called customer service department at In that article, I contrasted experiences of buying a PC through Insight (bad) and a digital camera at (good).

This month's tale of two shopping ventures is even more basic: one online, the other off. Which was worse? You guessed it--the one that involved human interaction. It was this theme that apparently struck a nerve in the earlier column, which drew more email than I've ever received on a single subject.

As with the last installment, the first experience was flawless: I went to to find which online stores carried the right paper for my camera's printer. I then went to the site that had it in stock for the lowest price, out of state so that I wouldn't have to pay sales tax. That happened to be Done.

Then there was the other. But before I go on, an admission: I am fully to blame for the following debacle, for I stupidly thought the brick-and-mortar guys might have improved the way they treat their customers.

Instead, I never left the house, spending much of Saturday afternoon on the phone. Or, to be more accurate, on hold.

Silly me. I thought that I'd play it smart and call ahead to see which stores carried the printer paper I was looking for. Call I did, only to encounter enough rudeness and incompetence to make any civil servant proud. So egregious were the responses, or lack thereof, that I began to formulate a scorecard of sorts to rank the rankling. I was afforded ample time to do this while put on terminal hold, subjected to hits from the '70s that I've spent the last two decades trying to forget.

First, I tried about a dozen local photography shops. (This was, after all, for photo paper.) Eight calls. Two on hold for more than 5 minutes. One for more than 15 minutes. Three apparently non-English-speaking salespeople. Finally, a clerk whose crackling voice was on the verge of changing from adolescence told me to try the personal electronics retailers.

A call to Circuit City was met with the inevitable counterintuitive voicemail tree. When I did finally get through, someone on the other end immediately hung up before I had a chance to say anything. Giving them the benefit of a doubt, I called again and got the same treatment. On the third try, I got someone who transferred me to the wrong department, and so on. Bounced back to the original operator, I was hung-up on again.

I envisioned a Lily Tomlin wannabe on the other end, snickering and hanging up every time a call came in, then going on an extended coffee break.

Number of unhelpful salespeople: 4. Operators who refused to operate: 2 (I think). Approximate time wasted: 20 minutes. Not bad for one store.

The Good Guys didn't hang up on me, but they did turn me into an analog ping-pong ball, transferring me among three departments and eventually landing me back at the first one I'd been sent to. Finally, someone in the PC printer area suggested that I try the computer warehouses, but only after treating me like an idiot for even asking such a question. Number of unhelpful salespeople: 3. Approximate time wasted: 15 minutes.

CompUSA, Fry's Electronics, and CompuTown were equally useless, with alternating degrees of arrogance and ignorance. Why sales reps are so quick to say they "think" they don't carry an item, without bothering to check, is beyond me. I can't tell you how many heavy sighs I encountered upon asking whether these people would deign to check the inventory databases that were on the machines right before them. Total amount of wasted time: about half an hour.

Out of irritation and resignation, I finally retreated to the Web and found what I needed in about 5 minutes, complete with reviews and comparative prices at e-commerce sites. I'll have to wait a few days for the delivery, but at least I got some hopeful, and helpful, results.

I offer these anecdotes not just to vent--though it does admittedly save me some money on therapy bills--but to sound another warning for the industry: Customers are fed up.

A Web search on the aforementioned chains is likely to turn up at least a few sites dedicated to complaints of consumer abuse. And such documentation is spreading to all sorts of companies. On Monday, the Washington Post reported that even doughnut stores have been targeted for consumer activism online at, which the newspaper describes as "hotbed of doughnut discontent" covering everything from coffee to crullers.

For the record, representatives of and Federal Express, the primary antagonists of my previous saga, wrote in with apologies after the column appeared. But I have to wonder how many other consumer complaints--many far worse than mine, if email is any indication--go unanswered or effectively ignored.

Many readers say they agree that the problem is the human factor. One preferred e-commerce to physical stores "because everything is computerized, and I don't have to deal with a low-paid order-taker who hates their job, hates people, won't listen, and can't type."

"When things go wrong, you are at the mercy of these very same reps," this reader added. "These reps don't generate revenue. They are overhead, treated like overhead, and they treat you the way they are treated."

Still, don't abandon all hope just yet. Perhaps some in the industry will grasp the fundamentals, like this customer service manager at an online company:

"I wanted to thank you for your articles 'The customer is never right' and 'Great balls of fire.' I have printed copies of them and intend to have every new customer service representative I hire read and reread them. It is my goal to never see our company name in an article such as this."


In his monthly column, managing editor Mike Yamamoto often ponders a world without people.