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There are plenty of drawbacks to being older in our youth-obsessed society, but one of the good things, to me, is that I’m able to remember a time when most businesses actually cared about pleasing and keeping their customers – or at least they made a good stab at pretending to. Now many of them don’t even try to pretend. Oh, they’re falling all over themselves to get your business, but once they have it, you find yourself feeling completely taken for granted.

This seems to be especially a fact of life in so-called “service” industries. Maybe that’s why so many of them feel compelled to lock you in with long term contracts obligating you to continue to do business with them or pay a hefty price. We visited that subject about a year and a half ago, when I moved to a new home and discovered that the “two year” contract a security monitoring company salesman told me I was signing was actually a three year contract and I had to keep paying for another 13 months for a service I was no longer using or risk damaging my credit record. Well, hallelujah, that contract was finally up last February, though it took numerous phone calls and certified letters to get them to confirm my cancellation and prevent the heinous “automatic renewal” clause from kicking in.

My latest experience with customer non-service is with our cell phone company, Verizon Wireless. First I have to be fair and say that up until now, I’ve been pretty pleased with Verizon. I left Cingular several years back because of what happened when my mom died. She had a cell phone with approximately a year left on a two year contract. I wanted to keep the phone and pay out the rest of the contract, but there was a problem. We couldn’t find her phone. I still don’t know what she’d done with it. I went to the Cingular store and asked to buy a new phone – I didn’t expect to get it replaced for free. But they wouldn’t let me do it because my name wasn’t on the contract. Instead, they wanted me to take out a whole new contract – for another two years – in my own name.

I patiently explained that if they would let me take over this contract, they’d get paid for the rest of the contract term, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t because mom was deceased and had no estate to speak of. It would have been in their own best interest because I probably would also have taken out a new contract in my name at the end of that contract term, but I didn’t want to be forced into doing that yet. No go. I went to Verizon and they sent “past due” notices to mom for the next six months, threatening to damage her credit and refer her account to a collection agency. I’m not sure what part of “deceased” they didn’t understand.

So I’ve been with Verizon for the last four years and I like their service and coverage. When I renewed my contract last time, I got Samsung i730 Pocket PC phones for both my husband and myself, with unlimited Internet access. I also have my son’s phone on my plan, so we spend a nice little chunk of money with them every month. We’ve been loyal customers and recommended them to others who were thinking of switching cell phone providers.

Then last week my husband saw a new PPC phone they have out, the Starcomm XV6700.  He liked the “side slide” keyboard and the claims of better battery life, and wanted to upgrade from the Samsung. The Verizon web site advertises the phone for $399 with a $100 online discount, so a new customer can get it for $299. That seemed pretty reasonable to us for this type of phone.

Unfortunately, existing loyal customers don’t get the same deal. We soon discovered that to upgrade, we’d have to pay $519 for the phone – more than $200 more than the cost for a new customer. The “screw the customer” policy strikes again.

I’m sure you all have your own examples of this policy in action, since it seems to be prevalent all over these days. You see it when you buy a computer from a major vendor – the sales folks are quick to smooth talk you in fluent English, but just wait ’til you’ve already paid for it and need tech support. You get to wait on hold for long minutes to try to communicate with someone in a foreign country who barely speaks the same language.

And it’s not just in the tech-related industries that customer service is doing a disappearing act. I just bought a very fancy Jenn-Air outdoor grill from Lowe’s. Paid extra to have them come out and set it up. They didn’t tell me until they got here with it and had it all in place that they “weren’t allowed” to connect the propane tank. Okay, so how hard could that be? We consulted the manual, screwed the hose to the tank, turned on the gas – and there was a loud screeching noise.

Now what? I’m no propane expert, so I figured the thing to do was call one. First I tried a plumbing company that had done work on some natural gas appliances for us. Sorry, they only handle built in NG grills. Calls to a couple more plumbers yielded the same results. Then I tried a company that sells propane. Sorry, they don’t do that unless you bought the grill from them – even for a fee. They suggested I send the grill back to the manufacturer. Now we’re talking about a huge contraption that has two “island” wings on each side and spans a corner. It’s not like I can even load it in the car and take it back to the store, much less somehow ship it back to the manufacturer.

So we have an enormous grill that cost us $1500 and looks real pretty, but we can’t cook on it. I suppose we could throw charcoal in the bottom and use it that way. I’m going back to Lowe’s tomorrow to hunt down a manager and plead for some help. I’m willing to pay someone to make the thing work – if I can just find someone who does that. Who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise me. I fully understand that sometimes things don’t work. I just don’t understand why there seems to be no one who’ll fix it, even for extra money.

So: is it just me or are others having the same sorts of experiences?

Does it seem to you that once a company gets your money, they have no more use for you?

Are there some companies out there that do provide good customer service (I’ve had good experiences with Sears following through and taking care of problems that arise with their merchandise and services).

What’s causing this decline in customer service, and is there a way to turn it around? 

Deb Shinder