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Last night, the telephone rang at 3 a.m. It was, thank God, not a death in the family or a terrible accident. It was Delta Airlines. A bit more than twelve hours earlier, I had called Delta. I wanted to buy a ticket so that my son, who will be thirteen, could fly off to summer camp; and on the Delta website, thanks to his age, this could not be done. When I called, I learned from the computer on the other end of the line that there was a high call volume and that the wait would be long. Would I prefer that, when things opened up, Delta’s computer called me back? Uh, er. Yes, thought I. It would surely be preferable to interminable waiting. So I acquiesced – and was then appalled when I was told that the call would come through within the next four hours and fifty-two minutes. In the event, it took more than twelve hours, and at 3 a.m. I found myself wishing that I had the home telephone number of the Delta president ready to hand so that I could call him and discuss with him the poor service on offer from his airline.
I had a similarly disheartening experience with Dell Computers. About fifteen months ago, at Best Buy in Jackson, Michigan, I bought a Dell Inspiron Laptop. The price was right – ca. $350. The laptop had more than enough memory for word processing, running financial software, and surfing the web; and, while I could have paid for an extended warranty, I did not see the point. I had never had a piece of equipment break down on me within the first three years of service – except when it was defective from the start. This time, however, the thing ceased to function shortly after the one-year warranty ran out. Repairs would run, I learned, at least $199; and to my mind, it seemed to make more sense simply to replace the machine. Here again, I found myself thinking that things like this should not happen. Dell should not use defective parts, and the outfit should stand behind its product for a reasonable period of time.
A few weeks ago, the water flosser I had bought from Philips died after working for a respectable number of years. My wife then picked up a Waterpik water flosser at the Walmart in Jonesville, Michigan; and I started using it. This item worked for a week or ten days. I put new batteries into the thing. But nothing I did could bring it back to life. Here again, I found myself wondering why a firm would sell so defective a product.
On a Saturday, at about the time the Philips water flosser died, I sat down in my office on the Hillsdale campus with daughter number one. She had reached the ripe old age of twenty-one, and I wanted to transfer to her the investment account and Roth IRA that I had set up for her with myself as trustee some years ago. When I had called Vanguard Investments, the counselor at the other end of the line had told me that I first needed to have her open her own investment account and Roth IRA, that the best way to do so was online, and that I could then call and transfer the money into the accounts she had set up. So that was our task. We tried twice online to open the investment account, putting in the pertinent information. But on each occasion the program supplied by Vanguard stalled, telling us that the information that we had entered was unacceptable. As I later learned, the problem was twofold. We were working from my computer and so the program insisted on putting in my contact information. Furthermore, it would not allow my daughter an address or a telephone number different from the one for the trustee account (for which, of course, I had used my address and my telephone number). In the end, we discovered that we had created two investment accounts and that the sum meant for the one we were trying to set up had been taken out of her personal bank account twice – once for each account.
That was bad enough, but it got worse. When she called Vanguard the following week to get things corrected, the first counselor she reached would not speak with her because she gave him her address – which meant to him that she could not be who she said she was. A day later, she called again and got a seemingly helpful woman who tried to aid her and promised that one of the two investment accounts would be closed and that the sum in that account would be transferred back to her bank account within five business days. Something like fifteen such days have passed, and she is still waiting. The last time she called Vanguard, it was 4:15 p.m.; she was put on hold; and a half-hour later a robotic voice informed her that her call would not be taken because Vanguard was about to shut down for the day. Needless to say, she was annoyed. It is one thing not to take calls made after closing hours. It is another to put someone on hold for an extended period then to drop that someone.
In the last few years, I have had other, similar experiences – with, for example, Home Depot – and they have led me to the conclusion that there is something amiss with the American corporation. My deals with Delta, Dell, Vanguard, and Home Depot were once uniformly satisfactory. Customer service was excellent. Waiting times were negligible or nonexistent. Those I dealt with were well-informed and helpful. Problems rarely arose; and, when they did, they were quickly and courteously sorted out. It looks to me as if the bean-counters are now everywhere in control and as if the urge to cut costs and improve on profits has occasioned a sharp decline in quality and the virtual elimination of customer service. I have not returned to Home Depot since the difficulty I had with the shop in Coldwater, Michigan. I will never buy anything from Waterpik again. I will think twice before I have future dealings with Delta or Dell, and I may move the savings I have invested with Vanguard over the last thirty or so years somewhere else.
When I ponder all of this, I cannot help but think of Boeing – a few shares of which I own. It used to be a terrific company. But, I am told, when the unions in Seattle began picketing the homes of the company’s top brass, the wives of the latter spoke up; and the headquarters was moved to Chicago. Henceforth the top brass was rarely seen on the factory floor. At the top, the engineers gave way to the bean-counters and, in time, the company went south. Giving way to the rage for short-term profits can easily ruin a brand name and shut off the spigot for profits altogether. Someone should do a course on this at one of our business schools.Published in