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the customer is always wrong.
when did service become extinct?
by matt morin

As far as maxims go, "The customer is always right" doesn't rank up there with "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I'm not even sure it can compete with "The grass is always greener on the other side." And it's certainly no match for "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try." But these days, it doesn't even seem to be on the list. Whatever happened to places that were happy to have you as a customer and proved it every time you did business with them? Today, those merchants are as rare as original Michael Jackson nose cartilage. Of course the reason I'm writing about this is that I've had some nightmare experiences over the past month or so.

The first one started about 6 weeks ago. I work at home at a huge, metal Steelcase desk circa 1950. It's a great old desk, but unfortunately the salty ocean air in San Francisco isn't the best for preserving it. So I decided to have it powder coated. Now, this desk weighs about 250 pounds and is very difficult to move around. So, not wanting to haul it all over the Bay Area, I called up the only place in the SF city limits that could do it.

The owner picked up the phone and I explained to him what I was looking for. "Oh sure, we can do that. Probably run you 250 bucks, but bring it in so I can give you a complete quote," he said to me. After asking a few more questions, he flat out told me, "Look, I can help you do whatever it is you want done. Just bring it in."

A few days later I hauled it over to the shop. The owner wasn't there, but his assistant, Sean, was. Sean took the desk, my information and what I wanted done. He told me the owner would call me back after he looked everything over.

Days went by.

I tried to call, but every time I would get Sean, who told me the owner still hadn't looked at it yet.

Weeks went by.

I left message after message. "I work from home and really need this to get done. Please call me back," I would plead into the machine.

Then, after two and a half weeks, Sean answers the phone. "Oh yeah," he tells me, "He looked it over and decided he didn't want to do it. Come pick it up." What? I tried to explain the situation, but to no avail. "Can't help you, man," Sean said.

How does a company stay in business like that? But I was more concerned with getting my desk finished than I was with being pissed off at this guy. Plus, he still had my desk, and who knows what he would have done had I gone all Michael Douglas Falling Down on him. So I called a few places in the south bay and talked to a guy who said he could do it for "about $300."

Once again, the owner of the new place, Warren, wasn't there. (Are they ever?) He'd have to call me back with an estimate. You know what's coming. Every day for the next three and a half weeks, our conversation went like this:

Me: "So, Warren, I was calling about my desk."
Warren: "Oh yeah. I did tell you I'd get to that yesterday, didn't I? I've been really busy, but I'll get to it today and call you back."

Repeat for 18 days.

He called me back yesterday to tell me the $300 estimate would actually cost $1000. I'm still looking for a place that will do it. And I'm still writing from my kitchen table.

But the desk is a customer's wet dream compared to this next one.

I collect antique advertising posters. Some I have are worth thousands of dollars, most a few hundred. I buy them over the Internet from a dealer or on eBay and have had great results every time. So with that as a backdrop, I was the winning bidder on a Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey poster from 1935. It was a very cool painting of a rhino charging through the RB&BB logo. I couldn't wait to decorate my new apartment with it.

Sharon, the seller, and I had had a few e-mail chats and all was fine. I paid her quickly via PayPal and she mailed it cross country via UPS. I met the delivery man half way down the stairs, I was so excited. But that didn't last long when he handed me the poster.

It was mailed in one of those triangle poster tubes. But it was literally flat. Almost torn in half in the middle. It looked like the UPS driver used it to wedge under a wheel to get unstuck from deep mud or something. Needless to say, the poster was completely ruined. So I refused delivery and had it sent back to Sharon. I was also told that because she insured it, she would be the one to file the report and she'd get the money for it.

I was kind of upset. All the other posters I've received were either mailed between two sheets of Plexiglas, or in a round tube so strong you could stand on it. I wouldn't have mailed a Vanilla Ice concert poster in a tube as flimsy as she did, let alone an irreplaceable antique poster. So I immediately sent her an e-mail, informing her that the poster was destroyed and it was being sent back to her. I asked for my money refunded via PayPal.

No word all day.

It was time to tell someone else about it. So I went to eBay's feedback forum where you can let other buyers or sellers know how a specific person was to deal with. I wrote "Extremely poor packing job led to my poster being destroyed." A fair explanation of what had happened. Immediately, Sharon responded on eBay that "All items were packed properly." But it still took her two more days to actually e-mail me back personally. And this is what she wrote:

"As far as we are concerned this is an insurance matter, as we did not rip the box in half and cause the damage! Any refund will be an insurance matter and should have been discussed with us prior to returning the item and slamming us with a negative feedback, which will soon be returned. Good luck with your insurance claim, don't expect any help. -- Sharon"

She then turned around and gave me negative feedback. She called me an "immature buyer." Of course any of you who know me, know that once someone gets all snippy with me, I'm going to make things really difficult for them. No surprise then, it gets a whole lot nastier from there on. Some gems from our e-mail exchanges:

Me: "Ooooh. You got me there with that negative feedback. Feel better? And you called me immature... Let me know when you want to quit acting like a 3rd grader."

Her: "At this point, if you pester us any more you will be reported."

Me: "Reported for what? Reported for the fact that you have my money and won't return it? I won't expect any other help from you - and if it's anything like your customer service, I wouldn't want it anyway."

So now, instead of an easy refund, I've having to bother with investigations by eBay, PayPal and the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce - which pisses me off even more. But as I told her in an earlier e-mail, "You realize this whole thing could have been avoided by writing me back with 'Oh, sorry about the poster. I'll refund your money through PayPal.' But instead you got all defensive and forgot rule #1 - the customer is always right."

FYI: Never, ever do business with Sharon Mayor, or Travelin' Treasures in Danbury, Mass.

There is hope, however, for the downtrodden consumer though. Just the other day I bought some Dreyer's Cookies n' Cream ice cream, only to find no cookies inside. Just cream. I got on their Website and sent an e-mail explaining the problem. An amazing two days later, in the mail, I received a letter not only apologizing for the mishap, but also explaining how the mistake occurred - apparently a jammed cookie chute (insert "cookie chute" joke here) and steps they were taking to remedy the situation. Also included were two coupons for free half-gallons of any Dreyer's ice cream.

Maybe "The customer's always right" is at the top of someone's list after all.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin


how intrepid changed my life
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topic: general
published: 9.18.02

hi ho, hi ho.
it's off to work i go.
by matt morin
topic: general
published: 4.12.02


eloise young
6.19.02 @ 12:33a

I'll bet you someone who paints motorcycles could powder coat your desk. I have no real idea what it means to powder coat a desk, of course. But bikers are, in general, resourceful types.

Great customer service example: I called my alma mater, in the UK, today, and arranged for them to fax a copy of my lost undergrad degree certificate, the same day, to the US, at no charge. Cool!

juli mccarthy
6.19.02 @ 8:47a

Uh... I gotta tell you, I think you handled the ebay thing all wrong. Once the item has been handed over to the post office or other delivery service, it becomes your property and is no longer the seller's responsibility (yes, I agree she should have packed it better.) Both UPS and the USPS act as the agent of the addressee, thus, it's your problem once it comes to your door. I would have accepted delivery (making the delivery person sign a note that indicated he or she delivered it to you already damaged) and filed a claim and UPS would have given you your money back for the poster. I would have informed the seller that her packing was not good, explained the problem, left a neutral feedback, and let it go.

That said, I completely agree that customer service has gone out the window. I don't know how half these companies stay in business anymore, but I have gotten to the point where I simply refuse to do business with a company that sucks service-wise.

wendy p
6.19.02 @ 8:47a

Matt.. you have my sympathy.
This past weekend my husband, myself and 4 of our 6 kids stopped to get some lunch at a Bob Evans in Raleigh. Our waiter was extremely slow, had to be asked for everything from refills for drinks that had long ago run dry to ketchup for the chicken tenders. He bumped our son in the head with his tray and acted as though he didn't even notice he'd done it. However, he made sure we had our check before we had even taken the first bite of our meal. We decided not to cause a scene in the restaurant by calling the manager over and instead filled out the comment card and handed it to the manager when we paid the $55 bill explaining our displeasure with his service staff. Did he give us a discount? Did he apologize for the shoddy service or the fact that his waiter bumped our oldest son in the head with his tray? Nope. He simply stated we should have called him over during our meal and "maybe" he could have done something to improve our experience.
So, should we all start throwing tantrums or embarassing the staff and all the others around us so we'll have better customer service? Would that get Matt's desk powder coated or make Tim the waiter realize he's a twit and maybe he's in the wrong profession?

mike julianelle
6.19.02 @ 8:57a

Hey Matt, why don't you shove that desk up your cookie chute, wuss.

juli mccarthy
6.19.02 @ 9:04a

Whoa, Katherine! I had an almost identical exerience in a Bob Evans in Cincinnati! Unlike you, though, I made a scene. A big, loud, obnoxious scene. It's a shame that one has to be a squeaky wheel to get any grease, but whatever works.

wendy p
6.19.02 @ 9:19a

Luckily for me there is another Bob Evans that has awesome service. So, when I'm craving one of those "diner" dinners we can still take the parade to dinner. :)
I just don't understand people who want you to confront their wait staff in the middle of everyone else's dinner. But hey, if that's what they want, my hubby and I are former Marines so we're up for the challenge. ;)

mike julianelle
6.19.02 @ 9:23a

I have a friend who does that every time. Makes a scene, calls out the waiter, etc. And he has little tact and no diplomacy, so it's very awkward. One time he asked for a Sam Adams and when he got it, he accused the waiter of bringing him a Budweiser and caused a big scene. Actually it was a Sam Summer, so they were both wrong, and everyone got to suffer.

jeffrey walker
6.19.02 @ 10:24a

Well, the Dad of my old friend Rob Plank used to say, "Every time you eat out, you're takin' a chance."
I don't mind service in person - I can usually either persuade or intimidate until I get what I want from a person. I hate when I have to call 1-800 customer lines, and have to meander through a long menu of lists with corresponding digits to push, none of which usually have what I want, like, "push 7 if your IBM computer is all f**ked up." Then after reaching the "appropriate" operator, they always ask me most of the same questions again anyway. Why?


adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 11:07a

Katherine, I think the problem was that your expectations were too high for Raleigh, right Joe?

I hate having to give my account number or social security number or i.d. number at every step of the way in those customer service phone calls. I always feel like they're just running an 8-track tape and keep switching sides on me.

wendy p
6.19.02 @ 11:37a

Adam, sometimes you have to remember that in the South it's nearly against the law for anyone who doesn't live here to insult the city. There are so many places here where the service is awesome that when you come across a place where it's terrible, it's that much worse.
Or maybe I'm just losing the edge from living in NY and finally being assimilated into the Southern way of thinking that everywhere you go you should be treated with gracious southern hospitality.

adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 11:58a

I just think that people serving you should be polite, no matter where you are. Whether it's because they actually want to help you or because they're aiming for a larger tip, it doesn't matter. You don't have to be a particularly good waiter, but if you're courteous, it goes a long way toward mitigating other possible shortcomings.

matt morin
6.19.02 @ 12:42p

Juli, at every step I've been told by UPS that the sender is the one who has to make the insurance claim, start a track on a package, get an investigation going, etc.

I actually had the worst time after the package was sent back - because I didn't know if the woman had received it yet or not. She wouldn't answer my e-mails. And because I wasn't the original sender, UPS wouldn't even tell me if it had arrived!

matt morin
6.19.02 @ 12:43p

Oh, an Adam, I agree. I'm usually polite at first - I think it does help. But once I get attitude back - then all civility goes out the window.

adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 1:23p

And well it should. I do have to say, though, that sometimes not putting someone on the defensive achieves desired goals a lot more easily than attacking them.

katie morris
6.19.02 @ 2:04p

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Although, I've always thought that's a dumb adage, because who the hell wants to catch flies?

matt morin
6.19.02 @ 2:07p

Baseball players?

jael mchenry
6.19.02 @ 2:29p

Mr. Miyagi.

matt morin
6.19.02 @ 2:37p

Desk Update: Last week, the guy told me he could do it for $500 and it'd be done this week.

I called him yesterday to find out it would now cost $900 and he hasn't even started on it.

Time to go pick that thing up and push it off the Golden Gate Bridge.

mike julianelle
6.19.02 @ 3:07p

Mr. Miyagi.

Jael is after my heart.

adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 3:26p

Canvas. J.C. Penny, $3.98.

Matt - is the desk really worth the hassle? If it's cool enough, why don't you rustproof it yourself or something?

matt morin
6.19.02 @ 3:31p

Well, I originally did. The spraycan stuff just doesn't last that long though. So I was looking for something more permanent. But for that much, helll, I'll refinish the desk every year myself if I have to.

adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 4:24p

If it's not one pain in the ass, it's another.

mike julianelle
6.19.02 @ 4:41p

If it's not one pain in the ass, it's another.

Is that just a euphemism for Procopio?

adam kraemer
6.19.02 @ 4:52p

Dude, you're muddying the waters. This is a discussion, not the boards.

robert melos
6.20.02 @ 3:18a

I've come to the conclusion customer service is a lesson in tolerance. However, having the pleasure of being on both sides of this issue, dealing with customers in my work as a Realtor, I have to say the customer is not always right. In fact, in the case of my line of work, the customer is wrong 99% of the time. That doesn't stop them from making complete fools of themselves, but it does give myself and my coworkers something to laugh about after they storm out of our office.

Maybe that's why I'm so tolerant when I deal with customer service from a customer position. I actually apologized to a doctor (actually a vet) recently, before, during and after calling him and incompetent quack. I'm sorry I had to call him and incompetent quack, I'm sorry he is and incompetent quack, and I'm sorry, but I'll never take my dog to such an incompetent quack again.(The dog's okay now, but I'm still ticked.)

adam kraemer
6.20.02 @ 10:19a

Would you take your duck to a quack?

Okay, now I'm the one apologizing. Sorry, people. That was uncalled for.


matt morin
6.20.02 @ 12:39p

But that's what customer service is all about - you can try your hardest to explain things to them, but in the end, it's the customer's money and they should get what they want.

My problem is when, as the customer, I'm not asking for anything ridiculous. I'm just asking that these people put a little effort into caring that I am doing business with them.

lee anne ramsey
6.20.02 @ 8:58p

The customer is not always right, but I do believe that some businesses should at least PRETEND to care when you are having a problem.

Fortunately, my business is all about relationships. That means even if you have to threaten to fire someone to get them to do their job... you have to do it with a smile and they have to say "thank you for kicking my ass."

lee anne ramsey
6.20.02 @ 9:03p

When dealing with my car getting stolen (shameless plug for my feature piece) - my insurance company guy was the antithesis of helpful. I felt like he had never dealt with an insurance claim before and he acted like I did this every day. It drove me crazy. Conversely, the folks at SF Honda totally helped me out every step of the way and in the end they not only detailed my car and put in a full tank of gas before they returned it, but they called to follow up a few days later to make sure "everything was okay."

Great customer service totally makes my day.

matt morin
6.20.02 @ 10:16p

I'll go out of my way to appreciate great customer service. There were weird problems when setting up my DSL. After the Apple help line was amazingly unhelpful, one Earthlink rep sat on the phone with me for an hour trying different things until it finally worked. I got his name, wrote his supervisor and told him to give the guy a bonus or a raise or a day off, or at very least, take the guy out for lunch.

michelle von euw
6.25.02 @ 8:48p

Juli, many ebay sellers add to their profits by offering "insurance," often charging the buyer more than FedEx or UPS does for the same service, and, therefore, assuming responsibility for damaged packages. From Matt's piece, it sounds as if Sharon did that. I'd be willing to bet that she kept the profit and did not insure the package, hence, her taking her own sweet time to reply to Matt's emails.

michelle von euw
6.25.02 @ 8:51p

Matt, good luck with the Mass. Better Business Bureau. We've been dealing with them, too, since we called AAA to have our SUV towed to Speedy, and the driver talked us into taking it to his own place & he'd look at the brakes. Three days later, we get a call saying that without getting confirmation from us, he's gone ahead and replaced our brakes -- for three times as much as we would have paid at Speedy.

matt morin
6.26.02 @ 11:40a

Most recent update: I'm going to pick up my desk today (it's still not done) and try and figure out another way to refinish it.

And I sent Sharon another e-mail very nicely reminding her it's been a month since she got her poster back and I still haven't seen my money.

No response.

adam kraemer
6.26.02 @ 12:10p

You should have us all start writing her. Very nicely, of course.

matt morin
6.26.02 @ 12:23p

Anyone want to drive to Danbury and picket her store?

adam kraemer
6.26.02 @ 12:24p

No, but next time I'm driving through Danbury, I'll extend my middle finger in her general direction.

erik myers
6.26.02 @ 2:31p

I'll be driving right by Danbury this weekend. And I have a couple of friends that work in Danbury. You want me to send 'em over to take them out?

matt morin
6.26.02 @ 7:10p

Maybe just top off her gas tank with a garden hose.

tracey kelley
7.1.02 @ 12:07a

My husband and I are both big letter writers, phone callers, and once, helped wage a campaign with the BBB to drive a furniture store out of business. Which worked.

I nearly got my insurance agent's office manager fired two weeks ago because she got uppity and condescending with me for no reason, as she was making me, the customer, do all the legwork I pay the agency to do. I listened to her very calmly, then asked her to transfer me to my agent. When he got on the line, I said "I'm about to move all 5 of our policies to another agent because of Mrs. X. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't." That got his attention pretty damn quick, and he has personally dealt with me ever since. I walked in his office Friday, and Mrs. X practically tripped over herself when she met me.

On the flip side, we write letters and make phone calls for exemplary customer service as well. I never hesitate to tell someone - or someone's someone else - they are doing a good job. Earlier this year, we were at a restaurant in Raleigh and suffered through a gigantic series of mishaps. At the end of the evening, after the bill was paid ($278.00) I calmly pulled the manager aside and explained some of the disasters (and there were many.) He did an amazing about-face and comped the entire bill. When I returned home, I wrote a letter to the restaurant's owners, highlighting the service shown by the manager. It was the least I could do.


matt morin
7.1.02 @ 3:25p

I was at a relatively nice restaurant a while back where it became obvious they forgot our order. The manager and waitress were highly apologetic and comped us dessert.

I don't mind the occasional mistake. It just bothers me when people don't fess up and makes things right after they make them.

lee anne ramsey
7.1.02 @ 4:10p

Is that the same dinner I was at? Because, if I remember correctly, it wasn't until I pulled the waitress aside and told her I was starving that they realized they had completely forgot our order.

matt morin
7.1.02 @ 4:13p

Yeah, that was the place we went to. But I thought they did a relatively nice job of making up for it. Sure, they could have comped the entire meal, but they did enough that I'd go back.

Now if they screw up a second time...

matt morin
7.15.02 @ 2:56p

Customer Service Update: UPS just informed me that Ms. Mayor had applied for my poster's insurance money on June 14th and was denied because it was packaged improperly. (Despite her claims from the start that it was.)

She won't return any of my e-mails or phone calls. She didn't respond to the CT Better Business Bureau's investigation or eBay's investigation.

Now I'm on to the CT Attorney General's Consumer Protection Unit, and the U.S. Postal Service for mail fraud.

At this point, I'm planning to do everything I can to completely ruin her.

tracey kelley
7.15.02 @ 3:37p

Well good for you.

Right now I'm pissed at the USPS because of their policy not to pick up any outgoing mail. There's no way to know, obviously, if you have mail coming, but the carrier has the option not to pick up outgoing if you don't have incoming mail because it makes them more "efficient." Never mind the carrier crosses through my yard to get to the other houses, but can't take an extra 40 steps to pick up my mail hangin' off the box. Twice. In the past week.

Now the fact is that my regular carrier, who is awesome, was on vacation last week, so it's not his fault. He always seems to pick up my mail no matter what. But this is the answer I get from two supervisors: "The carriers are not required to pick up outgoing mail unless you have incoming mail." Nice. So it's basically a crap shoot every time I set mail out. The supervisor said ,"We're still one of the lowest-priced mail services in the country." My reply was "This isn't about cost, this is about customer service. What you're basically telling me is that I have to pay you to deliver, but not pick up, mail. So it's more about customer service. Which means I may make a decision the next time I want a higher-priced service like overnight express to use another overnight carrier, because I want to be assured that it will be picked up, that I will have the customer service promised to me."

michelle von euw
7.15.02 @ 4:02p

Tracey, are you saying that USPS is required to pick up outgoing mail if they are delivering incoming? Because my mail carrier refuses to take anything at any time. Even the letter that was addressed to someone not me, Joe, or our landlord who lived in our house the 12 years before we moved here. I very nicely wrote "return to sender," and stuck it on there, where it remained for three days.


russ carr
7.15.02 @ 6:09p

And yet the USPS, like Amtrak, scratches its collective head (aside: a collective head is where a hive mentality forms) and wonders why the nation is turning its back on their "service." Sure, the cost of sending a letter is still "cheap" compared to other countries; look what you get. I mean, really -- can you hear the world "disgruntled" anymore and not add "postal worker" at the end?

Meanwhile, it's 5:10 on a Monday evening and we still haven't seen our carrier. Is it any wonder that every bill we can pay online is paid online?


matt morin
7.18.02 @ 11:26a

VICTORY! I don't know who it was that scared her. (I'm guessing it was a call from a USPS Fraud Inspector) but out of the blue today, I got all my money refunded.

I love winning.

adam kraemer
7.18.02 @ 11:31a

Mazel Tov!

michael reynolds
7.18.02 @ 1:31p

You should use that refund to buy some UPS stock.

Or a new fucking desk.

Oops. Can I say that?

katie morris
7.18.02 @ 1:47p

There's the real question. Did you ever get your desk back? Is it all painted and pretty now?


matt morin
7.18.02 @ 2:29p

Well, I ended up having to go get my desk - unfinished. So I spent an entire weekend refinishing the top and pedestals myself. At least now I have a desk to work at - although the drawers aren't finished yet.

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