Topic: Business & Commercial

Unethical Customer Service
(7/12/2004)

There are so many ethical outrages in modern American life that some of the most irritating manage to evade the Ethics Scoreboard's attention. A special thanks, then, to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz, who is obviously mad as hell and can't take it any more. Usually a watchdog on media news ethics, Kurtz has written a column excoriating the terrible customer service procedures of too many companies that operate over the internet or the airwaves.

"How did we get to this point?" Kurtz cries plaintively. "And why can't anything be done? If a retail store provided such poor service, people would simply stop shopping there. But when it comes to phones, cable, computers, banks and health insurance -- not to mention just buying stuff online -- most of us have come to accept being treated like dirt."

In his column, Kurtz relates personal experiences that each of us could recount as our own: hours stuck on hold, refunds that never come, lost records, phone agreements that the company denies ever occurred, rotten services that can't be cancelled, incorrect bills that take months to correct. According to Kurtz, a Purdue study reported that a full 80% of American companies fail to meet minimum standards of consumer service…and America is a service based economy. Incompetence and ineptitude is bad enough, but there is evidence that some of the failings are intentional. In a disturbing expose on the web magazine Salon.com, Kyle Killen detailed his experience in tech support for a computer company. His job, he says, was not to help consumers, but to get them off the phone, often by re-routing them to other equally unhelpful staff members with the same objectives.

Such behavior, of course, is more than infuriating: it represents a form of theft. By making it so burdensome for customers to get what they were promised or to correct billing errors such companies know that they will discourage a high enough percentage to avoid expenses and time consuming fixes. Low paid employees on phone duty put customers through such hellish frustration that they give up and "pay the two dollars," in the words of the old vaudeville skit. Kurtz calls for a consumer revolt, and he is right. "It's time for the masses to rebel, to file complaints, to reject the culture of non-help that too many companies embrace," he writes. The cliché repeated ad nauseum these days is that "ethics pays." That is sometimes the case to be sure, but often not: here is an example where unethical conduct can be quite lucrative unless consumers make a concerted effort to make sure that it is not. [Editor's Note: Ethics Scoreboard is required to add here that the motivation for ethical conduct should not be that it is profitable, but that it is right.] It is worth taking the time to hold companies to a high service standard, not only for oneself, but for the scores of future consumers who will be similarly mistreated if a company's unethical tactics achieve their desired effect, which is consumer acceptance of inferior performance.

With this article, The Ethics Scoreboard adds a new link, Planet Feedback (www.planetfeedback.com/consumer/). This useful web site chronicles and indexes service outrages, and helps consumers get results. It is an uncommonly ethical web site and an excellent starting point for those who want to sign up for Kurtz's war on lousy service and the unethical companies who thrive on it. For such companies, "Your call is important to us" is a blatant lie. When lies make money, there will be an increase in liars. This is one lie that all of us have an obligation to turn into the truth.

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