QVC – one of the Shop At Home cable channels announced some significant layoffs a little over a week ago. The people being laid off apparently are customer service employees who answer the telephones for placing orders and resolving problems. It’s the next step in an interesting evolution for American business.
In my parents’ youth there were small grocery stores scattered around and here and there clusters of specialty shops. For back to school clothes, Christmas gifts and such, you got on the bus and rode downtown to the department stores. Women dressed up including hosiery, high heels (and in some cases white gloves) before going to shop. Stores had clerks in every department who could advise you, size you and apprise you of the products they offered. If you’ve ever seen any of the old Jack Benny programs, there was a caricature of a “floorwalker” played by Mel Blanc – also the original voice of Bugs Bunny and friends. (“May I help youuuuuuu?”). That character resonated with people because it parodied the downtown shopping experience.
In my youth we “progressed” to shopping centers and soon after to the first malls. Shopping went from an event to something folks did to kill time. People started going to the mall without a specific purchase in mind, which gradually shifted from the parents and families to the kids. Teenagers began to see the mall as a place to “hang out;” it eventually became so much a teenage place that adults began to stay away. At least one mall in the Hampton Roads area has a curfew on young shoppers unless accompanied by an adult to try to draw back people old enough to have their own credit cards.
Shopping then evolved into big-box stores in which the salespeople are transients either working after school jobs, or hoping to be on their way to bigger and better things. It really doesn’t matter – a salesperson can be an expert on stereos or computers, but not necessarily on stereos, computers, refrigerators, automobile sound systems, big screen TV’s – well you get the picture. Our expectation of customer service began to fizzle just when the real need for it increased. Let’s face it; picking out a pair of socks did not require as much assistance as deciding between a dual core laptop, internet enabled, running Windows Home premium and a quad core desktop with gaming 2 gig video card and kinetic controls running Windows Ultimate.
In the midst of that, companies began shipping their customer service functions off-shore (“Hello, my name iz Pegky!”) and installing telephone prevention systems (“To be frustrated – press 1; To be driven completely out of your mind – press 2; To reach a customer service agent – you must be joking”) Our expectations began to match our experience. Our hope in finding a helpful clerk fell faster than a 1949 Mercury pushed out of a military cargo plane at 10,000 feet. We began to seek alternatives.
I don’t know if the QVCs customer service people were wonderful, terrible or somewhere in between. However, after dealing with big box appliance stores (Helloooo!! Does anybody work here?”), bargain stores that have three cashiers and 27 self-service checkout lanes (“Please place item in the bagging area!” and banks (“Since you didn’t use the ATM, there’s a $25 fee for talking to a cashier.”) Many of us have gotten in the habit of avoiding any more contact with vendors than necessary.
How to avoid vendors? Shop via computer, of course. Apparently this is what happened at QVC – the customers migrated to online ordering.
Makes you kind of shudder to think of what the next phase of “customer service” will be.