Last fall, ironically right around the time I wrote about Vernon Hill, the banker whose evangelical emphasis on customer service has utterly disrupted the banking industry, I found myself encountering a string of customer service headaches.
First, our newly installed gas heater went out. We'd been paying hundreds of dollars a year to F.C. Haab, the company that installed it, for a service agreement. They came out and told us we had a faulty blower motor. We'd have to wait for days - in the cold - for a replacement part. "Why do I pay for service?" I asked. "For us to come out and diagnose the problem," I was told. Besides, I was told, the agreement they sold me upon installation covered a different-sized blower motor. I'd have to pay $473 up front or they wouldn't come out and fix it, despite the fact that I'd been paying on a service plan. We'd literally be out in the cold.
Chris Haab, the company honcho, was apologetic when I complained. "This is a communication issue," he said, referring to his company's failure to tell me they'd sold me a service contract that didn't cover all the parts they'd installed. Haab impressed me as a nice guy, and his company was more responsive after his involvement, but it got me wondering: Was it just a communication issue? Or was it a culture issue? Did his company's DNA include a healthy-enough dose of empathy for its customer?
The more I thought about it, the more I started to recognize a trend. Waiting in a ridiculously long line at the concession stand of the United Artists King of Prussia movie theaters (never has it taken so long to procure a box of Goobers), I saw that each pimply-faced clerk was required to energetically, and in great detail, pitch each customer on a hot dog, nachos, and supersized soda - lest the whole order be on the house. It was up-selling masquerading as customer service - when time was of the essence.
Around the same time, Hurricane Sandy wreaked some havoc on our back deck. You'd have thought we were living in boom times, given the procession of contractors who failed to show up when they said they would in order to take our insurance money.
Is it me, or is there something going on? Are we consumers increasingly feeling out there, all alone, helpless and hapless in the face of companies and institutions that seem to take us for granted? Or am I turning into my cranky 86-year-old dad? He reassures me, of course, that I'm on to something.
"We've had great technological change," he says. "But we've lost something, too. Years ago, I'd pull into a gas station and a team of attendants would come rushing out to check your oil and clean your windshield while they filled you up. When I was a little boy, my mother would send me to the store and the grocer would say, 'Your mom doesn't buy that brand of bread. She buys this one.' Now even try finding a person to deal with."
I'm no Luddite. My friends tease me about my obsession with technological disrupters. But it bears considering: In our love of all things tech, have we relegated ourselves as consumers to the backseat?
A card-swiping machine, after all, replaced the team of gas station attendants Dad talks about. On 60 Minutes last month, Twitter inventor Jack Dorsey talked about an exercise in which he took his team to gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge in order to see it "as this perfect intersection between art and engineering." It is that, but it's also something a guy hurrying to work drives over. Maybe we need to focus just a little bit more on the quality of that poor schlub's experience.
Now comes a way for smart businesses to do just that. Betterific.com, which was given start-up funding by Philly's own DreamIt Ventures, is an innovative digital suggestion box that gives voice to the oft-ignored consumer. It was started by three twenty-somethings who, despite their academic brilliance, couldn't quite get a fitted sheet onto a bed.
Micha Weinblatt, one of the partners, wondered: Why didn't bedding companies include a label to indicate which side of a sheet is the width, and which is the length? Short of starting a linen company themselves, he realized there was no real way to convey such an idea. Weinblatt and partners Jonathan Schilit and Brad Cater saw that many companies had "suggestion boxes" on their websites, but they were effectively black holes that looked like legal documents. So they developed a platform for consumers to offer feedback on how to improve products and companies.
"We live in a social world now," Schilit says. "There was a need for a fun customer-feedback experience."
The site, now in beta, provides users with a prompt ("Wouldn't it be better if . . .") and then lets the community vote the idea up or down. I've seen suggestions for Amazon ("Wouldn't it be better if Amazon offered a print and e-book combo?"). And here's a popular one for you toilet makers: "Wouldn't it be better if toilets had a 'pedal lift lid' like a lot of trash cans so you wouldn't have to touch the seat to lift it up or down?"
The Betterific team is recruiting companies to embed part of its platform onto their own sites. After 26 percent of the Betterific community's posts asked Arby's for specific new menu items, the fast-food chain's product development team went to work on many of them. And therein lies some groundbreaking potential impact, in which the technology of Betterific.com counters what an overemphasis on technology has taken from us: an empowered customer voice.
Thanks to Betterific.com, now I have an online place to go and be just as cranky as my old man.