Are companies trying to drive away their best customers? That may sound absurd at a time when many marketers are struggling to survive. But that's what I wondered after having endured some of my most horrendous customer service—or rather disservice—experiences ever. Relocation really exposes you to the good, the bad and the ugly side of customer service. Unfortunately, in my move to Chicago from New Jersey, I have mostly seen the ugly side these past few months—interminable delays caused by back-ordered merchandise and delivery scheduling snafus, shipment of damaged goods or products I didn't order, false promises and even outright lies. The culprits include some of America's biggest retailers and a telecommunications giant. Managers, it seems, have taken their eyes off their most important employees—front-line folks who can either be their best brand ambassadors or worst nightmares. Clearly, companies have responded to the recession by cutting costs in ways that damage customer relationships. Many have pared call-center staffs, reduced training and failed to empower employees to make customer-friendly decisions on the spot. I wasted hours in the telephone hell of electronic prompts, not knowing whether I would ever end up speaking to a real employee. When I did finally connect with consumer-relations representatives, they usually communicated poorly because they were following a script or were outsourced workers with little command of the English language. After one particularly vexing experience with an electronics retailer, I really cringed when the employee wished me “a wonderful evening.” Making matters worse, marketers also have trimmed inventories so much that merchandise may be on eternal backorder. And as for product delivery, companies have cut their own teams of drivers or outsourced the job to vendors with no vested interest in their brands' reputations. Recently, I talked with some customer-service experts to glean their insights about recession-related problems. With layoffs, a heavier workload and fewer financial incentives, salespeople and shipping clerks may feel less motivated to deliver top-notch service and may be prone to make more mistakes. That's the opinion of Robert Dewar, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. “You also might put in the wrong product code because of stress and anger,” he says. “You can't hit your boss, but you can take it out on customers.” David Koehler, a clinical assistant professor of managerial studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, blames inadequate training. “Companies are being penny wise, dollars foolish,” he says, “by not training employees properly and not teaching them to offer dissatisfied customers an appealing compromise, like something of better quality at the same price.” Companies mistakenly believe a bit of green can mend relationship rifts. Because of the inconveniences they caused, one company mailed me a $25 gift card while another provided a $25 credit on my wireless bill. Of course, the cost of losing a loyal customer is far higher than a puny $25 penance. The rule of thumb: It costs at least five times as much to attract a new customer as to keep an existing one. That doesn't include the cost of losing additional customers and potential prospects because of the reputation damage from negative word-of-mouth communications. The one bright light in my season of wretched service was Apple. Not once but twice the company delighted me with impressive service. First, the tech experts at the Genius Bar at Apple's Short Hills, New Jersey, store salvaged my teenage son's ailing laptop. Then during a telephone consultation, technical advisers resolved a stubborn problem I had created in moving my Time Capsule data backup device to a new Internet connection. What's more, Apple was one of only two companies that followed up with a customer satisfaction survey. “It isn't enough to have nice people on the phone,” human resources consultant Jay Weiss of Rochelle Park, New Jersey-based JGI Inc., told me. “Apple hires smart people and gets its money back in customer retention.” I already was a fan of most Apple products; now my customer loyalty is rock solid. My one beef with Apple: lack of choice in the wireless service provider for my iPhone. Apple could at least teach AT&T a thing or two about training customer and technical service staffs. Please share your customer service experiences with Ron Alsop, email@example.com. He will post the best comments online. Workforce Management, November 2010, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!