Service of Dissatisfaction

September 8th, 2010

Categories: Accommodation, Arrogance, Attitude, Blame, Courtesy, Customer Service, Dissatisfaction, Excuses, Manners

Diane Baranello of Coaching for Distinction just sent me, “Are You Being Served?” by James Surowiecki. The information in The New Yorker piece won’t surprise my readers. The author noted that these days almost nobody is happy–neither the served nor the servers. He also pointed out why employers don’t like to pay for service: It’s an expense with zero income-producing value in their opinion, and an easy cut in tough times.

Surowiecki referred to one survey taken a few years ago in which 80 percent of 300 large companies thought that they delivered “superior service” as compared to eight percent of consumers and he wrote “….one study suggests that only six percent of dissatisfied customers file a complaint.”

So what do disgruntled people do? I posit that they vote with their feet, though not all. Do most suffer in silence?

We walked out of a trendy bakery/restaurant the other week where we were ignored for several minutes by three people behind the counter. There was no “Hi,” “Be with you in a second,” or “May I help you?” When I asked my husband “What do you want?” as I was deciding whether a cranberry scone or a blueberry muffin was coming home with me, he replied: “To get out of here,” which we did. The place was almost empty, there were four customers at two tables. We passed by in the car the other day and crowds appeared to be leaving or entering.

Money goes to attract new customers, Surowiecki pointed out, instead of keeping existing ones. True to form, the bakery/restaurant has dotted the countryside with posters directing drivers to it and the place was given great coverage in a New York Times article about a month ago.

This place isn’t alone to spend money to attract new customers and favor them. [We were new at the bakery, but as we were in the door, and there’s nowhere else nearby, I guess we no longer mattered.] Magazines use a model of spend-to-get-new readers and charge more to current subscribers. I refuse to pay the higher price for a magazine renewal for an expensive publication I’ve subscribed to for eons. New subscriptions cost $10 less. With my check, I send a copy of the blow-in card, circle the lower price and enclose a letter. It’s in my computer so doesn’t take but a second to change the date every year. The letter explains that I expect to be treated better than a new reader and to please honor me with the better price. It works. [I refuse to pay for any publication with a credit card. The thought of trying to break off the relationship with their ability to suck out any amount of money from me that they want–forever–gives me nightmares.]

I agreed with the author when he disclaimed the theory that poor service is caused by consumers who insist on cheap prices, thereby eliminating a business’s ability to provide good service. He mentioned, which in this context is the example de rigueur. We had a glitch this morning using I heard from Will Reed in customer service in minutes. Turns out we caused the malfunction. And back to the bakery/restaurant, how costly is it to say “hello, good to see you, be with you in a minute?”

I am sure that you can list many other moderately priced establishments both big and small that serve you well.  Won’t you please share? And we’d always like to hear of examples where you were a dissatisfied customer or employee.

21 Responses to “Service of Dissatisfaction”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    To my mind, the ninth rim of retail Hell is the ninth floor of Macy’s…the furniture floor. You could wander those aisles, stumbling over table legs and chair backs and nobody would help you. And even if you approach whatever desk is placed there, you might not find a salesperson prepared to work with you.

    I recall being in that department a few years back and seeing two women with shopping bags wearily seating themselves in a dining vignette. They were there for several minutes before a salesperson approached: “Are you ladies looking for help or just resting yourselves?” she asked. The two women were momentarily taken back but finally admitted that, yes, they were hoping to be waited on.

    I think Macy’s Cellar is similarly service-free. You could wander those aisles until your soles wear out and, unless you see and confront an employee, you’ll never be helped, waited on or directed. Macy’s is an object lesson in how not to survive a recession…as well as why the department store has had its day in the U.S.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I had a challenging experience trying to buy a wedding gift in that store. It’s a shame for a venerable brand to let things slip. There are two sides to every story, and we are not hearing from management or staff, although I can’t excuse anyone–even an exhausted, overworked sales associate–taking out their frustrations on customers.

    But to pay for the huge space and inventory and not have enough money left to staff properly seems odd.

  3. Diane Baranello, Coaching for Distinction Said:

    Jeanne, years ago I taught a program for Citi called “The People Business”. It was attended by Customer Service Representatives and discussion naturally focused on how to provide customers with optimum service. I always took time to discuss how important it was to serve and retain loyal clients (not just new clients) and how much damage is done when clients’ issues aren’t resolved to their satisfaction. Not only do they leave (as you did from the bakery) and not return … but they tell their story over and over and easily damage a company’s reputation for customer care.

    This is just as true for business professionals. My sister-in-law recently told the family about an incident with a visit to a new doctor. She and my brother arrived on time for their appointment but had to wait at the front desk while the receptionist had a personal and lengthy conversation with a colleague. By the time they were checked in … they were late for their appointment. The doctor announced he would not see them because they were the last appointment of the day and they were 15 minutes late. My sister-in-law said, “Well, we wouldn’t be late if your receptionist hadn’t carried on a personal conversation and kept us waiting.” They left and never went back to that doctor.

    So what can disgruntled people do? I’m with you … vote with your feet!

  4. David Reich Said:

    “It’s an expense with zero income-producing value in their opinion, and an easy cut in tough times.”

    Wow, is that so wrong! Service CAN produce income by keeping customers. We all know that’s it’s easier and cheaper to retain customers than to go find new ones.

    There are many stores I won’t go to, even though their prices might be lower, because their service is so bad. Home Depot is one example. There are also restaurants I won’t go back to, no matter how good the food may be, because the service was slow or surly or both.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    To answer your last question first, I plan to find out who owns that bakery/restaurant, to make a copy of my post and to send it to them, for starters.

    As for your sister-in-law/doctor story, it gives me the shivers. Some people don’t understand that they are stealing from people when they waste their time but worse: What if someone needed this doctor in an emergency? Would he be unreachable?

    I knew a man whose sister was being treated for breast cancer by a doctor who made her wait hours for every appointment. I thought that she was very brave to leave him in mid-treatment. His attitude irritated her so that she thought it would impede healing.

    I also know an elderly woman who left a doctor who kept her waiting because he figured she had nowhere else to go and could wait. She lived another 10 years in pretty good health…think of the easy checkup fees he missed out on!

  6. Catherine C Said:

    My husband and I recently dined at a restaurant in Bloomfield, NJ, that’s been open for about two years. We were “early adopters” and introduced many people to the place. Sometimes my friends and I would be the only diners at lunchtime. The food had always been very good, although the restaurant isn’t in a great neighborhood and the decor turns some people off (small, noisy, uncomfortable chairs).

    We’d gotten to know the chef-proprietor, which may explain why we usually got good service when others complained. We hadn’t been there in many months and arrived without a reservation at 6:45 on a weeknight. Only one table was occupied. After inquiring about whether we had reservations, the hostess seated us. I noticed the chef wasn’t in his whites; he seemed to be working in the bar. We ordered the two most expensive entrees: a rib-eye steak and a thick-cut veal chop. The quality was good, but neither was cooked to order. The salads were over-dressed. The risotto was greasy. The service was totally hit or miss. No one ever asked how our meals were.

    The owner passed us by a dozen times without a word. The place was filled up by 7:30 and they clearly wanted our table back. This is something many people had complained about but that we hadn’t experienced. No one even said goodbye when we left. I guess that filling up on a midweek night and the chef no longer having to be in the kitchen might be regarded as a sign of success. If so, this place is a victim of its own success because we’re not going back. I’ve gone from supporter to detractor.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t know how TJ Maxx in Poughkeepsie does it: 97 percent of their employees are courteous, helpful, cheerful and a pleasure to be around and their prices are rock bottom. I so agree with you about not going to places with ornery service.

    To spend money in any economy and be punished for doing so doesn’t make sense.

  8. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    It’s training, Jeannie. It’s why Gracious Home is such a bonanza, even in hard times. You walk into one of their stores. . . somebody asks, ‘Can I help you?’ and usually does.

  9. ASK Said:

    My dissatisfaction today? Try a visiting nurse who won’t show up for some at-home tests unless previously directed by the doctor, and the doctor who wants the nurse to call him when she arrives at our home.

    Then, there’s the prescription our insurance won’t cover unless the doctor who prescribed it calls the insurer for prior authorization, and all his office lines are busy. My quick trip to his office with the appropriate phone number…and he’s not even there!

    Aren’t you glad you asked? Not that this topic couldn’t be the subject of your blog into infinity…

  10. Kathleen Gordon Said:

    Retail/Customer service work is the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, and yet workers’ wages have been frozen for over 30 years. I posit that expecting great service is a political issue. Labor unions have been systematically dismantled by the McDonalds and Wal-Marts of the world; workers’ abilities to earn a decent wage and support themselves have been crushed. Workloads have increased as staff has been cut.

    As a former Starbucks worker, I can tell you that the amount of work that the bosses expected us to do used to eat away at my soul. At my most recent job as a sandwich maker/prep cook/customer service worker at a sub shop chain here in Austin, I earned 7.50-10 dollars per hour, depending upon tips. I was unable to pay my rent, feed and clothe myself, pay my utilities, transportation, repay student loans, etc…and forget about health care, which my employers didn’t even make a stab at paying for! And yet I was expected to sunnily grant a customer’s every request, and to feel grateful for the privilege. Because today’s employers do expect you to act as though you’re grateful. Nearly all of my co-workers behaved unhappily, but because we’re in the South, because we’re in TX, it’s not the culture to hold employers responsible for dignity on the job, and fair pay. I believe I was fired not because I was unhappy (which is truly unjust), but because I was the most recently hired unhappy worker.

    I think you’re right that this system rewards neither worker or customer. And I think that customers ought to be aware of the experience of the person who’s waiting on them. Companies are more likely to listen to customer complaints rather than worker complaints, particularly in this economy where it’s easy to find qualified and eager (read: desperate) workers.

    Forgive the poor writing above. I am angry, sad and demoralized.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    In a pricey restaurant in Rhinebeck, NY, we had exactly the same experience you describe, I am sorry to say. We brought weekend guests and friends there and went ourselves quite often. The food and service were very good.

    The host, one of the partner-owners, seemed shy and awkward with people but he tried. But he never recognized us–some people are like that [but they usually don’t take on a host job]. We didn’t expect him to remember our names, but a cordial welcome as though he recognized us would have been nice.

    We had a reservation one Saturday night when the place was jammed and were put in a horrible place where guests and waiters knocked into us, the service was lackluster, and we decided we’d had it. We never returned. While the restaurant was in the town, it was off the main streets so we hadn’t been by in a long time. We drove by recently to check out whether it was still in business. It wasn’t.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You may be demoralized but you write very well, which is not the point of your comment, but you apologized for not doing so and I wanted to disagree with you on that point.

    I fear that in order to compete in a global economy, with the exception of hedge fund managers, investment bankers and some others, most of the rest of us will be making less.

    To stand all day and work in a frenzied environment and get home, dog-tired, with not enough money to pay for food and rent is horrendous. I wonder if a manager in a difficult situation like that can’t make a big difference by being supportive and pitching in so at least the staff’s spirit is lifted.

    Re salaries, I remember being offered $X when I needed $Y to cover my expenses but the job offered $X. The fact that I needed more to live on was not the prospective employer’s problem. In this economy, being flip and saying, “So get or look for another job,” may be impractical. Being part Pollyanna, I keep thinking that by being the best at what you do, someone will discover and reward you. Dealing with the public, a customer might notice that you are the only cheery, efficient person and voila! You end up working for them.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You are right, I should write a post about healthcare. I am afraid to.

    I had a checkup this morning. I’ve known the staff for years. And although checkups scare me to death, I can’t imagine a nicer group than this one to suffer through the processes with. We laugh, we joke, and we really like each other. I shudder to think what to expect when the doctor retires and he breaks up his team.

  14. Judy S Said:

    The article you wrote is wonderful, so true. I vote with my feet, too.

    Places that treat me well get special thanks,as do waiters who get bigger tips. I just went to a hardware store where they spent 20 minutes replacing the battery in my car key (then
    of course, it still didn’t work, so now we have to go back to Toyota, which has plenty of other troubles to deal with at the moment. It wasn’t the battery, the little red light comes on when it is pushed, but I can’t open or close doors.) But I will go back to that hardware store, which is always helpful.

    I shop at Target because Walmart is far worse, but almost no one there can tell you where something is. I hate that, but continue to go back because of their low prices … especially on food. But Bill refuses to shop there. He goes to Rainbow instead, where he pays more, but the service is wonderful.

  15. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I, too, will suffer up to a certain extent if prices are good, but my husband won’t. The bakery/restaurant place I wrote about in the post is far from a bargain–it is high end boutique in price. But nobody likes to be ignored or put through a ringer at any price.

  16. Henry Babitt Said:

    Mervyn is right, good service is the consequence of solid training, but I think it is far more than that.

    I fuzzily recall an ad which touted milk or cheese from “contented cows.” How do you get contented servers? That’s complicated, but generally I suspect that they are often products of certain cultures and backgrounds. One quick answer is that if as a boss you treat them as if they were customers, they’ll be more likely to pass the treatment on. Another is if you back them up when they are abused by your customers, you may have fewer customers, but you’ll have a far happier place for people to work and for customers to come. Again this is only possible in relatively small entities. I don’t know how you manage it if you are a big operation.

    Many, many years ago, my company had a very important Persian customer who gave us all one big headache. His business was unprofitable, but he was very big, and we were scared to give him the heave ho. Then the Shah fell, and the Mullahs took over. Our client disappeared. We became smaller but more profitable and all of us a lot happier. We should have gotten rid of him long before.

    As a customer, I’m not good at complaining without losing my temper, which is unhelpful. But I have become intolerant of bad service to the point that I will always accept an inferior product in either its price or quality if I like the way I’m served. And that includes medicine! Give me the two bit has-been GP any day over a pompous, supercilious, “world famous” specialist!

    The irony is that I’ve been seeing one of the latter for over fifteen years and he’s terrific! He should be teaching marketing instead of his medical specialty.

  17. Judy S Said:

    I have a couple of stories you will like. I was taught (by my assertive mother) that if something doesn’t work or is defective, you complain. No screaming or swearing, just polite complaining about the
    problem and a request for a replacement or repair.

    I have it mastered now and have actually been asked by friends to help them deal with this type of problem, one even offered to pay me. (My mother told me I learned the technique better than she ever did and my daughter is equally good.)

    Recently, I ate one of Eddy’s new frozen fruit bars (which I think are wonderful, low in calories and made from real fruit) and discovered an extra half stick in the bar when I bit off a piece. I sent a
    letter to the manufacturer telling them that they should be aware of the problem in their quality control area and pointing out what it would have done to me if I had swallowed it. Three weeks later I got
    back a very nice personal letter, thanking me for sending them the letter (and the half stick) and including three coupons for free boxes of the bars. I probably would have continued to buy the bars anyway
    without a response, but now I am really impressed with the company.

    Years ago when we bought our second home (and the sale of the first one fell through), in the days before cell phones, I asked the phone company to turn the phone on in the new house and leave the phone connected in the old one while we were in the process of moving. Instead, they connected only the new house phone and disconnected the old. I was desperate, since we had realtors calling us constantly to set up appointments (and I had young kids at home, so it was not easy to keep the place neat), so I called and was told no one could click the right switch on a holiday weekend. They clicked the switch on Tuesday, but I wrote the CEO telling him of my bad experience, and got a visit (at work) from two people from the phone company and three months of free service.

    Complaining politely always works!

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:


    A client I once had while working for another agency was a horror. He paid us almost nothing and was rude and abusive to me. I would fly to San Francisco and drive to Sacramento in a rental car to attend a meeting [to save him money, I didn’t fly directly to Sacramento], and he would lie to me about the time of the dinner meeting so that I would be late and look foolish. He directed a small association.

    During my presentation the next day, he rolled a newspaper and begin to swat flies, slamming the table and wall as I spoke. Had it been my client, I would have walked out. I didn’t feel it was my place to do that as I didn’t own the agency. The agency owner didn’t care–he was interested in the extra few dollars as the creep was no skin off his back. Controlling who you deal with is one of the benefits of being the boss.

    I had a great, supportive boss at another agency and the staff would happily work night and day for him. He consistently supported us and favored us over clients in a very polite way.


    You may have identified a GREAT business. I would be a client! I look forward to trying an Eddy’s fruit bar…and will take care to look for extra sticks!

  19. Catherine C Said:

    The irony is that there’s another restaurant that we used to go to often. It’s a family owned Asian restaurant. The food was quite good and it got great publicity. The viral was good, too. The owner’s husband died and I sent her a card. We hadn’t gone in quite a while but every time we would show up, they would come over and chat. We’re always treated well. Food quality has declined and so has business. But we’ll keep going because from time to time because they are good people who seem to care about us, too.

  20. Jeanne Byington Said:


    We stopped going to a family owned restaurant in our neighborhood because the brothers, both wonderful, opened a third place, leaving the one near us to a waiter-turned-manager. The waiter-turned-manager approached us one night, asking us to attend a political meeting pushing some strange causes. We both got the shivers and never returned.

  21. Aine Ireland Said:

    So many examples of this everyday. Rude staff who don’t want to be there, treating customers like scum. I have found that the situation has improved over the past year as the recession starts to hurt more. Some staff, while still don’t like their jobs, see the importance of keeping it. A year ago I would be ignored in most shops in Dublin Ireland, now, I get the hello, and the how are you? Its nice to see a bit of politeness but it can get too polite and fake. I hate being told to ‘have a nice day’. The words mean nothing when they are repeated hundred of times in a given day. The middle ground is to be polite but not fake. As mentioned above, it is a lot cheaper to retain customers then obtain new customers.

Leave a Reply