The decustomerisation of America
By Sanjay Trehan

After my recent visit to America, I am more than ever optimistic about India. The appalling deterioration in customer service is set to be the nemesis of American Capitalism. Call it Hegelian dialectics at work, many a corporate bastion that was built on the exacting standards of customer service is being levelled.

The rot has set in. At the three-star Best Western hotel at Springfield, Virginia, where we were staying for a week, the lady at the reception refused to call us a cab. “Go back to your room and dial”, she said. The bell desk at the four-star Holiday Inn in New York wasn't any better. “Do you need help?” asked the hotel staff as my companion and I struggled with American-sized suitcases. A tip, the tone implied, would be in order if we seriously wanted assistance. When a gigantic snow blizzard grounded our flight out of JFK, the hotel insisted an extra day's accommodation was impossible. But the dollar, we found out, is a very powerful currency. It can create rooms where none exist. A 20 per cent premium secured us the very same rooms.

And I am not just talking about a mercenary hotel in midtown Manhattan. There's a denial of service attack happening at other American establishments too. The bespectacled lady at the till at the Metropolitan Museum sees me waiting in the queue for 10 minutes and sharply closes it at 5 pm even though I am standing with a 20 dollar bill and the book in my hand and am the only customer she has to serve. “Come tomorrow”, she says brusquely. At “the world’s largest store”, Macy’s at the 7th Avenue, there is nobody to help in the apparel section. The big black young girl at the till yawns regularly and serves customer with absolute detachment. And even at the venerable (venerable? remember I am a dotcomer) Barnes & Noble at the 5th Avenue, customer care was the missing ingredient. A heard a lady shout: “Does anybody work here?” Another just dumped the book as there was only one cashier to serve a growing queue of customers.

Throughout retail America, I experienced an astounding lack of customer care. American stores seem to have been taken over by an army of unskilled or semi skilled temporary workers who work by the hour and have no engagement or involvement with the company they work for.
They are casual at workstations, sip Coke and chew gum at the till, untidy in their appearance and unpolished in their demeanour. In fact, they give the impression that every customer is a drag on their limited resources. It's a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that's hard to miss. Their dreary smile-less countenances reminded me of the condition of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century Britain.

Clearly, America has changed. And for obvious reasons. The emergence of what Marx called the “Industrial Reserve Army” due to the recession since late 1990s and pressure on profitability has created a moor-less class of uninspired, faceless workers. And now it’s payback time for this large pool of unemployed or unemployable people. When they do get hired as temporary help, their dissatisfaction with the system shows. Customer care or the company be damned. Even a large store like Kmart’s attitude seems to suggest this: “You come to us for cheap goods, don’t expect to be served.”

In an erstwhile bipolar world, the sharp edges of capitalism were blunted. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, both as an economic superpower and as an alternative to capitalism, the capitalism has raised its ugly head without bothering to hide its scars and warts. This is no mascara time. The search for dwindling profitability has lead to large-scale job losses and full- time long-serving loyal employees have been replaced by low-cost undemanding part-time workers. The casualty: customer service, of course. In the long term, it may cost America its place under the Sun.

The temp works by the hour, has no idea of up-selling and sees every customer as a pain. Add to this the general lack of education and the remarkable dumbisation of the American society, and what you have is perhaps the most unenviable retail sales force in the world. The sales staff of a small shop in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk can beat the hell out of its counterparts at Macy’s.

Dorothy Anne Seese, a freelance writer from Arizona, suggests that perhaps what happened to the Old Filling Station best epitomises the decline in the service sector in America. She says: “Not all that many years ago, the gasoline or filling station was called a service station. For the nominal price of 22 cts per gallon, you could drive up to a gas pump, a pleasant attendant would fill your tank or put in whatever amount you requested…Then it all vanished and we now pump our own gas at outrageous prices and we pay for air and water, something that at one time was unthinkable.”

Know what, Dorothy is absolutely right. And I am sure whoever has tried to call a customer service number in the US will be nodding acquiescence. Consider yourself lucky if you get to hear a human voice at the end of 20 minutes of mechanical mumbo jumbo. But your travails aren't over. In all probability you will be asked to hear more mumbo jumbo in order to get the information you are seeking. We got a taste of America's serpentine route to service while trying to convince Virgin Atlantic to send us our flight confirmation over fax. Next day did we learn the baffling truth - the airline sends a fax only to those who hold an e-ticket. We, of the paper variety kind, didn't qualify.

While it would be convenient to blame immigration for falling standards in America, sadly, the facts don't bear this out. Over half the entire migrant population is concentrated in just seven US cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Houston and San Francisco. Recent studies, however, point to a debilitating truth - with a few exceptions, American cities in greatest despair today - Detroit, St. Louis, Buffalo, Rochester, Gary - have virtually no immigrants to speak of. So, you obviously can’t blame it on the riffraff of the world.

All this gives me hope for India. There's something about our can-do-will-do attitude, our expanding service economy and our personalised customer care that inspires confidence.
(Surprisingly, on my return I noticed that this time even the dowdy immigration officers at IGIA were more efficient and smiling.)

Along with paranoia and dumbisation, decustomerisation is set to hit at the very root of America. Initially I took the BRIC report of Goldman Sachs with a pinch of salt but now I am convinced: Perhaps the tide is turning and it's time for India to rise. With its budget deficit in the region of $500 billion per year and the mounting foreign debt, America as an economic superpower is on the decline. May God bless America. It certainly could do with some divine intervention

(08th February, 2004)