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Column: Is customer service a thing of the past?

The human touch has disappeared with the rise of convenient technology
A Richmond News columnist was frustrated with the app payment system for a parking lot.

As we embark on the Christmas shopping season, I’ve been thinking about customer service. Specifically, how technology has let customer service fall to lower levels than I’ve previously seen.

I’m not naming any names in this column, but I think you will recognize my experiences.

Last week, I ordered a package of pens online. The package arrived the next day, as promised. As I opened it, I said to my husband, I wonder what I ordered – this package feels empty. Sure enough, when I opened it, it was completely empty. No pens. I went to my computer and tried to call the company. Good luck finding a number.

Instead, I had to fill in a form explaining what the problem was with my package and arrange a return. You can’t write your own reason; you must choose from about five options. Empty package was not one of the options, of course.

Anyway, I arranged the return and ordered a new package of pens. I received several emails letting me know a courier would be picking up my empty package for return on Thursday.  The envelope was as light as air and kept blowing away on the windy fall day, so I weighted it down with a half-full bottle of windshield wiper fluid that was sitting on my front porch and went to work.

When I got home, the empty envelope – upon which I had written in big letters “return to sender” – was still sitting there, but my wiper fluid was not. The courier took my half-empty bottle of wiper fluid for return, but not the empty envelope. They even sent me a photo of the wiper fluid to show they had picked it up.

I went back to the computer and really pushed the envelope to find someone to talk to. I tried the courier company, but no contact info was available, at all. After a lot of digging, I found an option to have the company I was returning the empty envelope to phone me back. Eventually they did. But there’s no way for me to get my wiper fluid back because even they aren’t able to contact the courier company! They told me to order more wiper fluid from them and they would refund it.

After all that, they’re going to be out about $50. If instead, they simply offered a person to answer the phone, we could have worked it all out easily from the first day.

That same week, I went downtown for a fancy dinner and awards show for the first time since COVID-19 hit. It’s been nearly four years. I found a parking space deep in the bowels of a downtown high-rise. In previous years, I could pay for parking by scanning my credit card on the way in and again on the way out. It was easy and convenient. I noticed as I drove in that the lot now only offers the option to pay with an app, but fortunately, I had the app. Some older people don’t even carry cellphones. Are they now locked out of paying for parking?

Having the app didn’t mean paying for parking was easy. Nope. The app was out of date, so I had to update it. Done. Then, my licence plate was wrong, so I had to update it. Fine. Then my credit card was expired, so I had to update that. Ok, fine. Several minutes had passed at this point, and I had walked over near the elevator while I was doing all of that. The app uses GPS to determine your parking location and it conveniently gave me the location and a button to click to pay. So, I did.

After the dinner, I got back to my car to find a parking ticket. Of course, I did. Well, I thought, okay, that’s a bit of a hassle, but I will call them tomorrow to get it cancelled because I know I paid. I saw the text message informing me the credit card charge had gone through and I had a receipt on my phone. When I got home, I printed out the receipt. “Motorcycle only zone” it said. Apparently, I paid only for a motorcycle spot, since the GPS picked me up near the elevator, where I had walked to as I was madly trying to update everything. Oh boy. So I tried calling the company. No joy there. The only way I could find to fight the ticket was to email in a photocopy of my receipt with the ticket and wait 10 days for a response. I haven’t had a response yet, but the cost of the ticket went up after seven days to $98. I still don’t know the outcome of that one.

If you happen to be out Christmas shopping and you get good customer service, thank your lucky stars. Maybe thank the person giving the great service too. Their job is probably precarious and low paid, while they deal with grouchy people all day long. If you happen to be running a company, try focusing on how to improve your customer service. Job one would be to have a functioning phone number, where your customers can reach you.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her