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Why do we put up with lousy service? 

Consumer hell

The other day, I made a couple of 20-somethings stare at me as if I had bugs crawling out of my nose. All I did to generate their wide-eyed disbelief was tell them about how people used to buy gasoline for their cars: you'd pull in next to the pumps and a service station attendant would come out to your car. He'd fill your tank and wash your windshield, and, if you wanted, check your oil and water. That level of customer service was considered normal -- what paying customers deserved -- and all gas stations offered it. To compete with other stations, some places would offer "gifts" for repeat customers -- usually a set of drinking glasses, a kitchen knife set or the like. These days, well, you know what it's like.

I hesitated before writing a column about how lousy the overall level of service is today. It's a subject that's been written about before, and stories about how things were better "back in my day" can make the writer seem like one of those lovable but ultimately unfathomable geezers, and the last thing I need is to turn into my grandfather.

But I reached my "straw that broke the camel's back" moment the other day, and I want to tell you about it. My daughter and I wanted to see a movie at Park Terrace, which until recently was part of Consolidated Theatres but was bought out by the Regal chain. I presented two $10 Consolidated Theatre gift cards I had received as a birthday present in April, expecting to use the change to buy some popcorn. I was promptly told that Regal would only honor the cards as "passes," so no change would be forthcoming. Great. One more instance, albeit it a small one, of a corporation ripping off a customer. Now, my movie story may not seem like a big deal, and in the big picture, it wasn't. But it was the culmination of a month of similar slights and inconveniences at the hands of companies that advertise themselves as being customer-friendly, and I started wondering why we consumers put up with this crap. Let me explain.

Not long ago, one of my next-door neighbors called an electrical company, and soon, two men showed up in a large, tall truck. After the electrical work was finished, the truck left, slicing off three thick branches from a gorgeous crape myrtle tree at the edge of my front yard. When the guys in the truck returned to my neighbor's house the next day, I approached the driver and mentioned that he had wrecked the crape myrtle, expecting no more than an apology. Whoa, was I in for a rude surprise.

"We're not responsible if you let your tree grow over the road space, that's not our fault," the driver replied in a gruff, sneering tone. (The tree did, in fact, extend over part of the street, about three feet.)

"OK," I replied, "but you could have easily gone around it, especially since every other truck that comes down the street -- UPS, FedEx, or whatever -- doesn't seem to have a problem doing that."

My new friend, now getting red-faced, answered, "Well, call a lawyer if you want to, you won't get anywhere. If that tree's branches were broken, it's basically your fault." So I told the guy he was an asshole and went back inside and called Angie's List, which I knew was where my neighbor had found out about the electrical company.

I explained to two different people at Angie's List that one of the companies they recommend is being run by inconsiderate assholes (I put it more politely than that), and was told that since I'm not an Angie's List member, they basically didn't care.

"But I thought you guys were supposed to keep track of how your recommended companies interact with customers," I said.

"We do, but if you're not a member, we can't help you."

"I don't want your 'help,' I just thought you'd like to register the complaint."

"No, not if you're not a member."

OK, fine.

Three weeks ago, due to a gauge malfunction, my car overheated and broke down on I-85 near Spartanburg, S.C., at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. "Good thing I'm an AAA member," I thought, and I called them on my cellphone. Now, if you've dealt with AAA -- whose motto should be "We guarantee you'll have to wait at least an hour for service every time you call us" -- you may be able to guess the rest. First, they couldn't send a tow truck because I couldn't give them an exact mile marker where my smoking car was located. So I had to call -- not "they had to call" -- the highway patrol to help determine my location. They said they couldn't help and I had to call the Sheriff's Department, which, when I called them, gave me another highway patrol number where I could find out my location, which I did and then called AAA again (same five-minute wait for a live person), who told me "we'll send someone right out." An hour and a half later, a tow truck showed up to tow me to Charlotte (for which I paid for all but the "first three miles for free" offered by AAA for my annual membership dues).

Two days later, I walked into, around, and back out of Circuit City without having been spoken to by any living being. Later that day, I bought a shirt at a store in SouthPark Mall where the sales clerk rang up the sale while eating a sandwich and corn chips. When I got home, there were corn chip bits on the shirt. The very next day, I filled up my car with gas and bought a car wash. The code I'd been given wouldn't start the car wash, so I pulled around, went inside, and told the clerk about it. Her initial reaction: "So?" I kid you not. I got my money back and left.

I told a friend about my bad-service woes and he recounted his own litany of complaints, including a waiter who had served him a plate of burned chicken and who, when informed of the misstep, merely shrugged and acted all pissy as he took the plate back to the kitchen.

Now, we've all heard about, and had, these kinds of experiences: the lost luggage at the airport, the postal clerks who seem to operate in suspended animation, the grocery store with too few baggers, the deck builder who never called back with an estimate and now won't answer your voicemails, the clerk at a convenience store who keeps you waiting until he's finished with his personal phone call, the nightmare of getting lost in phone system hell when your computer is on the fritz. Hell, just last week, I walked into a convenience store where the clerk was making out with her boyfriend (at least I assume that's who he was) across the counter, and seemed irritated that I wanted to pay for the gas I'd just pumped.

What the hell is going on here, and why do we keep putting up with it when it's only getting worse? I didn't exactly research this, but I'm guessing that part of the deal is that our culture has come to think of businesses -- and business owners -- as sacrosanct, whereas "back in my day," customer satisfaction was considered all-important. I would love to hear your theories on why service has gotten so bad. Whatever the reasons, consumers in America are now treated as slightly better than escaped felons. And that, dear readers, is my tale of woe.

Oh, I almost forgot: Yesterday, the postal carrier left the usual daily supply of junk mail and bills, but didn't deign to take the stamped envelopes I had left on the mailbox.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm under a curse, but then I think again and realize it's our whole country.

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