No, sir, the telephone has not helped customer service.

Rest in peace, customer service

The telephone took customer service into the back alley and beat it to pulp. Then the Internet slit its throat.

A couple of weeks back, our small deep freeze, all of 18 months old, died, so my girlfriend spent 45 minutes on a day off trying to get through to the retailer (who’s not from Campbell River). Finally, she was told a third party (often a red flag, as it allows each party to blame the other) would come by on the Saturday to try fixing it. We were, of course, given an all-day window to wait and, of course, the repair person never showed. Ho hum.

As I work late shift on Tuesdays, I offered to use that morning to try again. On the plus side, I got through to customer service within five minutes. After checking the incident number and having to double-check the serial number, however, I was told that, no, there was not supposed to be a repair person coming at all, but rather we were to return the item. Okay, so….

I was told the phone number on the account would be contacted with instructions (a return authorization number perhaps?) on what to do. A day went by, then another, then the end of last week arrived. No calls. (Sigh.)

My girlfriend, who spent years as a manager in customer care, took another crack in person at the retail outlet. Confession: we had bought this freezer online, which is something we rarely do, unless we can’t get an item at a bricks-and-mortar store. We also rarely buy extended warranties but did so here. In theory, they’re supposed to make the return process easier. In theory.

The clerk at the store started investigating, but it was clear it could be a while, and soon the manager got involved. My girlfriend went out to do other errands, came back and they were still not done. It took an hour or so, and finally she was told there were complications with Canada Post because we’d bought it online. Oh, and also the model had been discontinued – yes, we learned this detail on attempt #3 – so we’ll get credit for a similar model and have to shell out another $50 for the cost difference. At least, we got somewhere with the live humans. As I write this, we’re supposed to find out what’s happening by the end of this week, and someone from the store will bring the replacement a week from Saturday.

On the surface, I’m belly-aching about a minor inconvenience, but this goes deeper. Customer service on the phone is often lacking; online it’s nearly non-existent. Try contacting a digital-only enterprise like Google, and see if you get anything other than an online form or FAQ pages. I’m not sure actual humans vet these things.

Technology is supposed to improve efficiency, but sometimes it erects barriers between us. Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media posited technology as human beings’ extensions of themselves – for example, the computer on which I write this is an extension of my mind, or at least my mouth – so, if the medium is the message, what is all this technology that permits long-distance “customer service” really telling us about who we are and where we are headed? My hunch is the back alley.