Years ago somebody got the bright idea of testing customer service in retail stores—the mystery shopper was born. These undercover sleuths pretended to need goods or services and reported back on how they were treated. I’ve been a volunteer mystery shopper during this lockdown in both the public and the private sector. I fear you know the results:
The Private Sector Problem: Ordering a high quality pizza from two blocks south results in the delivery person taking the wrong route and delivering cold food. The office supplies store a block away had a pick up table on the sidewalk, but couldn’t bring out an item for me to buy. They said they had the item in stock, but I had to order online. Online, I found that there were many similar items, mostly out of stock. I had to keep trying to fill my cart but there was a conflict between items for pick up and items only for delivery. I spent an hour on the phone with the store and the 800 line, and even they couldn’t navigate their own web page. I eventually chose delivery of everything. The store spent more on staff time, postage, and packaging than the profit on my order. There’s a high-quality burger I can order online and pick up when prepared. Sometimes the order is not there, but there’s no phone number to call to verify. One company that specializes in food pick-up and delivery didn’t actually pick up or deliver. The person showed up in the restaurant and said he couldn’t handle multiple orders but would send another person. He didn’t. But since we’d prepaid the delivery company, the restaurant wouldn’t reimburse, and getting money back from the delivery service was a real challenge.
The Private Sector Solution: About 100 years ago, the premier department store was the T. Eaton Company. Eaton’s combined the new technology of the telephone and the internal combustion engine. Consumers could dial a few digits on the phone and be answered by a person at Eaton’s. The customer service person actually provided customer service, and the desired item was put on a truck and arrived in due course. Customers paid cash on delivery (C.O.D.), and later many had charge accounts. Some old timers remember stories of children calling Eaton’s to order a box of crayons for 25 cents or so. A sale was a sale. If the item was ordered incorrectly or didn’t function, Eaton’s took it back. “Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded” was their slogan.
As for food deliveries, about 50 years ago, space age insulation was invented. You could put a live bird in a box made from the insulation, put the box in boiling water for a while, and then put it in a freezer for a while, and then take out the live bird. The temperature didn’t measurably change.
More than 40 years ago vending machines began appearing on Tokyo streets. They featured high quality coffee (white, sugar, both, double-double, etc.).
We now have better technology than all this, but aren’t even using old technology. The private sector has to get with it.
The Public Sector Challenge: I’ve called both political staff and civil service staff in provincial ministries with a question. I’ve indicated I’m a constituent or I’m a journalist. Neither gets a response from either level of staffers who are paid to serve taxpayers. I’ve called the “media relations” officials in a city. I’ve asked for a return phone call. I get referrals to webpages and a refusal to call me. That’s why the term media relations is in quotation marks—meaning, not really. I’ve sent formal letters, handwritten notes, a business card attached to a clipping, emails, executive letterhead, and called ministers, members, and staff. There has rarely been a response. The response that does come is an automated email telling me all about COVID-19 (which I didn’t ask about). I’ve called the government help line 1-800-O-Canada. I must have a “program” name before they can help. I don’t name government programs, so I can’t help them and they can’t help me. One simple question I asked was about the allowable per diem for people traveling for the government. The person answering the phone knew nothing about this most basic public sector policy and spent 15 minutes putting me on hold to inquire around with no result.
The Public Sector Solution: About 38 years ago, I took a job as Executive Assistant with a very successful entrepreneur-turned-politician. Mayor Mel Lastman of North York won re-election regularly by so many votes that the main task during his election campaigns was to make it look as if there were a real contest going on. His time at the head of the megacity of amalgamated Toronto was another story and I wasn’t there. But in North York, he put his foot down on several relevant issues: He banned voice mail. If a taxpayer was calling, we had to answer. His phone was answered “Mayor Mel Lastman’s office, may I help you?”He met with everyone who wanted a meeting, and so did I.Following his lead, I only once kept a resident waiting for 10 minutes when he showed up unannounced. Letters were answered promptly, if only to pass on to city staff for action. Ditto phone calls, including by me. Every six months or so, I was instructed to write to every living, breathing, person I could find with an address and a worthy organization—ratepayer groups, interest groups, religious institutions, and so on. These letters offered meetings any time, any place. The Mayor took great pains to sign each letter slowly and legibly so that voters would remember his name at the polls. So, the solution is to work an old correspondence unit as if the boss’s political life depended on it, because it does. Correspondence today also means email, voice mail, and social media, but not to the exclusion of good, old-fashioned letters sent by Canada Post.
Oh…what does the correspondence unit do when not handling correspondence?