I began the New Year by asking the question "What Makes a Satisfied Customer?" I concluded that, because expectations regarding customer service have become so diminished, the very concept of customer satisfaction may have lost any meaning of significance, this being Max Weber's envisaged consequence of a dominance of market-based thinking. I think I may have recently experienced a data point to reinforce that position.
It began with my intention to get a cup of coffee at Peet's. I seem to have reached an age at which, whatever the time of day, coffee has become helpful in keeping me focused when I am reviewing a concert. Unfortunately, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, one of the best acoustic venues for concerts in San Francisco, is not in the best location for getting coffee. Since it is a short walk from where I live, the Peet's on the ground of my building is one of the more viable alternatives.
The last time I needed to cover a concert at St. Mark's, I made the short detour into that Peet's. After asking for small coffee to go, I asked what flavor scones were available. They were in the display case; but there were no identifying cards specifying ingredients or, for that matter, price. They guy behind the counter absolutely refused to answer my question. When I finally pointed explicitly about the three (different) scones in the counter, he said, "Tell me which one you want, and I'll tell you what it is." At that point I said, "Forget it; and forget the coffee, too." I got my coffee at the Mel's that is only a couple of blocks away from the church.
Reflecting back on this, I realized that the guy may not even have known what a scone was, let alone that they are made in different flavors. However, he was probably trained that, under no circumstances, should he ever answer a question with, "I don't know." In other words, not only was he not trained properly in techniques of providing useful information, but also he training prevented him from being either honest or useful.
This afternoon I decided it would be a good idea to let the manager of that particular Peet's know there was a problem. I found someone behind the counter willing to give me the time of day. I asked if the manager was around, since I wanted to report an incident that had happened over the weekend. She said, "I'll get her." Several minutes later, she came back and said, "She's on a conference call; can you come back at 8 AM tomorrow?" Rather than be as abrupt as I had been the last time, I asked if I could report the incident on the Peet's Web site and was given a useful reply.
On the other hand, I realized that such a Web page could easily be just like that joke about the suggestion box without a bottom positioned over a waste basket. If I had a problem, I had done exactly what market-based thinking said I would do: I took my money to another vendor. If enough people shared my dissatisfaction, they would do the same; and, sooner or later, the bean-counters at Peet's would take notice. If that critical mass was never reached, then I was a meaningless outlier, whose opinion really did not matter.
Max Weber was right; in a world dominated by market-based thinking, fundamental concepts, such as "customer satisfaction," can lose their meaning!