EXCLUSIVE ONLINE COLUMN: Wake-up Call: Customer Dis-service

As a columnist with a consulting business, I sometimes worry that my words might be viewed as an attempt to move forward a personal agenda rather than to make a larger point.

With this column, however, I stand guilty as charged. What follows is a discussion of the importance of customer service in the context of my recent visit to a drug store, and it does, I hope, make some valid points. But, admittedly, it’s also an opportunity for me to vent.

This particular incident occurred during a recent visit to my local CVS store in Pawling, N.Y., to collect a few prescriptions. After a brief wait, it was my turn and the clerk, after much looking around, gathered my prescriptions. For one of the prescriptions, however, she had only half of the quantity I was used to receiving each month. I asked her politely to add a second box to the order. After looking up some information on her computer for a few minutes, she consulted the other pharmacist working that day, presumably her superior.

During the next 10 minutes, they both worked at the computer, writing down a bunch of numbers. They then informed me that while my prescription called for a 30-day supply, the prescriptions were only available in a 22-day supply size. Since two boxes provided a 44-day supply, they handed me one box and suggested I come back in 22 days for the next one.

I explained to them that, for the past three years, they have always given me two boxes each visit. But they weren’t hearing it. The senior pharmacist looked back at the records and told me that I was wrong, that I always got one box. When I objected, he said that the computer said I received one each time, and whom should he believe -- the computer or me? In essence, he called me a liar.

It then took him about another 10 minutes to rewrite my prescription and submit all the paperwork. It was now going on 20 minutes.

Then it got ugly. Once everything was ready, I handed my credit card to the senior pharmacist. He told me that I couldn’t pay him and that I needed to get back to the end of the line, which was now quite long. Not wanting to spend any more time there, I took the drugs and went to the front of the store, where there was no line, and handed the clerk the $25 I owed for the drugs. She took my money, and I left the store.

The store manager burst out of the store behind me, grabbed my drugs and ran back inside. I followed him in, but he refused to give me my package, saying that customers can’t pay for prescription drugs at the front of the store; they must be paid for at the pharmacy, no matter how long the line. On top of this, he called me a thief and said he was going to call the police. I told him to send them to my house (my address is on file) and I’d gladly explain the situation to them. I then asked the cashier for my $25 back and left the store, never to return.

So, I spent 30 minutes in CVS trying to run a simple errand and instead left with nothing -- and was called a liar and a thief on top of that. I was amazed at the demonstration of such poor customer service.

I know that the actions of two specific individuals do not define the corporate culture at CVS, but it was obvious they were acting in a way that they thought was consistent with corporate policy. And since they were front-line employees who regularly interface with customers as part of their job, it leads me to believe that CVS has created a culture that assumes that rules are more important than customers, that policies are more important than people and that computers are more trustworthy than humans.

I know that implementing the concept of “the customer is always right” isn’t really ever possible, and that plenty of customers are wrong all of the time. But I also know that as retailers become bigger and bigger, policies start to trump people, and, all of a sudden, the culture dictates that the customer is always wrong.

When this shift happens, and the company and its policies become so important that its customers are just a necessary evil, there are bad things ahead. Successful retailers operate under a variety of different models, but all of them -- regardless of how large they grow -- demonstrate a fundamental respect for, and trust in, their customers.

Because, in the end, it’s the customer who decides whether retailers succeed or fail -- not corporate policy, not computers and certainly not abusive employees.
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