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The Year’s Top Complaint: Shoddy Customer Service

Closing another year’s coverage of consumer affairs, we give their due to many incidents that weren’t big news by themselves, but brought us so many complaints--by phone and mail--that their number demands note.

Bad customer service was the chief complaint: No apology for it was the final outrage. The U.S. Postal Service caused the most complaints as always. It would be nice to believe that’s only because it has so many retail outlets, so many employees, so many more customer contacts than any other business afloat.

Financial services came in second, heavy on bank errors (particularly a bank’s unquestioning acceptance of forged and unsigned checks), bank charges and loan departments staffed entirely by computers and phone machines. Retail stores were third, with everyone from salespeople to owners getting knocks, less for incompetence than for being uncaring.

Oddly, there were many calls and letters on good service, apparently so rare as to be noteworthy now. People were aware of the irony, referring to the “uncommon courtesy” they received, and to customer service as it is more often “malpracticed” today.

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Sears got more comments than usual for poor service and disservice, with some spiteful, I-told-you-so glee at the massive retailer’s mounting troubles. There were the usual desperate pleas too for help in prying service out of car dealers, who persist in their attitude that for all the pre-sale palaver, a car, once sold, is the consumer’s problem, and neither those who made it nor those who sold it have any obligation to make it run.

Credit bureaus still outrage many people by making it plain that subscribing businesses are their customers, and they feel little obligation to the consumers who are their subject matter. Complaints about uncorrected errors in bureau files hardly slackened as companies such as Equifax and TRW, under the guns of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, started talking consumer services and toll-free lines. Now people complain as well that the lines aren’t answered, or are answered rudely.

Sweepstakes excited more hopes than usual, given the recession, which meant more consumers irritated that “You have already won” doesn’t mean winnings--not the $10,000, and maybe not even the digital watch. But hope is undying: Was this, wrote one man, “an honest sweepstakes or is it a fruitless hope of mine that somehow I will win a big prize?” Answer: not real ripe, fruit-wise, when the chance of winning, if any, is about one over a denominator the size of the national debt.

Telemarketing fervor increased, a mating of economic desperation and technology. Many consumers got those infuriating late-night and early morning computer voices. Some got 1980s-style cold calls from brokerage houses, in which some hotshot salesman offers total strangers investments that would have already made him a fortune if they were as good as he said.

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Now, in finale, some mixed blessings:

Retail sale prices that keep desperately taking “another 40% off” aren’t entirely crowd-pleasers. Any number of people voice anger and suspicion at the amount of slack that was apparently there for the cutting. “If they can cut prices 20, 40, even 50% and still make a profit,” one woman said, “weren’t they really gouging us before?”

Food warnings of all kinds are annoying people too. It’s probably good to be warned that fruit may be waxed and should be peeled. It’s helpful to have a government agency keep Coffee-Mate from claiming to be low-fat when the half cupful on one’s cereal has 8.5 fat grams, twice what’s in whole milk. It’s nice that regulators are defining “low,” “natural” and “light” so we can trust labels again.

But food vigilantes are getting boring, their knee-jerk concerns downright ungrateful. We’re lucky to have the food; we can read past the tag-lines, or buy simpler fodder.

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Now we have a fragrance flap, with people complaining that they’re assaulted by perfumes in stores, in the pages of magazines, in bill inserts, on fellow citizens. Marin County was even considering anti-perfume laws, and given the nature of Marin County, may yet pass them.

Personally, I like all the perfume. I think many magazines and bills would be improved if they were all scent samples with a few factual inserts. But I’m not entering this argument.

I just want to point out the luxury of the debate. Isn’t it our great good fortune to live in a country where the economy supports such fripperies, and where so many of us can afford to focus on them? This isn’t just perfume: It’s God’s blessing.

Happy holidays.

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