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Angels’ ticketing fiasco is latest case of bad customer service

It’s sad indeed when a respectable business organization gets so puffed up by its own reputation that it decides there’s no downside to treating its customers like chumps.

Here’s the latest example of such corporate arrogance in action: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Advance ticket sales for Angels soared after the team announced its 10-year, $250-million contract with slugging superstar Albert Pujols in December. That’s the good news. The bad news is that over the last week, they’ve squandered considerable fan goodwill through an execrable display of contempt for their paying customers. Think of it as a blown save of a game the team should have had in the bag.

The fiasco involves advance ticket packages. These come in the form of vouchers that have to be redeemed in person for seats in designated sections. Knowing that fan excitement would run high and that 7,000 packages had been sold, the team advised buyers by letter and email to high-tail it to Angel Stadium as soon as possible once the redemption period began last Tuesday at 9 a.m. to be sure of getting the choicest seats at the best games.

Yet the team was totally unprepared to handle the crowd that materialized. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 customers showed up Tuesday, many arriving before dawn.

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They discovered that only half the 14 ticket windows (and sometimes fewer) were staffed. The line moved at centimeters per hour, so no more than a few hundred customers made it to the ticket counters before the box office closed for the day at 5:30 p.m. Those left empty-handed were told they could come back the next day, as though it’s no big deal for anyone to take a second weekday off from work and to trundle over to Anaheim. Even Donald Trump would understand that’s a heavy burden for a working person to bear.

I have a personal perspective on this. On Tuesday my wife spent three hours at the park trying to redeem a set of vouchers we received for Christmas. At noon she was told there was no chance she’d get tickets that day and was given a yellow wristband to save her place in line for Wednesday. She returned first thing the next morning and finally got served that afternoon, after waiting in line an additional six hours. And her experience was by no means unusual.

The worst thing is that Angels executives still don’t get that they committed a huge blunder. When I spoke with the front office last week, they were not exactly apologetic. They weren’t merely defensive. They were truculently defensive. At one point in our conversation, Angels President John Carpino intimated that I was taking this matter personally because my wife had been inconvenienced, as though no one who hasn’t lived through the experience can imagine the frustration of being forced to waste nine hours acquiring 10 baseball tickets.

Carpino also took something of a “whadja expect?” position. He observed that the vouchers provide for discounts of as much as 40% over face value per seat, as though for that kind of a deal anyone should be happy to give up two days of gainful employment. Angels Communications Vice President Tim Mead pointed out that the line moved slowly because people reaching the box office took their sweet time picking out seats and games. “This wasn’t a quick transaction,” he said. “Basically, it’s shopping.”

Tell me about it, Tim. The fact is that the only way voucher holders were permitted to pick seats and games was in person, at the ballpark, starting Tuesday — no online or phone redemptions allowed. So if you got to the window and your first choice wasn’t available, your only option was to go, um, “shopping.”

After drumming it into customers’ heads for weeks that they shouldn’t procrastinate, how could the team be caught short when the customers took their advice? Robert Alvarado, the head of ticket sales, explained to my colleague Diane Pucin that they couldn’t open all the ticket windows because ticket sellers are part-timers and can’t be summoned with a snap of the fingers. But an officer of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the ticket sellers, told me it would have been easy to call in extra hands Tuesday to help out the next day, once management realized that the crisis would spill over.

The real explanation is attitudinal. Last year I reported how the Angels, one of the richest franchises in pro sports, was trying to wring concessions out of its unionized ticket sellers and ushers, who were already the worst paid among all California ballpark employees in their job classifications. “We don’t seem to be appreciated anymore,” a veteran ticket seller told me. A contract was finally reached with the help of a federal mediator, but last week’s events suggest that the work these employees do is still underappreciated in Anaheim.

This has become the American way, hasn’t it? Many businesses regard customer service as an expense item rather than an investment and the workers on the front lines as their most expendable employees. The patrons in the cheap seats always can make do with fewer ticket sellers, fewer ushers. Have you tried lately to track down a sales clerk at your local Sears store, not to mention a knowledgeable one? How long does it take you today to reach a human being on the customer service phone line of your bank or cable company, equipped as they are with the latest technology in disembodied recorded voices? The trend goes beyond retail: The Los Angeles schools are currently planning to mail out 11,000 preliminary pink slips to teachers and other staff, perhaps on the theory that children learn best when every classroom is a mob scene.

Indifferent service doesn’t save money in the global sense — the business saves only by pushing even greater costs onto you, the customer. Angels owner Arte Moreno can cut his $6-million Angel Stadium payroll a smidgen by staffing only half his ticket windows to service a throng of patrons, but what’s the value to the customer of a full day of wages, maybe two, spent standing in line?

The managerial class can afford to be indifferent to such burden-shifting. Such executives don’t have to stand in line because they can deal with these problems with one phone call to their friend, the team owner. The corporate executives who applaud the budget-cutting that produces 11,000 pink slips for schoolteachers or fewer in-state slots for University of California students can watch the carnage with detachment, because they have the option of sending the kids to private school.

Yet poor customer service is not a great long-term business model. If Moreno really doesn’t understand that the fan base of even an iconic ballclub can vanish in the blink of an eye, he should take a drive up the freeway to Dodger Stadium, which was only half-full last season in part because owner Frank McCourt pursued a screw-the-customer strategy not unlike the one Moreno unveiled last week.

Moreno and his brain trust are coasting on the built-in draw of Pujols and other on-the-field upgrades, which have Angels fans more excited than they’ve been in a decade. But what happens if the rest of the team doesn’t play up to Pujols’ level, or if the superstar has a bad season or (God forbid) blows out his knee? Then the Angels will have to fall back on their cherished reputation for great fan relations. Unfortunately, as of last week, the value of that reputation for me and untold other customers is zero.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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