The Squeaky Wheel
by Clark L and Kathryn H. Kidd

We are becoming increasingly convinced that 2002 will become known as “the year when customer service died.”  Airlines are eliminating meal service, cutting seat size, overbooking flights, and one airline is even having the audacity to charge double fares for those who cannot fit into their tiny seats.  Clerks in many stores act as though they are doing you a huge favor just to wait on you.  Even companies that we used to trust have treated us so poorly that we probably won’t be customers again.  You would think that with the economy in the dumps, companies would be doing all they can to retain their customers and build customer loyalty.  But as you read in the daily paper about the sins of Enron, WorldCom, Xerox, and others, perhaps customer loyalty is as “out” as polyester tuxedos.

Our latest disappointment was with Federal Express (FedEx) – the overnight package delivery company.  FedEx has spent millions of dollars to convince the world that they are the one company that can always guarantee an overnight delivery.  If you saw the movie Castaway, you remember Tom Hanks as the fanatical FedEx manager who would run performance drills, drive employees to their physical limits, and move heaven and earth to make sure your package arrived at your door on time.  The message was that even though FedEx charges more, the added cost was worth it for the peace of mind that your precious package was in the hands of fanatic professionals.  We guess real life cannot be like the movies.

We recently had a problem with a computer printer, so the manufacturer sent us a replacement via overnight FedEx delivery.  The printer had not arrived the next day, so we went to the FedEx website to check on the delivery status via the tracking number.  The result was that the package had been picked up on time, but was last seen at the FedEx hub in Memphis.  This did not look good.  We called the FedEx customer service people, and were informed that our package had experienced an “operational delay,” and would be delivered the next day.  There was no explanation as to what this meant, nor was there any apology or sympathy on the part of the representative.  When the package did arrive the next day, the FedEx driver denied that a delay had occurred, instead blaming the shipper for not shipping the package on time.  This was not true, as our web tracking showed.  Once again, there was no apology, and no sympathy or concern for the needs of the customer.  Getting the printer a day late was not really a problem, but we were somewhat offended that no one at FedEx really seemed to care that a formerly loyal customer would not be as loyal in the future.

What can you do if you have a similar experience?  Should you move on to a different company, or should you try to convey your unhappiness to the company so that they can try and remedy the situation?  If you’re in the latter camp (as we are), the next step is to sit down and write a letter of complaint.  One of the things that have made this task easier is Planet Feedback (www.planetfeedback.com).  This website will assist you in writing letters to companies and organizations, and will then deliver them for you.

First you are asked about the type of letter you wish to write.  In addition to complaints, you can write a letter to ask a question, make a suggestion, or compliment the receiver.  In our case we picked the complaint option.  Then you type in the name of the company or organization.  Here is the real beauty of this service.  It keeps a file of mailing addresses and contacts for all major companies.  Once we selected Federal Express, it knew the name of the recipient and the mailing address for the letter.

Then you are given a number of screens where you have to select the general area of your complaint (prices, customer service, delivery), your level of annoyance, and how likely you are to give repeat business to the company.  Don’t worry too much about this part.  It uses this information to compose portions of the letter, and you will have an opportunity later to edit the entire letter before it is sent.

Like many such websites, you will be prompted to enter your email address and a password in order to use the service.  Registration is free, and it doesn’t take that long to register.  An advantage of registration is that Planet Feedback will keep track of your address so that you don’t have to supply it each time you write a letter.

Now we come to the meat of the letter.  You are given two boxes, one where you describe the general nature of your complaint, and one where you suggest ways in which the company could correct things to make you happy again.

Once you are to this point, you will be shown the draft of your letter.  This will contain the name of the person to whom you are writing (in our case it was Frederick W. Smith, the CEO of Federal Express), and the contents of the complaint/remedy boxes that you typed.  It will also contain text based on some of the other boxes you checked.  For example, if you stated that you were “Very Dissatisfied” because of the experience, your letter might contain the sentence “I am very dissatisfied with your company, and will probably not deal with you in the future.”  At this point you can make any changes you wish to the text of the letter.  The portions generated automatically by Plant Feedback are often helpful, but sometimes they are just distracting and should be removed.

You can also check a box to indicate whether your address should be included in the letter, and whether your letter may be shared with others.  We will talk more about this last option later.

The final step in composing your letter is the “Influence Wrapper.”  This is a feature that allows you to send copies of your letter to others.  You can specify the names and email addresses of friends or family members, and they will also be emailed a copy of your complaint letter.  Another nice thing about registering for the service is that these are remembered and shown when you compose future letters.  Planet Feedback will also use your Zip Code to determine the names of your congressional representatives, and it will give you the option to include them on the recipient list as well.  We don’t think our representatives would be particularly interested in a Federal Express problem, but we have included them on previous complaint letters that could have legislative implications.  Once you have checked the appropriate boxes, just press the “Send Now” button and your letter is on its way.

As we mentioned earlier, you are given the option to share your letter with others.  One of the nice features of Planet Feedback is the ability to read letters that others have sent.  Even if you never write a letter of complaint, this becomes a great consumer resource to see what others think about a particular company or organization.  If you are thinking of buying a particular product, you might wish to check here first to see what others think about the product and the company that manufactures it.  When we checked the Federal Express area, we found a number of interesting letters, including one from a woman who was still trying to get FedEx to admit that one of their trucks had run over her dog two years ago.  Be warned that readers can also respond to your shared letter.  Several people told the dog lady it was her own fault for letting the dog run free, and that she should get on with her life.  You may not want to share your letter unless you are prepared for the opinions of others.

We have always thought that companies should be notified when their performance does not meet expectations.  Thus, we have been writers of complaint letters for years with varying results.  Even in these days of waning customer service, there are companies that will take honest complaints seriously, and will try to remedy their poor performance.  But there are others that will simply ignore your complaint and move on to the next customer.  Although writing such letters is never fun, Planet Feedback does a lot of the work for you.  And even if the company never responds, you will feel so much better by venting your anger through the keyboard.

*****

Many sites such as Planet Feedback require you to have some kind of user name and password before you can use their service.  Although registration is often free, there are usually different rules about what characters the user name and password may contain.  Thus, you may end up with slightly different access information for dozens of sites where you have online accounts.  If this is a problem for you, then you might want to check out PassKeeper (www.passkeeper.com), a nifty little utility program that we have used for a couple of years.  The product is free to individuals, although the author does encourage a $10 “donation.”  When you install it, you select a master password that must be entered when you start the program.  But once you are validated, you can add/delete/modify/reference entries for all the websites where you have online accounts.  It is a slick little tool, and one that will become more valuable as more of our lives move online.




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