Circuit City and the Failure of Customer Service

I’m a big fan of NPR’s “This American Life”, and I often listen to their weekly podcast on my walk to and from work.  Recently, they rebroadcast a show that originally aired in March 2009, called “Scenes From A Recession”.  Each of the three segments was about how the current economic downturn is affecting everyday people.

The last segment on the show examined the demise of electronics retail chain Circuit City in March 2009.  It included readings of emails that had been solicited from CC employees who continued to work during the liquidation process.   I found one of those readings particularly striking — it described an interaction between an employee working at the door and a customer who believed that he may have left his wallet in his shopping cart.  The customer asked the employee whether anyone had found it.  The CC guy used his radio to ask if anyone had.  They had not.  CC guy related this to a disappointed customer, who walked away in disgust, but then circled back to say:

“No wonder you guys are going out of business!”

To which CC guy replies:

“Yes sir, 34,000 people are losing their jobs because you lost your wallet. Thanks for clarifying!”

It’s a tiny sliver of cathartic sarcasm (catharcasm?)  in an otherwise desperately sad situation.

And it completely misses the point.

Because the customer isn’t talking about the loss of his wallet.  He’s talking about the way CC guy made him feel. And felt like CC guy didn’t care about finding the missing wallet.  I wonder what would have happened if CC guy had said “Wow, that really sucks… I’ll see if I can find someone to help you find it.”  I wonder what would have happened if he had personally walked the customer to the customer service desk.  I wonder what would have happened if that kind of behavior had been encouraged, perhaps even expected of every Circuit City employee.

Guess it wouldn’t have made for very good radio.

(You can hear the original reading by visiting the page for that episode, clicking “Stream Episode” and then skipping to 48:24.)

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