Personal service disintegrates as offices become more distant

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

One trend that has been hurting small towns is the transfer of business ownership to large firms located far away. We used to have many owner-occupied retail and service shops lining the main street of most small towns. Today, many retail shops are gone, replaced by a dollar store and/or multi-purpose convenience store along the highway.

I’ve written before how that hurts local initiatives as usually managers aren’t as invested in the community as the owners were in the days when local ownership was the norm. If the community needed something, the owners often got together and made it happen, using their financial resources and volunteer efforts.

Now, decisions are often made miles away and the owners may not see the need to help a strictly local project when they oversee locations across the United States. Managers still may pitch in to volunteer, but not all of them see the need when their position is a company job rather than an owner investment.

With a recent move into a new building for one of our newspapers, I also see the loss of ownership also affects individuals, not just community vitality. The customer service provided decreases the farther away a company is located.

In my instance, when I switched my utilities, I merely had to call the local office and request a change. The people there already knew about the move since they had read the announcement in our local paper. The simple, short call was all I needed.

The waste removal service, located in a nearby town, was almost as easy, although the people weren’t as familiar with the town since they serve several locations in the region. Still, with a few explanations and directions to the new building, which doesn’t have a sign up yet, we had no interruptions.

The switch in natural gas, a regional company, wasn’t too bad, although the service representative kept reminding me that I had to winterize the connections no matter how many times I told her someone else is taking over service. I also had to redo my automatic payment form even though I was just moving across the street and my company wasn’t changing.

The big issue was moving my internet and phone services. I decided to go with a different company, which may or may not have made a difference. Although some of our other newspaper offices get internet service through a local cooperative where we have always received superior service, the choices at this location were between two large, national companies, both that I have heard complaints about from local residents.

Of these two, no matter which company I am contacting, the first problem is getting through to a live person. There are prompts and more prompts leading the caller through a maze of options.

On one call, I had to provide a long list of information I had to input on my phone and when I finally got to a human, she asked all the same questions, making me wonder why I wasted so much time with the mechanized system.

On another call, I was transferred more than a dozen times to different departments. It took about three hours when I should have been moving equipment to the new building. All I wanted to do was forward a number to a cell phone because the technician said he couldn’t move our phone system over, even though the same company moved it between buildings last time I moved 10 years ago. The technician said the only guy in his company who knew about those systems has retired.

After I finally got the number forwarded, I decided I didn’t want it forwarded to my cell phone anymore and called in to request a number change for forwarding. That didn’t go any better.

First, the people on the other end of the call — yes, again my call was transferred several times — couldn’t find that the number was being forwarded. I assured them it was, and when they finally figured out what happened, something they told me wasn’t supposed to happen, as if I cared how it happened, they put in a change request and assured me it would be done by the end of the day.

A couple hours later I got a call from a representative telling me the forwarding was discontinued. I asked him about the forwarding to the new number, since that was my purpose, not to end it completely. He said his ticket showed to discontinue it and that was all he could do.

By then, we had plugged in a consumer phone that worked in our new office since we haven’t been able to move the system we had used for many years. However, I tried once more to get a new forward over the weekend and, again, it didn’t go well with the final resolution directing me to the business department when it opened Monday morning.

I finally gave up.

I don’t have much choice on internet service in this location, but I decided I am leaping into a new technology for phone service. I’m going through a national company, but it is a small one headed by an entrepreneur with people who have friendly conversations with customers and are easy to reach without my call getting passed around again and again.

In fact, my first contact with the company included the name of a person and his personal number, encouraging me to call rather than communicate by email so he could answer all my questions.

I won’t give out the name of the company. It isn’t just because I need to monitor the service to see if it really is good before giving a recommendation. The real reason is if it is as good as it seems to be so far, I don’t want this company to become so popular that it grows into a mammoth bureaucracy that funnels people into a maze of departments even when people need individualized service.

I still believe personal service is possible even if a company isn’t located just down the street. The only requirement is it has to be a priority, something that suffers as a company grows large and distant.