For me, one of the most noticeable changes brought on by COVID-19 is the death of customer service. Businesses were struggling before COVID to attract and retain good employees, then you to topple on a sickness that brings with it 14-day quarantines, you have a business community that cannot sustain its pledge to taking care of its customers. The “customer is always right”, was replaced with, “we’re in a pandemic, get over it”. You go into a business expecting some sort of sense that you are purchasing a service or product, thus will be treated like you matter. As you mask up to enter the establishment to ship a package or buy a product, and you are often met with long lines and little help. However, what is more shocking, is the desensitized attitude of the person giving the service. At first, you think they just don’t care and it’s a one-time thing. Then, it happens time and again over the next 9 months, you are taken aback at the reality that they probably did care at one time, but after months of showing up to work, and several co-workers just aren’t there, they are also tired, angry, and frustrated at the pandemic. Thus, they are forced to pick up the slack, doing their job, pieces of several others job…. and then, they are supposed to try to make an angry public happy. As you stand there in disbelief, that your complaining is falling on deaf ears, you yearn for our old normal, this new normal is not fun!
This reality shift isn’t just in retail and those B2C (Business to Consumer) circumstances. I have been working with LTL carriers for two decades, and for the last 9 months, B2B (Business to Business) interactions have changed immensely. The concept of customer and supplier is all but gone. Meaning, that, “feeling” you get from being served is replaced with the burden of not only having to deal your own problems and that of your business, but you get to help work through the challenges of your vendors too. As their problems spill out and collide with your expectations and what you need to take care of your own customers. Partnership has taken on a new meaning, as we all struggle to work through the challenges that we all face.
1. As Americans, we have an expectation of customer service. Businesses have touted “#1 in Customer Service” as a differentiator and as the years went on, business kept raising the bar, so that we as Americans not only expected amazing customer service, we felt entitled to it. We used our money and our mouths to vote on who gave the best service.
2. In many circumstances, there is no recourse to disputes. In freight, whether the freight is lost, delayed, or has any problem at all, as a “customer”, you are at the mercy of the carrier. To be honest, you always have been (most of us more seasoned professionals have had their freight held hostage), but it is usually tempered with the company policy or culture that the customer is valued and needs to be helped as quickly and as effectively as possible. With the sheer volume of freight, complexities added by COVID-19, and the pricing being so low (their costs were calculated prior to pandemic), carriers just don’t have the ability to service customers in the way they are accustomed to. In addition, the government offered “free” money by giving cash to companies to who had to put their people on furlough. So, even with the mass amounts of freight, large LTL companies still furloughed staff! Thus, the person you spoke with today, most likely isn’t working tomorrow, so you get to tell your sad story to someone else. All of this is leaving many of us to sit in disbelief as carriers choose to ignore the phone (they just don’t answer it), ignore requests, misroute freight, delay the pick-ups and deliveries, and frequently lie or mislead you day after day with little resolution.
3. Carriers know you have nowhere to go. This is fourfold. First, is that carriers know that in these uncertain times customers are not likely to move all their business to a new carrier, with so much uncertainty, business are reluctant to add more. Second, even if they do, they will end up with similar problems because all the LTL carriers are experiencing increased delays and errors. Third, the carrier is too busy with the 60,000 on average shipments they are receiving a day to worry about every little thing. Most are just trying to survive. Lastly, even if you were willing to change carriers, most carriers are not offering great rates right now, because they don’t have to. They can be realistic about how much they need to run the account, and you will either accept it those higher charges in your budget, or you won’t. For most, this is no time to add costs to your budget.
As a 3PL, most days of recent months are spent in what feels like a fire fight trying to help customers not only with their freight, but with their expectations. The days of demanding or even negotiating some help are virtually gone. That is for the simple problems, like lost or delayed freight. If you have a more complex issue like swapped freight, you might as well sit back and get comfortable. Course correction will take longer and be more frustrating than fruitful. Days will go by, and resolution will not only seem, but actually be many more days away.
What is the solution? Or, the positive take-aways?
1. This has shown companies for who they really are. My mothers always said, “when a person shows you who he is, believe them”. There are only two LTL companies, that I am aware of, that have held their high bar in regards to guaranteed service. If the freight doesn’t make it, they are still honoring their word with a refund. Most, at best, have discontinued guaranteed service until circumstances level out, or at worst, still charging for guaranteed service, but rarely living up to the expectation. When capacity stabilizes, and it will, remember who was there for you in these trying times.
2. In the United States, our capitalist culture made possible, “same day delivery” and “delivery in 30-minutes or less or it’s free” type of service. We were so spoiled by those vying for our dollar, that sites like yelp kept the service coming or the we the consumers would make them regret the day they wronged us. As a human, we have a need to be valued. That often comes out when we are in the customer mode because that is when our vote matters (we all want to matter). Yet, businesses cannot give you what they do not have. Thus, we must look elsewhere for our validation and be kind to those who are struggling to do their jobs, and unable to give their best every second of every day to every customer.
3. Our character has been refined. Partnerships truly became partnerships because we were forced to work through whatever challenges were in our face. We identified problems and with relational skills (verses yelling and threats), we worked through the difficulties to come out on the other side stronger as people, thus, stronger businesses.
The old saying, “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”, still holds true today. We are getting better, but when this pandemic is over, will be revert to our old habits of demanding service above all else, most likely. However, the hope is that most of us will remember that adversity always comes, we have no control over that, what we have control over is our response to it.