Customer Service Theater


This is a story about a two recent customer service experiences I’ve had. Well, not real “customer service,” something less real and far less satisfying.

I’m singling out FedEx and the New York Times because I’ve had recent and ongoing experiences with each of them that are so bad, so chronic, that they could become comedy sketches. What makes my experience of these two iconic companies so remarkable is this: each of them has built a reputation on what they deliver and how well they deliver it, and their brands are deeply associated with the trust they’ve cultivated with customers who rely on them to deliver. But “deliver” is exactly what they now fail to do.

They don’t fail to deliver accidentally. They fail to deliver in a way that is chronic, intentional, and deliberate. Ironically their failure to deliver is – in a number of clearly understood cases – something they’ve designed and incorporated into their current business models.

Before I go into further detail these two companies deserve every bit of the critique I’m about to offer, but they aren’t alone. Similar stories can be told about hundreds of other large businesses that provide what they call “customer service” and I call “customer service theater.”

This is speculation, but it’s informed speculation: I believe senior management in each of these companies has decided that the failure to deliver the services they’ve promised is awkward and problematic, but it is also a problem they can afford.

The problem of a fix, on the other hand, is a problem they have concluded it would be too expensive, too destructive to the business, to solve.

So instead of solving their delivery problems, both the New York Times and FedEx literally choose not to deliver what they’ve promised. Not in every case, but consistently in certain very specific cases.

I’ll begin with my FedEx story. On June 1, 2022 I asked someone to ship a package to me from Denver CO to Calgary, Alberta in Canada via FedEx International Priority Express. Declared value: $45. Scheduled delivery date: June 2, 2022. The package was perhaps a half a pound. It contained two things: a Phonak hearing aid charger and a few COVID masks. The priority shipping charge: $106.

I needed the charger for my hearing aids. Over the next several days I was planning to speak at two conferences, one in Calgary, the next one in Seattle. No local chargers were available, and without a charger, my hearing aids were useless. (Without an ability to hear well, I am very nearly useless.) So I was willing to pay for priority express delivery. What happened?

The package never arrived. FedEx provided no communication, no explanation.

I inquired. It seems that because the shipping label included the words “hearing aid” and “COVID masks” Canada Health had it held up in Canadian customs. Its release would require a broker. Only a broker could secure the release from customs.

It took more than a day to figure out how to get FedEx to act as a broker. Initially they said they said I would need to create a FedEx account, and give FedEx a power of attorney. But even when a FedEx employee agreed to be the broker and transmitted an electronic message to release the package, FedEx took no further action to deliver the package in a timely manner. So for the next six days, I spoke with nine separate customer service representatives in nearly as many countries and sometimes with their managers. My request was simple: please deliver the package to my home in Denver Colorado. Most customer service representatives said this: we can only do this if you 1) create a FedEx account, and 2) let us charge you to return the package to you.

Now at this point there is no chance that I will ever in my remaining lifetime open a FedEx account. That will not happen. And the notion that I have been charged $106 for a a Priority Express delivery that FedEx failed to make and will now be charged some additional sum to return the package to me is not something I can begin to fathom.

On the 9th of June, I spoke to Mike. He understood my issue. He acknowledged the FedEx errors, but he repeated what I’d heard before: FedEx policy required that I create a FedEx account and pay them to return my package to me in Denver. I persisted. He passed this up to a manager. That manager went the extra mile and actually called me the next day saying he was working to make this happen. I believed him. But days later customer service still reports the same thing: as of the 7th of June the package is stuck in Calgary and beyond that there is no further information or plan. My package is being held hostage.

I will never, as long as I live, use FedEx for another shipment. Yes, they’re a large corporation; I don’t expect them to care about what I do or don’t do. But they may care about this: based on my story, you may think twice about using them to ship anything for priority delivery. This is not the company it once was, not the company Fred Smith built and was proud to have created.

I tweeted about my problem. FedEx’s social service arm was quick to detect potential damage to the brand’s reputation.

Hello there, My name is _______ from the U.S Social Media Team. Thank you for bringing your concern to our attention. I am deeply sorry to know about this experience. Please DM me for further assistance. I will be happy to help you.

. . . and later, this . . .

Thank you for your patience, Thomas. I do apologize for any inconvenience caused. You have reached the U.S. Social Media Team. I am forwarding you over to the FedEx Canada Social Media team for assistance with your shipment. You will receive a response from the next available representative.

That was 20 hours ago. I’m glad I wasn’t holding my breath.

My second FedEx conversation by phone this morning was with William, an International Account Manager. No, he insisted, FedEx will not ship the package to you until you create a FedEx account and pay us for the return shipment.

And my last conversation with FedEx, also today, was with Mike, who previously escalated the matter to his manager, who had in turn escalated the matter to FedEx “Executive Services” the VP level of services at FedEx.

An update: today I received another call from FedEx customer service providing me with a new tracking number and promising that my package will be delivered to my home in Denver tomorrow, June 14, 2022, by 12 pm. [If this is true, they will finally have done the right thing, but at enormous cost to me and to FedEx itself.]

For the record, my conversations with Mike and his manager were the only conversations in which a FedEx representative provided what could truly be classified as “customer service.” They alone (of a total of 15 people) understood that FedEx had dropped the ball and that its policy as applied to my situation would be unjust and carry serious potential to create a public relations headache for FedEx.

As a side note, Amazon’s customer service has uniformly been the opposite of my experience with FedEx over the course of hundreds of interactions with Amazon from the start of my relationship with the company in the late 90s. If Amazon chose to deliver any packages, not just those purchased via, I’d switch to them for every single delivery. Why? Because they do what they say they will do. They deliver. They communicate about their delivery plans. They deliver on time almost without fail. And most important, they actually fix a problem whenever one arises.

Back to the larger narrative. FedEx isn’t the only corporation with a problem. The New York Times is no better. We receive home delivery of the Sunday paper.

Well, not really.

We’re supposed to. We’re Sunday home delivery customers. But for months now no one has actually delivered our Sunday paper. And this “failure to deliver” problem has persisted for years. Each Sunday I wait till 9 am and then report the “missed paper.” At first I donated the amount, but I decided that requesting a refund is the only way to get the New York Times delivery service to pay attention. And consider this, a refund of the price of the paper doesn’t make us square. The price I pay for Sunday delivery is intended to result in my receipt of an actual paper copy of the New York Times, something we deem more valuable than the price we pay (and if that weren’t true, we wouldn’t be home delivery subscribers). Refunding the price still leaves me without the thing I struck a bargain to receive.

Yesterday something remarkable happened. The paper Sunday paper was delivered. But it was delivered after 8 pm. And it was delivered not to us but to our neighbors who are not New York Times customers. Should we call this late and misdirected paper “delivered?” Perhaps. At this point, the bar is low.

Sometimes I go beyond reporting the missed paper. Sometimes I email NYTimes “customer service.” Sometimes I call them. Sometimes I tweet about the problem. But nothing works. They promise that they’ve escalated the matter. They promise that they’re working on it. But they don’t fix it. Why?

The New York Times is now primarily digital. At their peak New York Times subscribers to the actual paper reached a bit more than 1 million in daily circulation. Today, those who receive the paper number closer to half that. But total subscribers have reached 7 million. Most of them are digital.

Viewed from this perspective, the newspapers they still provide to customers are part of a legacy business. They don’t like the cost structure. And they surely don’t like the last mile problem. They long ago outsourced the delivery of the physical paper to a host of operations throughout the U.S.

Think about it. This must be a nightmare to manage. The people who actually deliver your paper don’t get paid much. And they don’t seem to stay on the job very long. These days it’s almost impossible to hire a replacement for a delivery person who has quit.

The cost to fix this problem is beyond anything the New York Times is willing to swallow. Instead, they swallow my weekly request for a refund for the paper they failed to deliver. (And this is the price they’re willing to pay to keep me as a subscriber.)

They make half-hearted attempts to assure customers like me that they are doing something to fix this. But they aren’t serious about this. They are no longer investing in this kind of customer service, in the actual delivery of a newspaper. Someone in the upper levels of New York Times management is convinced that investing in customer service theater will produce a greater return on investment than investing in actual customer service. Maybe they’re right. Maybe both the New York Times and FedEx are right to prefer customer service theater to actual customer service and service delivery.

But this is how large corporations lose their customer base and begin to die.



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