TECH/BIZ: But Wait, You Promised

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Wed Apr 25 2001 - 17:38:25 MDT

Charles Fishman
Fast Company, issue 45, pg. 110

I am in the belly of the beast. I have risen early, traveled far, and
overcome lines, rudeness, and indifference. Now, heedless of my
chances of coming back without serious psychological or physical
injury, I am journeying into a swamp that has become a source of
boundless irritation, frustration, confusion -- even fury -- for tens
of millions of Americans. I open the door and step into a
customer-service call center. And not just any call center either --
one that is exclusively devoted to handling problems with
cell-phones. It's cool inside and fairly well lit, for a swamp.

I am carrying the very tool itself: a Sprint PCS
cell-phone. I love my Sprint PCS cell-phone. But God
help me when I have to call Sprint PCS. I have
sometimes called this very building in Fort Worth,
Texas. Often, I'm not even sure that the customer-care
advocate I finally speak with after I've been waiting
on hold for 17 minutes even knows what a cell-phone

I have come here at the beginning of a long journey --
really, a quest of the sort that was common in
antiquity -- during which I will cross the continent
several times and seek out both oracles and common
folk. I am determined to unravel a central mystery of
life in modern America: Why is customer service so

At the Sprint PCS call center, I am soon teamed up
with customer-care advocate Chad Ehrlich, a gracious
29-year-old with years of experience delivering
service by phone. Chad takes a call from a businessman
in Lubbock, Texas. The man is upset about his bill: It
was running $60 to $100 a month. Suddenly, it has shot
up to $1,600. "I'm not going to pay it!" the man

Chad is reserved. "Let me take a look at that bill,"
he says. Chad whirls through screens of
information. "Hold on a moment for me, sir, I'm going
to get a representative from the fraud department on
the line." Chad puts Lubbock on hold and dials Sprint
PCS's fraud department, where he reaches a familiar
recorded message and is put on hold. Lubbock is on
hold for customer-service rep Chad, and
customer-service rep Chad is on hold for more customer

A female fraud rep takes Chad's call. She can see from
Lubbock's history that he's complained about this
problem before. The conversation between Chad and his
colleague in fraud is frisky.

Fraud: "He thought he was cloned, but he wasn't."

Chad: "His bills did go from almost nothing to
sky-high ..."

Fraud: "We can send him to a cloning specialist and
make it 'official' if you want ... "

Chad: "He's denying that he made or received the

The impatient woman from fraud dials the Sprint PCS
cloning customer-care department and ... is put on

Do you ever wonder what's going on while you're
waiting on hold for customer service? Really, you
couldn't even imagine.

Chad, Lubbock's customer-care advocate, is talking to
a woman who is Chad's customer-care advocate. She has
called her customer-care advocate, who is busy on
another call. So now we have two customer-care
advocates on hold waiting for a third customer-care
advocate. Meanwhile, a fuming customer from Lubbock (
who may or may not be trying to rip Sprint off for
$1,600 ) waits. On hold.

That, right there, is customer service in the new
economy. It has become a slow, dissatisfying tangle of
telephones, computers, Web sites, email, and people
that wastes time at a prodigious rate, produces far
more aggravation than service, and, most often, leaves
you feeling impotent. What's even worse is that this
situation is a kind of betrayal. It wasn't supposed to
be this way. One of the promises of the new economy
was that the customer would finally be in charge. We
weren't supposed to need to call customer care -- but
if we did, then someone would take our call quickly. (
Why not? No one else would be calling. ) A
customer-service rep would understand our problem
practically before we mentioned it, and all would be
made right. Everyone believes in delighting the

Don't you spend most of your day delighted? Here's a
puzzler. Why do we hear this sentence so often: "We
are experiencing higher-than-usual call volumes... . "
If you're experiencing higher-than-usual call volumes,
then why aren't you experiencing higher-than-usual
staffing volumes? How hard is that? What the new
economy has done to customer service is exactly the
opposite of what everyone predicted would happen. And
as chaotic a time as it has been to be a customer, it
has been a truly weird time to be delivering customer
service. Consider just one example: Five years ago,
discount broker Charles Schwab had 1,450
customer-service reps in call centers, and 85% of
those reps' time was spent providing real-time quotes
and basic company information, and executing
trades. Those 1,450 people, sensing the Internet
roaring down on them, were worried about their
jobs. Rightfully so. At the end of this past year,
Charles Schwab's customers did 81% of all of those
activities without human assistance. So you would
imagine that Schwab could have trimmed its costly
battalion of customer-service reps to 1,000, even to

In fact, the number of Schwab reps has tripled to
4,800. But they're not doing what they used to
do. Customers have demanded new vistas of service. No
one was more surprised than Schwab.

In short, the new economy was supposed to make service
better, quicker, and more effective for customers --
and easier and cheaper for companies. None of that has
come to pass. What happened? I went on a journey to
find out.

Bold Promises, Bad Results

AT&T is running television commercials for its
Worldnet Internet service. One ad features a series of
stand-up comics who are making jokes about the bad
customer service of their Internet providers ( "My
online service is like my husband: I stare at it for
hours, hoping it will move" ).

Cisco is running a TV commercial that opens with a
regular guy on a cordless phone who hears, "Your call
will be answered by the next available operator."
Halfway through the commercial, the man has fallen
asleep, phone to his ear.

Mockery is a great cultural barometer. Bad customer
service is one of the universal -- and unifying --
experiences of being an American in the 21st
century. You get it at Wal-Mart. You get it at Lord &
Taylor. But is customer service really worse than it
used to be? A panel of customer-service experts that I
assembled couldn't agree.

Don Peppers, 50, of the Peppers and Rogers Group,
proponent of "customer-relationship management" and
coauthor of the famous One to One Future: "I don't
think that customer service sucks. I think it's
bad. But I think it's better than it was five years

Len Schlesinger, 48, an expert in customer service,
previously senior associate dean and a professor at
Harvard Business School, and now executive vice
president of The Limited Inc.: "Let's see, we've gone
from 'meeting customer expectations,' to 'exceeding
customer expectations,' to 'delighting customers,' to
'customer ecstasy.' I hate to see what comes next."

Patricia Seybold, 51, CEO of an e-business consulting
company and author of the optimistic book The Customer
Revolution: How to Thrive When Customers Are in
Control, which is due out this month: "I agree that
customer service hasn't gotten better since the
Internet came along. It has gotten worse. But
companies are beginning to realize that we're very
angry at them. Companies that don't wake up and pay
attention to this are going to be out of business."

Well, we can only hope.

Customer service is a notoriously slippery concept --
hard to define, apparently impossible to quantify. But
there is one guy who knows for sure what's happening
to customer service, because he measures it in 65,000
interviews a year with American customers.

Claes Fornell, 53, is a professor at the University of
Michigan Business School and an expert on "the
economics of customer satisfaction." Fornell is
creator and director of the American Customer
Satisfaction Index. The ACSI measures how content
Americans are with the goods and services that they
consume -- in the aggregate, and industry by industry,
company by company.

Fornell names names! His online data is a carnival for
cranky consumers: You can click through and take glee
in the lame scores of all of the companies that you
love to hate.

First Union, my bank, is down 10.5% in satisfaction
ratings since the index started in 1994.

Wal-Mart, my source for diapers, paper towels, and
Tide, is down 10% since the index started and down 4%
in just the past year alone.

Fornell conceived this herculean undertaking -- scores
are measured quarterly -- because he thought that the
U.S. economy was being severely mismeasured. "Eighty
percent of GDP is service now," he says. "We have to
behave as though we live in a service economy."

The ACSI measures the perceived quality of
U.S. economic output -- the experience of being a
consumer in the United States. In the past five years,
the ACSI is down from 73.7 to 72.9. But that number
includes everything from Whirlpool appliances to the
experience of shopping on

Here's the amazing thing: Every measured company in
the appliance, beer, car, clothing, food,
personal-care, shoe, and soft-drink industries is
above the national average. Even the cigarette
companies have above-average customer-satisfaction

Not so for airlines, banks, department stores,
fast-food outlets, hospitals, hotels, and phone

It's the service that's bad.

"Oh, I think we can say that for sure," says Fornell.

The Hard Truth( s ) About Customer Service

I didn't begin my journey through the service jungle
at Sprint PCS by accident, or because I think that the
company would be a good target for mockery. Sprint PCS
is a pure new-economy company. It offers nothing but
service -- and it's digital wireless service to
boot. The company's only product is moving voices
through the air. The first time that you could have
made a Sprint PCS call was December 1996. From a
standing start, in four years, the company has grown
to 28,328 employees ( 10,000 in customer care ), 9.8
million customers, and annual revenues of roughly $6
billion. Sprint PCS signs up 10,000 new customers each

The company has access to every conceivable
technological helper: the Net, automated phone
services, and the most-sophisticated call centers. And
yet, my own experience dealing with Sprint PCS has
been consistently aggravating. In eight years of
having BellSouth provide our home phone service, I've
only had occasion to talk to them three or four
times. I've talked to Sprint PCS more than that since
Halloween -- always with unhappy results.

Sprint PCS knows the right thing to do. It just can't
do it. Faerie Kizzire, 51, senior vice president for
Sprint PCS, is in charge of customer service for the
company. She's a veteran: She spent nine years at
Sprint managing customer service for the long-distance
business, then managed customer service for a
health-insurance company, and was wooed back to Sprint
to create customer care for wireless.

I tell her the story of a call I have just listened to
with Chad: Marlene in Ohio has had to call three times
just to get a credit for charges that shouldn't have
been on her bill in the first place. Before Chad, two
customer-care advocates dealt with Marlene by simply
telling her that she was wrong. As Chad discovers,
Marlene was in fact improperly charged. So why did
that happen? Why did two customer-service reps argue
with Marlene, rather than credit her? Why does Marlene
know more about her calling plan than customer care

Kizzire is disappointed. "The complexity of the
product and the variations in the product can make
that kind of problem very difficult," she says. "We do
see some of our people falling on the side of 'I'm
right' versus 'I'm going to make it right.' "

Sprint PCS looks as if it's doing all of the right
things. The company's training program for reps is 6
to 10 weeks long. Across the call center are
exhortations to good service: "Did you dazzle your
customers today?" Says Kizzire: "It is true that
people who have a little bit of knowledge can be
dangerous. We always say, Don't try to dazzle the
customer with what you know. These days, many
customers have years of experience."

And therein lies a clue to what's really happening to
customer service -- and why. The secret about customer
service in the new economy isn't that it's bad --
everyone knows it's bad. The secret is that it's
harder to deliver good customer service than ever
before. Why? Technology, especially in its early days,
is always hard. No surprise there. Why would we expect
companies that can't figure out how to run a phone
center -- talking to real people about problems in
their own business -- to be really good at using
advanced technology to automate the process of taking
care of us?

And customers are more demanding. We want good
service, quickly. We don't wait at gas pumps, we're
antsy in ATM lines, and we pay to FedEx things to
avoid standing in line at the post office. Companies
have created, nursed, and benefited from this
impatience. We are victims of it in our own
lives. They are victims of it too. It makes providing
customer service brutally unforgiving.

Technology has, in fact, made some things quicker and
easier, and it has allowed us to take care of
ourselves. I can plunge through the details of my
online bank statement more thoroughly in 50 seconds
than any automated voice-mail system could permit in
50 minutes, or than even the most patient phone
operator would tolerate. This means that when we talk
to someone in person, either things are really screwed
up, or we are really angry and want to share that
anger with a person. Or both. Technology has made the
actual person-to-person customer service of big
companies much more complicated and demanding.

Despite all of the consultants, gurus, and outsource
providers, customer service is hard to deliver in a
mass economy. I wasn't on the phones at Sprint PCS for
more than a couple of hours, and I can see that the
real problem isn't customer service or even
culture. No, the real problem is more fundamental:
Sprint PCS offers a simple service that is really very
complicated. Best tip-off? It takes someone 15 minutes
to sell me a phone and a calling plan in a Sprint PCS
store. It takes Faerie Kizzire 6 weeks -- 240 hours --
to teach a phone rep to handle any problems that I
might have with that phone.

Some Good News: What's the 411?

My favorite example of new-economy meltdown is
directory assistance. Directory assistance should be
the perfect new-economy product: It's just information
-- and simple information at that. There is an
existing way to bill customers, and, given the swift
accumulation of databases, directory assistance should
be getting better and better all the time.

"It's gotten so much worse," says customer-service
expert Patricia Seybold. "Now you get the wrong
number all the time."

I've kept track during the past two months. Over
several dozen calls, directory assistance delivered
the wrong number about half of the time. Of course,
you get charged for the wrong numbers, just as you do
for the right numbers. If it's a long-distance number
and it's wrong, you pay for that phone call too. As if
that weren't enough, here's a moment of customer
delight: Call directory assistance and try to get a
credit for a wrong number.

"I'm sorry, sir," says the abrupt operator. "We don't
give credits."

"I beg your pardon?"

"We don't give credits, sir. You have to call your
local phone company. When your phone bill comes."

"At the end of the month?"

"Correct, sir. Is there a number you need?"

So now I've paid once for the wrong number and paid
again to be told that I have to call some other
company, some other time, to get my $2 back.

Yet one company gives delightful directory assistance
-- polite, accurate, helpful. It is none other than
... Sprint PCS. The contrast between cellular
directory and land-line directory is as dramatic as
the contrast between Sprint PCS directory and Sprint
PCS customer care. Ask Sprint PCS for a restaurant's
number, and they offer to make a reservation. Ask for
the number of a movie theater, and they offer to read
you not just the number but also the movies that are
playing at that theater, when they are playing, and
who is starring in each movie.

Seybold was able to guess exactly what was going on
immediately. "It's outsourced," she said.

And so it is. Metro One Telecommunications, a small
company based in Beaverton, Oregon, handles directory
assistance for Sprint PCS -- and also for Nextel and
many regional cellular companies. The quality of Metro
One's service is no accident. As Seybold predicted,
that is exactly what it is selling to cellular
companies: good directory assistance.

The economics are great for everyone: Even at what
feels like an unhurried pace, Metro One's operators
take 50 calls an hour ( including breaks, slow
periods, and training ), which brings in $50 an
hour. Half of that goes to Metro One, half is gravy to
Sprint PCS. Of the $25 an hour that Metro One gets,
operators start at some centers at $9 an hour in
straight salary -- before incentive pay or
benefits. Me, as a customer? I get the right number,
for about what BellSouth's wrong numbers cost me.

Metro One has 29 deliberately small call centers: 200
operators or fewer, with 100 or fewer working at any
one time. The call center in Charlotte, North Carolina
is lean -- spartan compared to Sprint PCS's Fort Worth
center. But you can understand the entire place in a
single glance. Directory assistance, of course, is
child's play compared to helping people with their
cell-phones. But remember: Standard directory
assistance is abysmal.

Heather McCuen, 23, started at Metro One in March
1999, and after nine months, she makes $12 an
hour. Calls cascade in on her like a waterfall. "Leith
Mercedes." "Larry's Plant Farm." "Start-to-Finish
Tattoo Shop." "Just What the Doctor Ordered

"I'm amazed at what people name their businesses,"
Heather says.

In 11 minutes, she takes 17 calls -- 38.8 seconds a
call. Heather's style is efficient but deliberate. She
reads the number slowly to avoid having to repeat it.

What is striking is how little it takes to make people
happy, how little it takes to get it right, and how
long 40 seconds really is. But what is also striking
is how hard it would be to automate this process. To
do it right doesn't require much, but it does require
a spark of human intelligence on both ends of the

Even in these brief encounters, the full range of
human character is on display. "I'm looking for
Shannon Pickering," says a man over a
characteristically crackly connection. The Charlotte
center serves mainly North Carolina and South
Carolina, so the operators are familiar with local
geography, but Heather and her colleagues can provide
numbers nationwide. Heather patiently searches a
couple of the towns that the man mentions, without

"I found someone's day planner in the middle of the
road," the man says. "I'm just trying to return it to
her." Heather ups her intensity a notch. She broadens
her search to all of North Carolina, South Carolina,
and Virginia. She tries a variety of spellings for the
names. Heather tells the man what she is trying. She
is regretful. The man is regretful. The call spills
past two minutes. No luck.

Metro One's databases are updated with fresh numbers
in real time, all the time. Operators can send along
complaints about wrong numbers. All kinds of searches
are available. I saw one operator find a particularly
elusive residential number by reading through a list
of every person who lived on a street.

The Baby Bells shoot for directory calls lasting 17 to
20 seconds, total, compared to Metro One's 33-second
standard. That, of course, is the difference. And as
trivial as it may sound -- what's 15 seconds? --
companies know how to do the multiplication. At least,
they know how to do it when it's their 15 seconds.

Metro One's Charlotte center handles roughly 275,000
calls a week. The math is easy. If each call lasts 33
seconds, as it does at Metro One, then 275,000 calls
require 2,520 hours of operator time. If each call
lasts 20 seconds, as it does at BellSouth, then
275,000 calls require only 1,528 hours of operator

It takes 50% more people to do it the Metro One
way. To do it right.

Secrets of the Amazon: Customer Service as R&D

For all of its struggles -- with its balance sheet,
its stock, the union drive, and layoffs --
has done one thing brilliantly: customer service. I
placed my first order with Amazon in 1997 and have
been a steady customer since. In four years of making
purchases for myself and for others, I've found what I
needed, ordered it, received a flurry of emails about
my orders, and then gotten either thank-you notes or
what I ordered. I've never had to contact Amazon about
any matter. I have had, in essence, no customer
service from Amazon. Put another way, I have had such
perfect customer service, the service itself has been
transparent. That is exactly what Amazon wants. The
goal is perfect customer service through no customer

In a very short time, Amazon has set a new standard
for customer service, and I went to Seattle to see
how. What I discovered is a place that regards
customer service as an R&D lab -- a way not to help
customers, but to help the company.

"We want to make it easier and easier for our
customers to do business with us," says Bill Price,
50, vice president of global customer service for
Amazon. "We want to have everything go so right, you
never have to contact us. To do that, we have to stay
tuned up. We have to keep asking, What are the

Of course, every customer-service VP in America, every
customer- service VP in history, would agree with
those sentiments. Two things make all the difference
at Amazon: the view the company takes of customer
service and customers, and the way the company is
organized to drive home that view.

Amazon doesn't consider customer service to be the
complaint department, or even the quality-control and
customer-satisfaction department. Amazon considers
Bill Price's outfit to be a research lab for
discovering how to adjust and improve customer
service. And Amazon considers customer service to be
its core business. The company really offers nothing
but customer service.

So every single encounter with a customer -- by phone,
by email, even by clicking on Web pages -- is
considered to be the source of potentially vital
information about the course of the entire company.

How does that work?

Well, to start with, the company tracks the reason for
every customer contact. It keeps a list of the top-ten
reasons why customers contact the company --
monitoring the list daily, weekly, monthly -- and it
is constantly working on ways to eliminate those

For years, the number-one question that people asked
Amazon was, Where's my stuff? Now, on every page,
starting with the welcome page, there's a box labeled,
"Where's my stuff?"

Amazon's operations are so interwoven with
customer-driven changes that employees are briefly
baffled when you ask for examples.

"Two years ago," says Price, "one common problem was,
'I want to buy five books, and ship them to my five
brothers, each at a separate address.' Our system was
originally set up so that one order had to go to one
address, forcing the customer, in a case like that, to
place five separate orders. Now we have a
'ship-to-multiple-addresses' function. And you don't
need to get in touch with us to figure it out."

Shortly after its consumer-electronics store debuted,
Amazon was deluged with requests for a simple chart
that would compare the features and prices of similar
products, such as MP3 players and digital cameras. As
a result, Amazon has developed a product-by-product
"comparison engine" that does exactly that.

Just last year, a customer sent an email pointing out
something that had bugged him for years: On the main
ordering page, customers are instructed to enter their
email address and their Amazon password. Next come two
options: "Forgot your password? Click here" and "Sign
in using our secure server."

Originally, the options were in that order. If someone
simply tabbed from option to option, he would click,
"Forgot your password?" -- even when what he wanted to
do was sign in. Because of that single, irritated
email, the ordering page was changed.

Again, though, the head of customer service at any big
company could tick off customer suggestions that have
drifted up and changed products and operations.

But at Amazon, the notion of customer service as R&D
isn't a slogan, it's a structure -- an unavoidable
force to be reckoned with. Price's division includes a
group that does nothing but analyze and anticipate
problems and cook up solutions. Indeed,
representatives from customer-service project
management sit on all launch teams as "the voice of
the customer."

The ethic cuts deeper than it would first appear. "You
can have a great overall culture," says Price, "with
real empathy for the customer and passion for fixing
the problems. You can have individual reps who say,
'This customer is really upset, and I have to deal
with it.' I think we do that.

"What's missing almost everywhere else is, even if you
have the empathy and the passion and you address the
customer's problem, you haven't really given good
customer service in total. You haven't done that until
you have eliminated the problem that caused her to
call in the first place." Exactly.

It is, frankly, easy to be skeptical of all of
this. For such a strategy to work, the entire company
has to bend to it. One incident ( of many that I
encountered ) shows how deeply ingrained the attitude

The problem materialized during the 1999 Christmas
season, the first Christmas that Amazon sold
toys. Almost as soon as the selling season began, the
company received complaints that were notable more for
the level of outrage than for the actual number of

Some toys were big enough to be shipped in their
original packing boxes. "They were arriving on
people's doorsteps, and the people called and said,
'Hey, we weren't expecting this to look like a Big
Wheel. My kid came home from school and found his
present! Now I gotta buy another one!' " says Janet
Savage, 31, who was a customer-service manager that
Christmas. This quickly became known as the Big Wheel
problem, and it was Savage's job to resolve it.

It was an interesting moment. One possible response --
a perfectly reasonable response -- would be to start
warning customers about items shipped in original
cartons. After all, if you buy something at Toys 'R'
Us, you don't complain that it comes wrapped as what
it is.

That response was never considered at Amazon. Savage
simply started looking for durable, inexpensive
wrapping material that would be available immediately
and in large quantities. "Our customers were not
happy," says Savage. "It was not acceptable to tell
parents, Oh well, too bad."

She found rolls of plastic material like the type used
in big garbage bags, and Amazon started overwrapping
every large toy and a selection of electronics items
that were likely to be Christmas gifts. How urgent was
it? "I bugged people about it on an hourly basis until
we got it resolved," says Savage. "You're either Santa
Claus or you're not."

Great Service: Back to the Future

I have a running argument with customer-service
experts that may be mostly an argument on my side. It
is neatly summed up by One to One guru Don Peppers. He
offers two key points about service. First, "Service
is bad because it's hard to do." Second, "The secret
to good service, really, is to treat your customer
like you'd like to be treated yourself." Somewhere
between point one and point two, I missed the hard

The hard part is not the service. The hard part is
everything but the service. The hard part is how
companies think about what they are doing and how they
behave as a result. Why is the service of airlines so
bad? Simple: Airlines don't think of themselves as
service organizations. Airlines think of themselves as
factories that manufacture revenue-seat
miles. Airlines have been tuned in to the efficiency
of their manufacturing operations, not to the quality
of the journey that they provide.

When you spend weeks talking to people about customer
service, when you visit people who do it as their
livelihood, it is easy to become consumed with the
challenges, the technology, and the measurements that
obsess the world of customer service.

How much cheaper is it to deliver balances by
automated phone menu than through a service rep? How
much cheaper is it to deliver balances on the Web than
over the telephone? What do people want to talk to a
person about? What do they want to do themselves?

How do you create customer satisfaction, customer
delight, and customer ecstasy? Most of those questions
miss the larger point.

Dan Leemon, 47, chief strategy officer for Charles
Schwab, understands this dilemma clearly. Charles
Schwab is a brokerage firm, of course. It keeps money
for people, has custody of stock certificates, and
functions as a bank in many ways. But like Sprint PCS
or directory assistance, Schwab is really a pure
customer-service organization. Its specialty is
financial-services customer service -- but it's
service all the same. Everything else is record

"A lot of companies fall into the trap," says Leemon,
"of believing that some new customer-service
technology will take cost and management burden away
and will eliminate the need to have very talented
people on the phones and in their retail outlets.

"That has actually never been true," he says. Indeed,
the complex demands of customers have increased the
length of the typical call to Schwab by 75% during the
past five years.

One old-economy sector that is justifiably famous for
service is the cruise industry. The high-end cruise
lines achieve this by offering training, incentives,
and quality facilities. One thing that they do
particularly well is suck up customer feedback.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ( RCCL ), for instance,
has 22 ships. When a ship docks at home port at 7 AM,
before it clears customs, someone from RCCL has
boarded to retrieve the customer-comment cards
distributed to every cabin. The ratings are tabulated,
the written comments are transcribed, and the results
are returned to the ship's managers before the ship
sails again at 5 PM.

So before the next cruise begins, RCCL's captains,
dining-room managers, housekeepers, and entertainers
know how the previous cruise went -- from praise to
serious problems. Imagine what flying the big airlines
would be like if you got a comment card at the end of
each flight -- and the company acted on what it

But here's the really interesting piece of the RCCL
story. With computers, it's easy enough to tabulate
comment-card results now in a single workday. But in
1971, when RCCL had just one ship and no computers,
the process was the same. Cards were tabulated by
hand the day the ship came in, and the comments were
typed ( four carbons ) and delivered back to the ship
before it sailed again in the afternoon.

Ultimately, what is so striking about the
customer-service revolution that we are digging our
way through is how little a century of technological
innovation really changes what matters.

Charles Fishman ( ) is a Fast
Company senior editor. He's never satisfied. Check out
the American Customer Satisfaction Index on the Web ( ).

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