OP-ED: Silicon Valley Is Destroying Courtesy, Customer Service

by Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

SEATTLE, Wash. – The proliferation of social media and the almost daily introduction of new electronic devices are quickly destroying good old fashioned common courtesy, the backbone of customer service.  I lay the blame on the techies in Silicon Valley.

They have created a generation of people who are all thumbs into their pads, pods, berries, and phones and oblivious to the world around them.  Too many cannot communicate verbally or even make eye contact.  They can only click or tweet.  Things have gotten so bad on the sidewalks of Seattle that I do defensive walking to prevent from getting knocked down or walked over.

Once it was taken for granted that you always held an elevator or door for someone who was approaching or behind you.  Not anymore.  And if you are old school like I am and do hold a door for someone, few today will take the time to thank you for fear of missing a beat or tweet as they play with their smart phone. 

With the abundance of available electronic devices today you would think communicating would not be a problem.  Unfortunately, there are too many people today who do not know that it is rude, inconsiderate and sometimes insulting to not return telephone calls or answer letters, emails, faxes and tweets.  This is one of the most basic rules of common courtesy and customer service.  Throughout the years I have cited dozens of instances where a failure to respond has cost a university, institution or non-profit millions of lost dollars.

Here is what Dr. Davison M. Douglas, dean of the law school at The College of William & Mary, said on this subject after reading my customer service book: “You had lots of important advice for administrators and lawyers.  I have taped this sentence from your book to my computer: ‘promptly return every telephone call [and email] and answer every letter.’”

With all of the technology at their disposal you would hope CEOs and senior managers in Silicon  Valley would follow Dr. Douglas’ lead.  Many do not.  My most recent experience is with Marissa Mayer, CEO and president of Yahoo.  I was checking on a possible story about failure and crashes of one or more Yahoo-hosted sites but it was impossible to contact anyone in public relations.  

The company website has no information for its public relations staff.  Any journalist who wants to contact this department has to call 408-349-4040, which is answered by a machine, and then leave a voice message, or email media@yahoo-inc.com and hope to get a response.  Repeated messages I left at both sites were ignored.  Yahoo violates every basic rule of PR101.  I have never encountered a PR department so poorly structured and lacking in professionalism.  

A letter and followups to Ms. Mayer, who is reported to be the country’s second highest paid woman executive, also were ignored.  I thought she might at least respond when I reminded her that if a diligent and innovative “Glass Ceiling Initiative” team at the U.S. Department of Labor had not done its 20 years ago, she most likely would not have her current job nor would many other women CEOs in leadership positions today.  I would like to review Ms. Mayer’s succession plans at Yahoo to see how many women she has on top of any possible glass ceiling.  

Compare how Yahoo mishandled my requests with the extraordinary customer service I received from Microsoft.  I was being slammed with popups from companies stating they were “Microsoft partners” and that my drivers needed to be updated and I needed to download several files.  I wrote Brad Smith, Microsoft’s executive vice president and general counsel, to let him know about my problem and in a few days I had an email followed with a phone call from Vivek Mittal, a support escalation engineer.  When he and I connected he quickly and efficiently cleansed my computer of the problem.  He even followed up the next day to make sure I had no further problems.  

This is what customer service is and should be.  I wanted to let Microsoft’s public relations office know of my praise and an Internet search gave me all of the contact information anyone would want.  One phone call reached an account person with Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s public relations agency.  Every time I have worked with this firm in the past I have experienced professionalism at its best.

What I find troublesome is that many women CEOs and senior managers are at the top of my list of the worst offenders when it comes to courtesy and responding.  They have become major contributors to the rude society in which we live.  With the number of books, articles and commentaries I’ve authored it has been necessary to contact hundreds of people and scores of CEOs.  In the past I have seldom had a problem getting a response from a man or his executive assistant compared to women in comparable positions.

I want to emphasize that many women executives with whom I have worked are the very best and at the top of their profession.  Ms. Mayer and her colleagues in Silicon Valley need to be less insular and learn the basics of old fashioned common courtesy, customer service and professionalism from Microsoft.   

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Rene A. Henry has authored nine books and his latest, “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success,” is a must read for all CEOs and senior managers. The book is available from Amazon in paperback, on Kindle or as an audio book.  A native of Charleston, WV, he lives in Seattle and writes on a variety of subjects.

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