I know why economic growth is slowing: Consumers hate the companies they do business with.
At least that's the conclusion I'd draw if I took at face value the vitriol readers heaped on businesses that ignore them, overcharge them, disrespect them and generally mistreat them. In
my July 28 column on inflation, I asked readers to send me examples of companies they hate. So the hundreds of emails I received bashing companies hardly constitute a scientific sample, and it's wise to take these complaints with a grain of salt.
But the data suggest two important conclusions about the economy and what investors can expect in the next six to 12 months.
First, the degree of irritation at what I've called, after Adam Smith, the toil and trouble of buying anything now, suggests that companies are nearing the limits of their efforts to cut costs by pushing more of the work in transactions onto buyers' shoulders.
Second, if companies are approaching the limits of do-it-yourself cost-cutting, the next stage is going to require investment in service-enhancing productivity tools. That, of course, would be good news for many of today's hard-pressed technology companies.
Let me share a sampling of the complaints.
The Usual Suspects and Then Some
As I would have expected, few people had anything good to say about today's suppliers of telephone, cable television or Internet service.
"I recently had my landline phone service go out, and it cost me three calls (not easy since my phone service was out!!), two visits from technicians and nine days without service. The company was
. So I think I can do without a landline."
-- Donald Marks
"Remember Ma Bell? Remember when you could make a single phone call to get a telephone extension added or change your service options? Or get something repaired -- usually at no additional charge? Did the breakup of
get us better service for a lower price? Everybody hated Mother Bell but she was a model of efficient customer service. I mourn her passing every time I need a simple change to my business phone service -- or even my service at home."
-- John Ambrust
But it's not just the phone company anymore.
"I have been trying to get a DSL line installed by
for a full month,
exaggeration. They have voice menu after voice menu after voice menu. I placed order after order and it was constantly cancelled by a machine. It took two days of being on the phone for hours at a time until a live human being actually checked into the situation.
Yesterday, I read that
was offering $49 fares to assorted Florida cities. I got on the Internet and found out no such fares were available except from the special deals icon. But, each time I tried that, I got a message that this page was not available, therefore these fares are not available."
-- Elizabeth R.
is one of those companies that has far exceeded the tolerable level of time and toil cost. They don't even have low ... prices, but have tried to trade on the attraction of one-stop shopping for all your pet needs. The sad truth is, they have reduced the sheer numbers of sales associates, completely skipped the training of those associates and adopted sloppy upkeep of the physical stores. The result is a verrrryy long wait at the cash register for the chance to talk to a clerk who doesn't know anything about the animals' needs or the products for sale, and a store that is dirty and disorganized."
-- Sheila Hellman
'We Don't Care'
Even the icons of the economy don't escape unscathed.
"I bought a computer package from
for $500 with rebates. Then I got home and gave up trying to figure out the dozen or so cash register slips and mailing instructions. I threw all of them away and ended up paying $1,100 for my package."
-- Robin Bene
"To me, the ultimate is
. Windows is the worst product ever designed, an unfinished, untested piece of software with, on top of that, a high cost. Microsoft, the icon of the last 25 years, has set the tone of
the 'Customer can suffer and we do not care!'"
-- Jacques Palpacuer
"To me, the most glaring example of companies cutting costs, at the expense of customers' TIME (capitalized because I mean more than a few minutes) is after-the-purchase support. Call
-- although I have heard rumors that the outcry about this has caused the company to start to revise its current policies -- or
, or a myriad of other tech companies. It even happened to me yesterday when I called
. I wind up speaking to a customer support rep that 99% of the time is in India or some other Third World nation. Just the time wasted and aggravation level of dealing with reps that can speak English but that really don't UNDERSTAND what you are saying, makes one want to scream."
-- Dr. Steve H. Cohen
"I get so frustrated now with all this time wasting that I have been known to just abandon my $350 worth of goods in a cart at the cashier's lane of a
, where three kids are trying to serve the Saturday morning crowd of 300 in a 140,000 square-foot shop."
-- Russell Curry
"I took a prescription for glasses to the
optical center and when the glasses came in, the prescription was wrong. So I sent them back and waited another week for them. New glasses, wore them home, had a terrific headache, took them back, wrong prescription AGAIN. I'm not normally a patient man, but I was getting a good price on these glasses, so I let them do them one more time. They came in, and the prescription was still wrong. I gave up and asked for my money back, took the prescription to Pearle Vision."
-- William Smith
Even this sample provides solid evidence to back up my two initial conclusions.
The level of irritation is high enough that consumers are walking away from transactions. I doubt that all of this is measurable by the chief financial officers at these companies, but I'll bet some of it is. And I'll bet that the best-run companies know that they've pushed customers about as far as they can.
My unscientific sample also says that companies that want to fix the problem have two choices.
First, they can rehire the employees who kept that extra checkout lane open, train sales staff about their products, repatriate some of the customer service jobs that have gone offshore, and the like. In other words, companies can spend more on people.
I don't think this is very likely. Many companies have spent years laying off these workers, so rehiring them would amount to admitting that the cost-cutting touted in last year's annual report hasn't worked as advertised. I'll be happy to be wrong on this one because it would mean a significant uptick in the creation of new jobs. The way I read the data, though, company managers aren't rushing out to hire new workers.
The second alternative is more -- and better -- technology. A high percentage of the complaints I received boil down to technology failures. That's one part of the story behind the aggravation with phone trees, billing, lost orders, incomplete installations and time wasted waiting in lines. If the technology only worked as well as it was supposed to, you wouldn't be standing in line with 14 other fuming customers while the checkout clerk struggles with voiding an order.
Just getting the technology to work would be a huge savings for most companies. Unfortunately, to actually get the cost savings promised by the last generation of technology, the unwritten laws of the technology say you have to invest in the next generation.
Failing to Live Up to Expectations
Given the expense and failure of many customer service technologies to live up to their promises, you'd expect CEOs to drag their feet on this new investment. And that foot-dragging as a result of past disappointments is one of the reasons technology spending has lagged in this recovery.
But the time available for foot-dragging is running out. The cost-cutting pressure ahead can be met only by better technology if companies aren't gong to hire more workers. And some companies have managed to get this stuff to work right, raising the bar for others.
You know from your experiences that there's a huge gap between the best customer-service technology and the average technology. When I rent a car from Hertz, the company has all of my preferences in its computer so I don't have to spend time telling them I want a non-smoking car. Again.
I expect from my dealings with
Barnes & Noble
that I'll be able to track online the delivery of my order from warehouse to my house. And that makes me irritated with The Container Store when I have to actually pick up the phone and call because its Web site doesn't allow tracking.
The two lessons that emerge from reading these complaints -- that this do-it-yourself cost-cutting strategy is nearing its limits and companies are going to have to start spending more on workers (unlikely) or technology (likely) -- have big implications for my stock-picking strategy as I try to look beyond the current market gloom.
At the time of publication, Jim Jubak owned or controlled shares in the following equities mentioned in this column: Microsoft. He does not own short positions in any stock mentioned in this column. Email Jubak at