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When reliable customer service suddenly goes awry

Oh, say it isn’t so! I’ve noticed some quality control issues lately that are totally out of sync with what I expect at Costco. And, Amazon seems to be exemplifying a corporate version of “the Peter Principle,” described in Investopedia as: “ an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.”

In the case of Costco, it’s hard to tell if recent problems are isolated, coincidental or part of a pattern (e.g., cost-cutting measures leading to systemic quality control challenges). I and others have noticed a consistent decline, for example, in produce freshness and longevity at multiple stores.

A store manager explained that transportation issues could be the culprit, and noted that a new local distribution center planned in the coming year may solve the problem.

In the case of Amazon, it appears that their ever-faster delivery model and customer-support systems have risen to a level of incompetence. I’m not the only one encountering customer service reps lately who are hard to understand. Worse, they don’t seem to comprehend simple questions.

A couple weeks ago, a logistics rep who obviously was trying to help emailed me follow-up contact information that turned out to be totally inaccurate and created unneeded frustration and time-wasting.

In the main, both companies perform admirably on the customer service front. But, given that dependable, quality merchandise and clear and accurate communication are two primary measures of customer service competence, some cracks are developing with both companies.

The frequency and type of problems at Amazon have me rethinking shopping through Prime. Bottom line, my confidence in their ability to deliver on-time and/or provide competent customer support when there is a problem is eroding.

Costco is a bit of a different story. I will continue to shop there. Twenty years of loyalty continues to be rewarded for the most part. But, I’ve started buying some produce elsewhere. So, my spending level is being impacted.

All of this is to emphasize that “customer service excellence,” not unlike life, is a constant challenge. In today’s choice-rich commerce environment, customers are more fickle than ever. Even perennially solid performers may suffer if reliable performance becomes hit-and-miss for any reason.

What can companies in this position do to help keep loyal customers loyal?

  • Own it and fix it. If there’s a systemic problem, say so and do something about it. This is extraordinarily hard for most companies to do, but it can pay excellent dividends. For example, Domino’s Pizza’s mea culpa and subsequent upgrades years ago has it at the top of the pizza world today. A 2018 article in Money magazine points out: “Why Domino’s is winning the pizza wars…Savvy marketing, innovative tech and creative ordering methods lifted Domino’s sales over Pizza Hut for the first time last year. The company has transformed itself since a tumultuous stretch during the late 2000s…Customers thought the pizza was lousy.”

    The article continues: “So Domino’s tossed out the playbook. Led by CEO Patrick Doyle, the company launched what it called the ‘pizza turnaround’ in 2010. Doyle…appeared in ads with Domino’s workers reading blunt reviews: ‘worst pizza I’ve ever had,’ ‘sauce tastes like ketchup’ and ‘the crust tastes like cardboard.’ Domino’s said it heard the critics and scrapped its 49-year-old pizza recipe…and overhauled 85% of the menu.”
  • Offer easy ways to express overarching versus just episodic concerns. For example, Amazon’s customer service follow-up email asking for a rating of the transaction needs to be expanded to enable customers to address bigger, global issues easily. Right now, it seems like their dragon at the gate is preventing this type of interaction. When I go to my “go-to,” trying to find a PR person who can help, I’m only finding forms and department email addresses—versus individuals. (If you know of a solution here, please let me know about it.)
  • Use CRM data capture/recording to address customer hotspots. Undoubtedly, Amazon keeps both written and verbal accounts of customer calls/inquiry. When substantial patterns of dissatisfaction appear, reach out to the customer to get more insight and offer improvements.

As customer service expectations rise, 2020s companies will need to rise right along with them.

In this era of fake news and fast communication, company reputation is more vulnerable than ever to one negative headline or storyline. Strong customer service ratings over a substantial period of time can limit the damage, showing a pattern of competence and caring that supersedes isolated hits to a reputation. Building and maintaining a positive customer service image is one critical key to business success in the 2020s.

Do you have customer service snafus or stellar experiences to share? If so, feel free to comment on this post or email your thoughts to


Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

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