Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Shop Up the Road

I ended last week singing The Call Centre Blues. After downloading a number of updates from Microsoft, my security system informed me that its "parameters were incorrect." I called up the help desk of my internet service provider -- a company in which we own a small number of shares. After doing what the person on the other end of the line suggested, I rebooted my computer (we only have dial-up service here) and I got the same message -- the parameters were still incorrect.

I called a second time, talked to a new person and -- after doing what I was told -- discovered that I could not surf the web. I called a third time, reached yet a third advisor, and I was told I should remove Explorer 7. "But," I said, "I have no other browser. "

"That's all right," I was told, "an earlier version is underneath it." After removing Explorer 7, I discovered that there was no earlier version on my hard drive.

My service provider has recently moved its support services to India. In theory I have no objection to that decision; and in truth, while I had to ask a couple of times to have the instructions repeated, I did not mind the Indian dialect. What bothered me was that my help was coming from half a world away. These folks were -- at least to begin with -- reading from a script. More importantly, they had no real hands-on knowledge of my computer.

I am aware that, in his book The World is Flat, Tom Friedman maintains that, because of startling telecommunications wizardry, service can be delivered from anywhere on the planet. However, my gut tells me that service is best performed by those closest to the problem or the client -- sort of a truncated version of Peter Drucker's management theory.

I probably screwed up my computer through my own ham handed ignorance. But to fix it, I took it to a little shop about half an hour up the road, in the small metropolis which breathes economic life into this rural community.

I talked to a person, not a disembodied voice. He brought me into the shop and showed me what he was doing. He checked the system out with me before I brought it home. And, the next morning, when I received a message which proclaimed that my modem had gone missing, I brought the computer back. He opened the machine up and showed me how the modem was slightly out of its slot -- and didn't charge me a cent for the quick fix.

When I bought the machine three years ago, I purposely went to a shop which was owned by someone I knew and trusted. His business has since been bought by the people who got my computer up and running this week. But they have continued to deal with people as they did -- and do -- deal with me.

The shares of my internet service provider are doing well these days. They provide a good income -- which is why, I suppose, several suitors want to harvest a controlling interest in the company. We hope that those shares and the income they produce will help us send our third and last son to university.

But as a client of the company, as opposed to a shareholder, I feel less well served. We have worshipped at the altar of efficiency for far too long. In the end, what makes a company great is quality -- not efficiency. And while it is undeniable that companies which do not make a profit disappear, it is equally true that companies which fail to provide quality service likewise disappear.

The folks who run Livewire Networks in Belleville, Ontario know that. In an era when big boxes and transnationals obliterate the competition, small quality operations deserve our support for one reason: they are good at what they do.

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