Where’s the free pen?

When I asked where the pen was, the lady on the phone sounded puzzled.  She clearly had no idea what the pen was.  Even worse, she couldn’t understand why I thought she should give it to me.

I had been on the phone with her for the better part of 30 minutes trying to understand exactly what it was that the company she represented was doing to me.  I won’t name names but it’s a major bank representing a major credit card. I had just received notice that they would no longer be carrying my type of card and were automatically switching me to another. When I called to question this, the lady assured me it would ultimately be to my benefit

Only when I asked about those benefits, the thinking got a little fuzzy.  Finally, it became evident that this switch was happening for the convenience of the bank, not me.

Then she tried to assure me that this would in no way inconvenience me.  The bank would issue me a new card, my account would be switched and I would hardly notice it happened.

Well, except for one little problem.  All the businesses I pay automatically by credit card each month would have to be notified about the new account. I suggested that in this age of computer wizardry, I found it hard to believe that the bank – for whose convenience this switch was happening – couldn’t find a way to have to the billings automatically forwarded to my new account.  Or maybe some automatic letter to the vendor could be generated.

But no, I was assured that the same bank that had computers that could track and instantly approve purchases I made in the mountains of Nepal would not be able to do that. I’d have to call each vendor individually. That’s when I asked for the pen.

It wasn’t that I wanted a pen as much as it was that I wanted something to acknowledge that they appreciated my business, appreciated that I hung in with them while they inconvenienced me.  I wanted something that told me they valued me as a customer.

When I signed my mortgage, they let me keep the pen. Of course, I had to sign over my first born to get the mortgage. But they showed they appreciated that by giving me the pen.  It meant something even though I could buy as many pens as I could use in my lifetime if I really wanted.  Well, maybe not now that I have this mortgage thing happening, but theoretically.

When my dad had his little grocery store in the 50s, we were taught from a young age to appreciate the customers because they put dinner on our table and clothes on our backs. And no matter what mom may have muttered as some of them left the store, while they were there, we waited on them with a smile.

And every Christmas we gave our faithful customers – which pretty much covered everyone in the neighborhood – a gift to thank them for the business. Even those who ran up big bills they never paid.  Even if they were the ones mom muttered about the most.  I still have a glass candy dish with gilt edging that we gave out one Christmas filled with candied almonds.

And this lady wouldn’t even give me a lousy pen.

But what was worse, what was absolutely embarrassing about the whole incident, was that I let her talk me into upgrading to a higher level card.  Here I was, mad as hell over the service I was receiving, and yet I let her talk me into paying them more for the privilege. 

That probably says something about how low our expectations of service have fallen in recent years.  The days of the small merchant eager to serve you and happy for your business are in great danger of going extinct while we all sit around and accept less and less for more and more.

And just to provide the perfect ending to this story, when the new card arrived it was not the upgraded card. When I called to ask what had happened, the new voice on the phone looked up my account and said, “Oh, it looks like she didn’t activate the request. I’ll do it now.” “Wait a minute” I said, “if you do that, I’ll have to call all these merchants today about my new account and then call them again when the new card comes in.  And then, since I’ve just noticed that you didn’t update my expiration date when you changed cards, I’ll have to call everyone again in June when it expires.”

“That’s right,” she said sweetly. “Is that a problem?”