By Maureen Rogers
One of the worst jobs I ever had – and, given some of the jobs I’ve had, that’s really saying something – was as a customer service rep at Sears.
In those days, of course, we didn’t have a fancy name for the job like “customer service rep”, let alone a fancy acronym like CSR. I have no idea what the official title was, but we called ourselves “customer complaint takers.”
This job – which I worked for a while when I was in college, well over 30 years ago – was at the Sears regional headquarters in Boston. As I recall, our service area covered New England, upstate New York, Quebec Province, and the Maritimes.
I worked there with a couple of friends, and we were given absolutely no training whatsoever – just thrown on the phones, where we took complaints down on paper forms (those multiple layer ones like you get with a Fed-Ex label). After we took the complaint, we distributed the copies to multiple areas where – presumably – someone would eventually act on them. The pink copy went into a vast, rotary “tub file”. You hit some sort of button, the tub churned to the right letter of the alphabet, and you tucked the file into the appropriate place.
Some of the complaints I remember as vividly as if I had handled the call yesterday.
A man named Peter Rabbitt called one day and, with a pronounced brogue, informed me that Sears had not picked up his old fridge, which they’d promised to do when they delivered his new one.
“I’ve a good mind,” Mr. Rabbitt told me, “To just put the old ice box out on my front lawn.”
Well, that would sure show Sears now, wouldn’t it? (I hope he took the door off of it, which I’m sure that he did, as he sounded like a thoroughly conscientious and decent person.)
One woman called to track her order – Christmas presents for her kids. Unfortunately, she’d sent cash – $17 – rather than a check or money order, so her order was long gone and there wasn’t much we could do to trace it. When I commiserated with her, she told me I was very nice and asked me if I were the owner.
No, I explained, it was kind of a big place and I just worked there.
Another time, I was blasted by someone from Dorchester (a blue collar area of Boston), who demanded that I “get my ass down to Dorchester with the paint” she’d ordered so that her husband could paint their house during his rapidly dwindling week off.
This was in the days before vulgarity was quite so common, but I did tell her that I, personally, was just taking down the information and would not be getting my ass anywhere.
The woman backed down and was actually quite sweet and reasonable. And, of course, she had a point about the missed delivery date for the paint.
I told her I’d see what I could do, which wasn’t much other than put the pink copy of the complaint in the rotary file. I can’t recall where the multitude of other colored copies went. I seem to recall tossing them in the wastebasket but, despite the fact that we received no training, this doesn’t strike me as quite right.
When we weren’t taking incoming calls and/or when we reached the magic hour of 5 p.m., when inbound customer service was turned off, we followed up on orders that were not clear. (In those unimaginably by-gone days, when we were not in such a great rush to get work boots, Lincoln Logs, cross-cut saws, house dresses, and hand-held mixers absolutely, positively, overnight, people actually placed catalog orders via the mail. How very quaint!)
If there was something unclear on the order form, it was our job to call and ask for clarification.
I remembered an attempt to call some old Down East geezer in Maine, who had written in that he needed a “puny” for his “furcane.” I was canny enough to realize that he was probably looking for some thingamajig for his “furnace,” not his “furcane”, but I wasn’t able to interpret “puny”. Nor was I ever able to reach him. I wonder if he ever got his “puny”.
One of my favorite calls was to a French speaking family up in Quebec.
Since my French was limited to the “ou est la bibliotheque?” variety I’d learned in high school, I was not able to get across to Mme. Gary Doyon that we needed to know what name to put on the personalized ballerina pillowcase she’d ordered.
When I explained to my boss that I wasn’t able to get an answer, he grabbed the form and wrote “Gary” where the name went.
I told him I was pretty certain that the recipient of the ballerina pillowcase did not have the first name of “Gary”, but I was overruled.
Somewhere up in Canada, a disappointed little girl found a pillowcase with “Gary” on it under the Christmas tree. What a Joyeux Noel that must have been, eh, ma petite?
Customer complaint taker! What a miserable job!
When I wasn’t laughing myself silly, I hated every moment there – mostly because I didn’t feel that I ever helped one single Sears customer derive any customer satisfaction whatsoever from any encounter with Sears that involved me.
Every time I feel like raging at a CSR, or slamming the phone down on them, I think back to my time, gamely manning the phones for Sears, calling Quebec on a cold, December night, trying to ask Madame Gary Doyon what name she wanted on the ballerina pillowcase.