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It's because the companies don't give a rat's rear, actually


As Americans, we like our things. Boy, do we like our things. We like our little impulse buys and we like our big luxuries.

But we want it affordable.

So we've moved from a culture of craftsmanship to a culture of mass production. This isn't limited to products, either. It extends all the way to customer service, too.

My mind started down this path a while back, but it began honing in on the topic late last week. A week ago, my husband and I took a long weekend getaway to a little resort within driving distance. It was our anniversary trip, and we'd planned it long before the other travel came up. While there, we chatted with a man who asked where we lived. We told him and he asked if we were "from there." My husband said yes, I said no, and somehow within a few minutes he was telling us he'd moved from Maine around the same time as us for more or less some of the same reasons.

"I grew up here," he told us, meaning the city near the resort, "But like you was away for a long time. You forget a few things, like how fond Texans are of their big trucks. Everyone here wants some enormous SUV and the more luxurious the better. I was talking to a guy the other day and he was saying he wished he could afford something, and I thought, 'Guy, you have a Lexus SUV and you can't afford this, are you kidding me?' It's a matter of priorities and Texans will sacrifice anything for a luxury huge truck. Not only that but they'll do it every couple of years so it's always new!"

I started thinking about it, and decided he was right. Texans are overly fond of fancy and huge vehicles. I've driven through some areas you might consider poor. The houses are ramshackle, broken windows patched with cardboard, yards overgrown...certainly not affluent. And yet, in the driveway? A brand-new Expedition.

My husband and I consider a car something you buy, own free and clear, maintain and drive until it crumbles into pieces on the side of the road. Every now and again we crave a new car, or a minivan. We consider how much it would cost and that we'd have to finance it, and suddenly the approximately $1000 per year we spend on our cars doesn't seem like much money. We want safe cars, good cars. And we have them. new cars are nice, but it's not our priority and we won't risk other things for a new car. Our priorities are attached elsewhere.

This seems to be atypical for our area. You might be shocked by the number of H2 Hummers on the roads here. I am.

But it's reflective of our cultural greed. Yes, I said it: g-r-e-e-d.

I'm not immune. I'm greedy too. Our cars are old and old-ish and paid for, but they are nice cars.

I fall victim to consumerism in every other way too. I want a nice house with nice things in it. I want my world to look pretty, and I want what I want when I want it. I like being able to take trips; buy Halloween costumes for my kids; come home from Target with a non-catastrophic shopping trip due to a stroll down the dollar row, cheapo toyesque crap in two small hands.

I'm susceptible to commercials and messages that tell me I need. I'm gullible to sales, and tactics that induce a false sense of urgency to "buy now! good deal!" in me.

I have had to work hard to overcome these urges and create new buying (or rather not buying) patterns. I have to work carefully to maintain purchasing balance, working within my budget but not to the unnecessary for us extreme of total deprivation (which can prompt a spree). I understand I am a product of myself and my culture, and to people who'd love to simply have one half of one of my meals for one day, I sound ridiculous. Not to mention the rest of what I have.

In the end, these days, what sells me is service.

I like to use my buying power to a good end. In return, I like to feel good about how I spend my money. I want to make sure I've spent it on what I should, where I should.

I haven't felt that way lately. I think this is largely because most of my money has gone to service, service for my house.

I've written about my aggravation with Best Buy and Whirlpool. I've ranted somewhere (here? there? everywhere?) with my ongoing annoyance at the plumbers who have not fixed my plumbing.

I do know I've ranted at the home warranty company to whom I pay insurance extortion to make sure we can repair things that go wrong in our "vintage" home.

The girl who listened to me practically snapped her gum in my ear in boredom.

"My GOD," I wondered to myself, all 85 and curmudgeonly, "Whatever happened to commitment to quality? To service? To caring?"

I realized that most of these service representatives are probably a generation behind me and don't recall a world that wasn't here today, gone tomorrow mass produced.

And I suddenly felt not only the paralysis of aging but also the realization that the world is moving forward faster now than I am. Worse than that, I realized I have become one of Those People who happily reminisce about the Way Things Were. And even worse than that, I was forced to acknowledge that I preferred the way things were in the Olden Days.

I live in an el cheapo world of mass production and nobody but me expects anybody to care or anything to last longer than a year.

I sat there and told that home warranty customer service girl that they should stop working with this plumbing company if anyone other than me had a problem because it reflected poorly on their company. I repeated myself three or four times because she had no reaction or response whatsoever and I thought she must not understand me.

No, it is me who misunderstands.

When I pondered deeper, I realized, "What are the odds this girl makes as much as much less more than $10 an hour from a company she cares not one whit for and probably will not work for in one year's time?"

Slim to none, my friends.

She has no motivation to care about me. She doesn't care about the company that employs her; it's just a job, and probably not even one she likes at all. I bet she didn't even bother herself to write down my complaint.

The plumber? Although he ought to have a commitment to craft, he works for a Big Company now and is assembly line like everything else these days.

The fact that he barely fixed one problem, created another, then took nearly a month to come back and fix that, which he tried to do half-assed after arriving three hours late (creating an 8 hour wait time for me)? Didn't even register for him.

I reported poor customer service to people who didn't care who worked for a company that didn't care.

It's because they don't care about building customer relationships any longer. They don't. One time sales. In and out. Up the bottom line. Decrease expenses. How big a bonus can the CEO get and how little can we pay our employees?

Loyalty is what is missing, and because of that, care and quality are what is missing.

I don't have a McLife. I don't drive a McSUV. I don't live in a McHouse. I don't SuperSize everything. I like the Simple Life, green, high-quality and considerate.

I feel like an old-timer when I say it, but I miss the old days when more things were out of reach. When things weren't so mass produced because everyone felt an entitlement to everything. When customer service wasn't subcontracted to another country where people really named Jaimin answer to Joe and try for a generic US television accent, and cultural needs and nuances are lost, as are personal relationships and caring.

It might be monetarily cheaper for companies to invest in new customers instead of retention of existing ones, but it costs us so much more in so many other ways.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Also blogging at:
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flutter said…
You know it's funny. I get crap all the time from girls at work because I don't buy my clothes at target. I buy more expensive stuff, not because I think it makes me look fancy or rich, but because I know I will have it for a long time because it is made well and I buy classic stuff.

Meanwhile? I drive a PT Cruiser and they all drive H3 and BMW and trade them in every two years....yeah, I'm the snob though...
thailandchani said…
Well, I don't buy much really. I don't like the burden of too many possessions which I have to move around when I move.

When I was driving, I drove a used Geo Metro and liked it perfectly well. When my next eye surgery is done, I'll buy another ... used Geo Metro.

My luxury is my clothes.. which I don't pay much for.. but the shipping is deadly since all of it comes from Thailand.

As a consequence of all that, I don't deal much with customer care call centers. When I do, my impatience is rather startling, even to me.

The faux representatives from other countries whose labor is being exploited completely p***es me off! It irritates me on a personal level but even moreso knowing what is going on in those places where Jaiman answers to Joe. It scares the crap out of me!

The world is NOT "flat". I don't care what the current gaggle of economic knuckleheads are saying.

Peace, (yes, really... rant notwithstanding :)

Suz said…
I tend to engage in a pretty consistent battle with my materialistic tendencies. We also drive our cars into the ground, but I find it difficult to resist "nice" or well-made things. Like you, I like to surround myself with beauty. I believe in paying for what I get and getting what I pay for.

However....this has proven not to be the case when getting things done for our home. We've contracted for work that wasn't finished or so poorly done that we've had to rip it out and pay someone else to do it. The better business bureau hasn't been much help either. I think that the cause is exactly what you state - the worst offender is a company where someone turned up to price the work and an entire different someone (usually hispanic) showed up. So, the exploitation isn't only folks in India but people exploiting others right here - not giving them the tools or the training necessary to do the work. Since then, I've been much more careful about who I hire and try to make sure that the person I deal with on the phone is actually doing the work (or at least comes by to check on it).
Unknown said…
The lure of the "I need" is like gravity... a seemingly irresistible force.

When Paul and I were first married, we lived in a duplex which we rented. We had one couple we hung out with occasionally who had just bought a large home which took all they had. The husband joked about brown bagging it for lunch for the rest of his life. Paul and I never wanted to live somewhere at the expense of being able to go places and do things. Yet somehow, we always left this couple with the feeling that we were losing the rat race. We didn't even want to be in the race but we felt its pull very strongly.
S said…
Amen, sister. My husband and I have the exact same attitude as you and yours do about cars. We've never owned a brand-new car. We buy cars that others trade in, with 20K or 25K miles on them, cars that are 2 or 3 years old and perfectly fine. We buy station wagons or sedans.

However, unlike you, I am a Luddite from way back. ;) I own my Luddite-ishness? Luddition?
Catherine said…
Yes, yes. Cheap, and efficient. But those two qualities are mutually exclusive of so many other good qualities...
Girlplustwo said…
our cars are a decade old. we rent and have no furniture but some old stuff and give aways.

we have an old TV, cheap appliances. everyone i know has better stuff. we save our money and use it to travel.

occasionally i compare but we'd never be able to really, we look like college kids in comparison to everyone i know. occasionally i notice, but over all i am content with this, for me.
MARY G said…
You make some really good points -- but if you feel like an old curmugeon, what does that make me? I really hate the outsourced call centres, even if a lot of them are in Canada.
I buy as good a whatever as I can afford, and then make it last. And last. Except computers. I am a sucker for nice big new hard drives.
SM, what about Luddititude?
I owned my first vehicle -- a little Isuzu pickup -- for 10 years! I never cared much about cars. As long as they get me where I need to be ...

As for the rest of it --

During my young-and-single years, my weakness was clothes. Oh, and books. The many, many books ...

These days, I just want to make sure my kids have the basics. Food. Clothes. A sense of security.

And instead of haunting bookstores, I head to the library.
painted maypole said…
oh yes. i have not yet ranted about my bad experience with a phone company as I need to get some money from them, but this lack of concern on the part of the customer service folk is just infuriating.
Anonymous said…
Well said!
We live in a neighbourhood where everyone gets the top of the line, new, new, new all the time. It is hard to go against the grain. You visit a friend, come home, look around and think "how can we LIVE like this?"

It's such an anxiety-ridden way of life. Must. Have. More. Stuff. To what end? It's not going to make the kids any neater or the marriage any better.

The commercials, too. We are all victims of consumerism in some way. Including our kids and their Halloween needs.

Now, away from home for a year, I am getting a new perspective on our life back in Canada. Spending more time outdoors is doing wonders. No need for stuff there, except good hiking boots.

I just hope I'll be able to withstand the pressure of North American living upon my return.

Thank you for yet another excellent post.

- Heidi
Julie Pippert said…
Flutter, in my DINK days I couldn't afford the top designers, of course, but I could afford name brands and good quality, on sale. My sister, Flavia, ace shopper, strongly believes it's better to buy quality on sale or as you can afford because in the long-run it ends up being less over all. I agree. Except, shopping isn't my thing and with the kids...well I admit it: I dress from Target. LOL Your point, though, is well-made.

Chani, a while back I posted about okay indulgences based on an article a finance guy wrote that I really agreed with. The truth is, we are lucky here in general and we can all afford some luxury in some way (relatively).

I think the difference between you (and some others) and other people is the conscious realization that things are generally WANTS not NEEDS, and while you have money, you have *chosen* to spend it *here,* not *there.* That's such a rare actualization point, seriously.

It's like people and their cars here. They think they *need* a ginormous, gas-guzzling, expensive SUV. Sometimes, yes, I see the case. Others, not so much.

I mean, what's it mean to ME to have the same size family of 4 (or bigger in some cases) and have my small-ish car and hear constantly, "Oh we could never fit into something that small, we need an Expedition."

It's usually off my back but then the kids start with the, "If we had a minivan our friends could ride with us," and I think oh maybe we are being ridiculous...then I snap back. But it is like a barrage, like some many commenters have said.

Suz, there is NO excuse for poor craftmanship on homes, and yet I know it is way too common. I am so sorry you've dealt with that. It's exactly like you've said (which I obviously agree with) that it is people subcontracting and not overseeing the quality, not to mention exploiting. You are smart to look for someone who runs it himself.

It is hard to fight the materialism message, especially as they make things more and more affordable, or seemingly so.

M-L, an irresistible gravity, yes, that's it! Sometimes you get too close and nearly get sucked down the black hole. I know what you mean. We too are near people who live much fancier than we do, but I must say it is a little easier here. More working class style lives. Ironically.

SM, WHAT?!?! UNLIKE ME??! Dude, I am a long-avowed Luddite. I am the blogger who whines about cell phones (which I don't like), computerized appliances (which I hate), electronic calendars (spawn of Satan), and still use a 40 year old dial for my climate control, LOL. I don't even like cooking with electricity, LOL. I swear I am going to do a blog search of "luddite" on my blog LOL and tell you how many returns I get LOL.

Suffice it to say I like my 20th century conveniences but am not that hip to the 21st century.

Also suffice it to say I bet you are in good company with me on this topic. :)

Catherine, they shouldn't need to be, you are right.

Jen, I think that's cool, I do. And you know? I appreciate that you said you notice. I do too and have to talk myself down, LOL. My strength/weakness is I notice "room for improvement" and improve...that's my job. It's how my mind is wired, too, and I can get out of hand with it.

Mary G, I'd don't don't seem curmudgeonly, so maybe hip? :) See, another advocate for quality and confession of indulgence.

Back later for rest...
Anonymous said…
It's amazing how a little thing like service can make you come back...or leave forever.
The book you want to read is Robert Reich's "Supercapitalism." I'll send you a book review I know is coming out soon, when it does.

Emily said…
I have been thinking this same thing for the last couple of years. It feels like someone has reversed the value of things, like having MORE MORE MORE is the GOAL GOAL GOAL, while appreciating simple beauty and rare extravagance have completely lost their appeal. You said it earlier: We can afford some luxury in this country. But I hate that entitled feeling that creeps inside of me.

Great post!
ewe are here said…
Service can make all the difference... it really can.

Wonderful post.
Lawyer Mama said…
Oh god, it's so true. I feel like an old lady every time I go shopping or call customer service.

The culture of consumerism is killing me too. Don't get me wrong, I'm a slave to it at times as well. I buy nice-ish clothes because they last longer and look better. I have a newish car because it's reliable and safe. I have a nice house, but it's old and not nearly what we could afford. It's just big enough for us. But our stereo system is from, I swear to god, 1988 and we don't own a flat screen TV.

Could we afford designer clothes a Lexus and a McMansion? I'm sure we could but we have other priorities. Like saving for retirement and supporting social causes we care about. And educating our children to NOT be spend thrifts.
Anonymous said…
There really isn't a middle ground. Back in the day if you wanted nice clothes you could go to stores like Macy's and find expensive but good quality clothes. I went to Macy's to find "Sunday clothes" for my daughter and the clothes were complete crap, but still expensive. I ended up buying her stuff at Target and Gap and pretty much clothe our entire family from these two stores. The only alternative would be to drive to the city and shop at Neiman's and buy outrageously expensive clothes and I'm just not going to do that.

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