A Culture of Incompetence…?

I guess I’m old-fashioned, or perhaps, an old fogey… or worse, because, when I pay for a good or service, I expect the good to be without defects and the service to be accomplished correctly and in time frame agreed upon.

Last month I had to buy new hoses for my washing machine. I had to take back the first set, and they were the most expensive set, because they leaked… right out of the packaging. Last week, I bought a 13 gallon plastic storage bin, and when I brought it home and set it down, empty, on the floor, the seam split.

We live in a small town with two furniture stores, and when we wanted to replace some furniture that we’d had for more than twenty years, we couldn’t find anything at either store… or in their catalogues… that remotely resembled anything we wanted. Everything was overlarge, overstuffed, and oppressively dark. So, on a business trip to North Carolina, the heartland of American furniture making and outlets, my wife found what we wanted, and the company agreed to ship it, at our expense, of course. The company stated that it would take three to five weeks to arrive. It still hasn’t arrived, and it’s seven weeks and counting. I’ve been talking to the company almost daily, and I finally pried out that the furniture hasn’t even left North Carolina, and the latest estimate is another three weeks before it gets here, and no other freight forwarder can do it in less than three to six weeks. Further investigation revealed that the freight company didn’t even pick up the furniture until two weeks after the date I was told it had shipped. Whether all this is incompetence or indifference, or some combination of both, I really don’t care. What I do care about is that I’ve been lied to and that no one seems able or willing to do anything about it, except say that, in effect, that’s the way it is.

I have a friend who’s a contractor, and a very good one. He has a small team of employees who can do many of the tasks, such as framing, finish carpentry, moderate earth-moving, tiling, etc., and anything his team can do is done well and on time. Anything that he has to subcontract is another story – and about half the subcontractors in the area he won’t use, because they’re even worse. He also admits he’s racist at times, because the only reliable and truly professional drywall firm is Latino, and the best painters are also.

Along those lines, we decided that a pull-down ladder was a better way of getting into the storage space above the garage than standing on a step-ladder. The company sent three wrong ladders with the incorrect dimensions before finally sending the correct size.

After twenty years, we bought a new refrigerator. The new refrigerator arrived right out of the packaging – unpackaged in our kitchen – with a noticeable dent in the front door. The warranty/service covered this, and just this past Wednesday, a month after the refrigerator was first delivered, a new door arrived – except when it came out of the four layers of packaging, it had a bigger dent than the door it was supposed to replace.

I am not making up any of this, and I could have given several more examples, as well. That’s why I’m more than a little concerned about the future of the United States. I certainly don’t recall as much incompetence in as many areas as I’m seeing now, and I don’t think it’s entirely that I’ve become more of a perfectionist as I’ve aged… or a prematurely aged old fogey.

9 thoughts on “A Culture of Incompetence…?”

  1. John Prigent says:

    I’m curious. Over here in England we have legislation that requires new goods to be intact, not faulty, and undamaged, but you had to use the warranty/service to get a replacement door. If it happened here you’d be entitled to demand the immediate replacement of the fridge with one that was undamaged. Don’t you have similar laws in the US, and a system to enforce them? One of my neighbours had a similar experience, with a newly-installed boiler that was faulty on arrival and an announcement that it would take two or three weeks to get the part needed to fix it. A couple of us gave him chapter and verse of his legal entitlements, and as far as I know it was fixed the following day – the supplier’s van was outside his house next afternoon, anyway.

    1. Grey says:

      There are various laws that apply (each state has a commercial code, as well as minimum standards for express and implied warranties, as well as ‘lemon’ laws and etc.). You would need to follow the requirements for the warranty, but the seller would have latitude in how quickly it had to respond.

  2. Corwin says:

    Yep, same sort of thing applies down here in OZ as in the UK. Guess it’s time for you to retire to Australia and write your excellent books while lying on a sun soaked beach or sitting on a porch in a beautiful rainforest. 🙂

  3. Wine Guy says:

    “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” – Henry Ford

    Personally, I believe that part of this culture of incompetence comes from how we have gone from having standards and demanding things be done properly to supporting the self-esteem of those who think ‘just enough’ (or more likely ‘barely scraping by’) is good enough.

    This is true for businesses as well as people.

  4. Plovdiv says:

    I don’t think you’re being overly perfectionist, or an old fogey. It is perfectly reasonable to expect something to work or not be defective when you have paid for it. Added to this, it is perfectly reasonable to expect higher levels of customer service than you have, given the amount paid. I’m saying all this as a man in my very early 20’s in the UK, part of that millenial generation everyone despairs of, often rightly. I agree with you that these issues speak of wider problems in modern American society, and they seem to be getting worse, more common and more entrenched as the new normal for those not worth billions of $$$’s.

  5. John Prigent says:

    It seems that the quickest way to get defective stuff replaced, even with English law on our side, is to pay by credit card and tell the supplier that if a replacement is not forthcoming asap we will ask the card provider to operate ‘chargeback’. Do you have that ability in the US?

  6. Plovdiv says:

    Just a quick question: What os your take on the Amazon v Hachette dispute? Will you do a post on it?

    1. In terms of principle, I see no difference between the Amazon v. Hachette conflict, and the earlier “anti-trust” action resulting from the five publishers versus Amazon. Amazon is attempting to use a monopoly position to screw publishers and authors, all under the cover of “cheaper books.” Jeff Bezos doesn’t give a damn about the consumer; he’s just using that as a lever to hammer concessions from all of Amazon’s suppliers, which is an abuse of monopoly power. In essence, Amazon has gained a monopoly position in selling books, and is using that position to extort concessions from suppliers. Technically, that’s monopsony, but so far as I know, while U.S. anti-trust laws include monopsony as an offense, and even though it’s effectively just as much restraint of trade as raising prices through monopoly., no U.S. court has ever convicted any company of anti-trust violations as a monopsonist.

  7. D Archerd says:

    There are still some vendors who provide exemplary customer service and fully stand behind their products under any and all circumstances. I’d cite Weber barbecues and Briggs & Riley luggage as two from my own personal experience. No, they’re not the cheapest, but the consistency, reliability and quality are definitely worth the cost. But it is also sadly true that pride in workmanship and a customer-focused service mentality has been deteriorating in the past few decades, at least in more areas that are visible to consumers. Home construction contractors are among the most notorious because there are so few ways to ensure there are consequences to them for bad service, and those contractors who are reliable and provide high quality are typically booked up for the next three years for that very reason.

    But before we wax too lyrical in defense of the “good old days” when things were better, it is wise to recall that charlatans, “flim-flam men”, patent medicine salesmen and the like were a cliché in the 19th century, and that even in the 1950’s and 60’s folks in the know were careful not to purchase a Detroit automobile that was assembled on a Monday or Friday due to the much higher likelihood of getting a “lemon”.

    But if things are getting worse in terms of product quality and reliable service, there are a few factors that may be at work. First, the increasing mobility and anonymity of modern society means it is difficult to hold offenders to account. In a small town, everyone quickly knew it if you did bad work or didn’t deliver what you promised and you’d find it tough to get more business; in a primarily urban and highly mobile society this is much more difficult, and doing business over the internet compounds the problem even more. Second, the breakdown of family and societal strictures – while providing relief from sometimes stifling conformity – also removed the underpinnings of what is considered ethical and acceptable behavior. If people can continue to hold jobs and get paid while providing bad service and poor quality, then it’s understandable (though not admirable) that they should do so.

    Finally, while the direct responsibility for good quality and reliable service rests with the owners and management of the companies who provide the goods and services, we as consumers can do much more than we sometimes do. The internet works both ways. If you’ve been the victim of bad quality and broken promises, you have the ability to let millions of people know about it and to name names. Companies pay very close attention these days to what is said about them on online reviews and in Facebook and Twitter chatter. The minute these poor-quality and unreliable companies start seeing an impact to their sales and profitability, they will start paying attention to providing what their customers require.

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