It seems a day doesn't go by that I don't ask myself "Whatever happened to customer service?" During the winter holidays when telephone, Internet, and store traffic was at an all-time high, a drop-off in customer service may be unacceptable, but it is understandable. What is troublesome is that this nation has come to accept the deteriorating level of customer service throughout the year.

The other day I went online to conduct some business. The web site was down, with no explanation of when it was expected to be back up. I made a call to a technical support line and was put on hold "due to heavy call volume." Ok, it's possible there were a large number of people calling at the same time, but I called this number several times day and night for a few days and always got the same message, which called into question the automated "heavy call volume" message. In any event, I bit the bullet and finally connected. I waited almost 15 minutes, after punching too many buttons, so that my call "could be routed to the right department." Finally, a technician came on the line and did his best to answer my questions. It was obvious from our conversation that he did not have the answers or knowledge base I was looking for. I don't need the president of a company to answer the phone and take care of my problems, but is it asking too much to have at least someone who has in-depth knowledge of the product in question? He was very polite and did his best to help me, but sadly, I ended the phone call as frustrated as when it began. And forget about any kind of customer service in the vast majority of retail stores today. I've come across way too many disgruntled employees lately.

Now it could be that these were isolated incidents; but I don't think so. This was not the first call I've made to a customer service call center, nor the first time I've gone online to carry out a business transaction. And it certainly wasn't my first time in a retail store. While there are still many companies that do an excellent job of providing customer service, it is my experience that they generally tend to charge more for their products and services. The real question here is should anyone have to pay more for customer service? It appears that in today's economic climate, not only has it become an acceptable practice to charge for those services, Americans are already doing it.

In my opinion, one of the last surviving bastions of customer service is retail pharmacy, but unfortunately that too is quickly eroding. In the past, I have spent a great deal of time writing about patient counseling by pharmacists and I will continue to do so because I believe counseling is an integral part of a pharmacist's professional obligation. I have also advocated that pharmacists get paid for their counseling services. Some say I am blowing smoke in the wind and beating a dead horse. Others agree with me. Whatever your position, I believe customer service continues to separate the mediocre health care professionals from the ones that really stand out. Unfortunately, overworked and professionally unfulfilled pharmacists make for lousy customer service representatives. While it is true that the current shortage of pharmacists may be blamed on the escalation of new stores and, in some cases, deplorable retail working conditions, another reason is pharmacy students looking to enter retail are not being satisfied professionally. It is time for owners, managers, and third-party prescription programs to start paying pharmacists for their knowledge and not for the number of prescriptions they fill. Let's continue to keep customer service alive in retail pharmacy.

Harold E. Cohen, R.Ph.

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