Thursday, December 4, 2008

Megan McArdle has customer service issues at Sears

Megan McArdle has been having a lot of trouble getting Sears to fix her washer. She spends a fair number of pixels ranting. I can sympathize, as I think just about any American - or, indeed, any resident of a modern society - can. How bad was it?

Obviously, they have lost a customer in me. Though I have reluctantly agreed that if my car breaks down in a remote northern town where Sears is the only repair vendor, they can fix it, they'll be holding ice festivals in Beelzebub's back garden before I will voluntarily purchase so much as a $1.59 box of nails from them.
I'm going to take a stab at a economic/historic explanation.

Let's go back 50 years, to 1958. Let's take a look at the technology in the average American home, the kind that requires a repairman. That would include a car, washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, TV, radio, record player, vacuum cleaner, heater, plumbing, toaster, stove, oven, refrigerator, blender, maybe AC, possibly a typewriter. Most of those are mechanical, just a couple are electronic. I think we can assume that all of them break down more regularly than they do today, just because we are better at making things than we used to be. I think we can also assume that all of them were more expensive - in constant dollars - than they are today. So disposing of them was not an option for most people. So they needed regular repair. Which means a good market for repairmen (I'm assuming there weren't a lot of repairwomen).

Now let's think about who would have been repairing this stuff. Being a repairman requires a certain amount of mechanical aptitude, halfway decent interpersonal skills, and a certain degree of professionalism. In 1958, there would have been a certain pool of men with those skills, who would have held those jobs. Assuming that those jobs paid reasonably well, because of the demand, we can assume that there was competition for them. So the people with solid mechanical skills, but better-than-average people skills and a strong sense of professionalism would have had an advantage, and could make more money.

But if you combine those same abilities, i.e. mechanical aptitude, good people skills, and a sense of professionalism, with a college degree, you can make even more money. In 1958, a repairman who was 40 would have been born in 1918, and probably would not have had much opportunity to go to college. Today, someone with those skills and a degree could be an X-ray technician, a computer programmer, product designer, or even a rocket scientist. So the available pool of labor for repairmen is much, much smaller. Which means that the emphasis on hiring people will be on finding people with mechanical aptitude, and a company will be lucky if they get a solid professional with a strong sense of customer service.

I have some personal experience with this, specifically at Sears, although my experience is the exact opposite of Megan's. I have a brother-in-law with excellent technical skills and great people skills who is a consummate professional. He worked at Sears once, at the headquarters, doing something with their Website. He left fairly quickly. Of course, he can do that because he has a master's degree in computer science from Harvard.

There is one solution that we, as a society, use. We import people who could make good repair people. I once hired a guy to help me move some furniture. I only hired him to help me move something - that was it. But he turned out to be a furniture installer, and he assembled a desk that I needed put together. He was from Guatemala. He was great. Saved me hours.

Of course, there are limits to this solution as well. My brother-in-law, the technogeek (who is the go-to guy in the family for fixing computer problems), is from Mexico.

Maybe some day someone will realize that people like Megan McArdle will pay very well for someone who can fix her washer on time. And maybe some day someone will realize that there are millions of people like Megan McArdle. Hundreds of millions.

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