Saturday, January 23, 2010

Free Service

While my micro and macro economic chops aren't what they used to be (if in truth they ever were), I don't recall any direct correlation between price and service. Go to McDonald's, order a Big Mac for about four dollars, and it usually comes out pretty quick and hot. But if you order a hamburger off their value menu for a buck, it'll probably arrive just as fast. The same happens at gas stations and stores, with plumbers and painters. Prices may vary, but it's not always what costs the most that is delivered with the highest level of service. Put another way, you can sometimes get more help in Target than you can in Lord & Taylor, assuming you're willing to go with Fruit of the Loom over Christian Lacroix.

So when you're dealing with products and services that in essence cost nothing, you hope for the best, but expect the worst. This is especially the case with municipal services (yes, I know, they aren't really free, your taxes pay for them, but go with me here). That's not to say that all public agencies or public employees you deal with don't care about their consumers. But who among us doesn't quiver at the thought of having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles?

So when you hit a situation where the reverse happens, where you expect the worst and get the best, it stands out. This story started when I discovered that the library system where we live loans out ebooks. Much like a traditional book, the library only buys a limited number of rights-protected copies, which can only be lent out to one patron at a time. If you see one you want, you put your name on a wish list and receive an email when your turn comes up. You then have 3 days to download it, or it goes to the next person on the list. At the other end, it vanishes magically from your reader after 14 days... no late fines ever accrue.

Early in the fall I saw that there was a new unpublished book by Michael Crichton due out, one discovered in his computer after his death. When I saw the advance word, I put my name on the list. When the library got it's copy on Tuesday, November 24th, I got an automatic notice at 12:05AM telling me it was available for download. As I was finishing another book, I delayed getting it for 3 days, which turned out to be Thanksgiving morning. Unfortunately, the gremlins were at play: repeated attempts to access the system failed. I sent a note through the online trouble system, assuming that no one would look at it until after the holiday. That meant that I would lose my hold at midnight and have to go to the bottom of what was now a lengthy list to check it out.

But to my surprise a note quickly popped up from Mike at the library. He apologized for the trouble, said they were doing some maintenance and wished me a happy holiday. I quickly wrote him back, thanking him for his reply, and urged to him to enjoy the holiday with his family. I was surprised and pleased to get any reply, and thought that was that. Yes, I would have liked to be the first on my block to read the book and be the envy of all the other Crichton groupies, but I hated to stand between a guy and his turkey.

So I was even more surprised after we finished our pumpkin pie to find yet another note from him to the effect that the system was back up, and I would therefore be able to download my book before the hold expired. Needless to say, I did just that. (I can report that it's a quick and entertaining read, has characters, settings and situations that make it destined to be turned into a movie, and that Spielberg has indeed snapped up the development rights).

With the timing of the problems and the particular day in question, I certainly would not have expected any action. And indeed, Mike could have easily let it ride as he enjoyed his own holiday. You can even argue that all he did was his job, and so there is no reason to call attention to it. You could, but I think you'd be wrong.

The more everything gets commoditized, the more you have to try harder to stand out. Price is certainly a consideration in everything, but you can always find something cheaper. The real question isn't price, it's value. Doesn't matter what it is or what it costs, service can make the difference. Mike knew that. There're a lot of people that could learn that lesson.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to compete on service, not price. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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