My dreaded monthly trip to CVS to pick up a prescription is a guaranteed opportunity for reflection. Invariably, there is at least a 20-minute wait, which I especially resent because I pay for home delivery and only once managed to get the service. That translates into four hours a year of lost productivity and seething resentment.
Being the positive person I am, my tombstone will be inscribed: “Being here sucks, but at least I’m done waiting at CVS.”
This morning’s CVS trip was particularly awful, but one where I gained clarity about the growing anger and incivility in America.
When I arrived, there was the normal four-person wait, which I imagine is deliberate. Companies like CVS are data-driven, and they know the ebb and flow of customer traffic. At the 24-hour CVS store in West LA I frequent, it takes about five minutes to process each pharmacy pickup. Hence the typical minimum 20-minute wait.
But today things went awry. The cheery elderly woman in front of me who admired my dog (I need my dog when I go to CVS to keep me calm) had an issue when her turn was called. The woman talked loudly, and her issue seemed curious: If I heard correctly, she didn’t want a 20 percent CVS discount applied on her prescription.
The clerk couldn’t remove the discount, and the elderly woman, who seemed in an upbeat mood when she arrived, began to get testy. The clerk again tried to remove the discount, but the computer wouldn’t cooperate. This went on for about ten minutes. Someone more senior needed to be called.
Meanwhile, the line started getting longer. And longer. Eventually, it extended nearly to the entrance because people were social distancing. That made the line look longer.
Then people snapped.
The woman behind me, after making increasingly louder sighs and grunting noises, shouted to the elderly woman that she was holding up the line and that she should step aside so other people could get their prescriptions. The woman behind her shouted that she was picking up a prescription for her mother and that the cashier needed to work faster.
There were more shouts from the back of the line.
As for me, I just dropped my dog’s leash to the ground, and he laid down. He’s a wicked smart pooch: He knows our CVS routine and understood we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I surveyed the scene and it hit me what was wrong with the picture. It wasn’t the cashier’s fault the computer wouldn’t process her command; either there was a glitch in the system, or she wasn’t properly trained how to use it. It wasn’t the elderly woman’s fault that her issue was holding up the line. The people behind me shouting their protests were understandably frustrated by CVS’s deficient staffing and training.
On multiple occasions I’ve asked to speak to a store manager, but each time I was told none was available. I could write to CVS, but I’d likely get some canned response, if I got one at all. CVS occasionally sends me a survey that it says will take 15 minutes to complete, but I’ll get $10 if I “qualify.” That’s just what I want to do: Waste 10 minutes figuring out if I qualify and another 15 minutes to complete a survey designed to gauge my level of frustration. Rest assured, if enough people give a “satisfactory” rating for customer service, CVS will test the waters with slightly longer wait times.
The tragedy is the people responsible for the horrific customer experience my fellow shoppers and I sustained this morning are inured from the consequences of their actions. What’s especially galling is that CVS’s top management benefits from the long waits. Often people who go to drug stores to get prescriptions filled are sick with contagious illnesses, so having them linger in the store for a spell can spread those illnesses to healthy people, and then they, too, will return and require more prescriptions. CVS is hoping to staff its stores with Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners, who studies show write more prescriptions than doctors.
It’s a brilliant business model: Make healthy people get sick lingering among sick people, make money on the diagnosis, and then make money on the treatment. CVS CEO Karen Lynch, who snared the top job in February, is one smart and lucky cookie. Lynch’s salary isn’t yet publicly disclosed, but her predecessor Larry Merlo earned $36.5 million in 2019. That, too, makes me sick.
The scene I experienced at CVS this morning played out in various iterations around the country. At this moment, tens of thousands, if not millions, are pounding 0 on their phones or shouting at the top of their lungs, “TALK TO A REPRESENTATIVE!” to no avail. I’m sure I’m not the only one who prefaces every conversation with a Verizon representative telling the person just how much I despise Verizon.
Think about that: Some hapless Verizon “team member” struggling to get by on a paltry salary every day must endure an avalanche of negativity for which they aren’t responsible. The person responsible is CEO Hans Vestberg, who I felt good publicly skewering but I doubt ever read my takedown. If he did, he likely didn’t care. Hans last year pulled down $19 million, and I suspect he considers me a loser for using his company’s service.
The folks who really take an exceptional heaping of abuse are those in the travel industry. Despite being bailed out by taxpayers, the U.S. airlines are back to their old shady practices: Overbooking flights or cancelling them altogether, blaming God and Mother Nature even when it’s a picture-perfect day across America. An industry source tells me that the most common reason for flight cancellations is a crew shortage, and that the airlines wait till the very last minute to let customers know they’re not going to attend their weddings, funerals, and other events they planned to attend. Airline gate and customer support agents bear the brunt of the ensuing anger.
I was astounded to read the response of Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, about frustrated customers waiting up to nine hours to get customer support. Bastian said he’s “sensitive” to the issue, but things won’t improve until September because the airline doesn’t have sufficient call center staff to handle post-pandemic volumes.
This is where Ed and I have a different outlook. I would argue that Delta’s seat sales should be calibrated to the level of customer support it can provide. Therein is why Ed earned $17.3 million in 2019, and I’m struggling building an audience writing a free-to-read blog. Admittedly, Ed was a little distracted this year doing media interviews to explain his intensely studied opposition to Georgia’s voting law.
The mounting customer service aggravations Americans must sustain increasingly are manifesting themselves in very dangerous ways. Here in Los Angeles, where people drive like A-holes even in the best of times, road rage has increased dramatically since pandemic restrictions were lifted. Drivers aggressively going out of their way to make someone miss their turn or exit. I was recently cut off by someone in front of a Verizon store so I felt empathy for him.
In hospital emergency rooms, doctors and nurses are being subjected to alarming levels of violence from disgruntled patients. I submit that some of the intense anger about mask wearing Is partly driven by the growing frustration living life on life’s customer service terms. I saw a video yesterday about a fist fight that broke out on an American Airlines flight, apparently because of an issue over a broken seat. It wouldn’t surprise if the guy who started the fight was having a great day when he headed to the airport, but he snapped after the horrific experience checking in and going through security.
It’s tempting to blame Karen, Hans, Ed, and their fellow CEOs responsible for robbing Americans of the quality of life we once enjoyed. But I’m not into the victim mentality. At the end of the day, Americans are responsible for giving Karen, Hans, and Ed the power to abuse us. Our supposed “government of the people” approved the consolidation of the drug store, wireless, and airline industries that allows them to get away with their behaviors while racking up record profits to line the pockets of their top managers.
People deserve the government they get, and public apathy is ultimately responsible for the sad state of leadership and government in America.