Bridgman, MI— To me, the greatest joy at Christmas has always been giving gifts to others that make them feel special.
In early December 2023, I began to finalize Christmas gifts for my wife Sharon. After buying her some gifts from Macy's, I remembered that she really liked the Harry & David Galette Cookie Collection we had a few years ago. I decided to order this for her again.
Harry & David, in Medford, Oregon, was founded in 1910 and provides exceptionally good, high-quality holiday gift items such as fruits, nuts, candies, and baked goods. They package their products in a beautiful way that always pleases the recipient. I knew Sharon would be overjoyed to open a package addressed to her from Harry & David.
Going back 30 years, I have used Harry & David for many of my business as well as personal holiday gift needs. I never had a bad experience, but it had been four years since I last used them. I used to receive an annual holiday gift catalog from them but hadn't received one for several years.
In the past, I would just call Harry & David in Oregon, which had my profile account. The sales agents were always able to help me. So on Dec. 8, 2023, I called their toll-free number to order the Galette Cookie Collection for Sharon.
The representative who answered my call did not speak English well and was obviously not in Oregon. Oh no, they've outsourced their customer service to a call center in a foreign country. I couldn't understand her well, so I hung up and tried calling again.
The second person I talked to spoke better English than the previous representative, so I felt he would be able to take my order. I told him I wanted to order the Galette Cookie Collection as a gift for my wife. He asked me for the item's catalog number. I told him I didn't have it as I didn't have a catalog. Then he asked me to go online and get the catalog item number. I asked him if he could please look up the item number for me. It took him a couple of minutes, but he was able to find it.
I confirmed the order, gave him Sharon’s name and address for shipping, and gave him my credit card info. He gave me the order number, which I wrote down. He then asked for my email address, which I gave him. He said I would get an email confirmation of the order shortly and the cookies should be delivered to Sharon before Christmas.
I began to envision Sharon being thrilled, receiving the package with her name on it.
However, I never received an email confirming my order. So later that day, I called the toll-free number again. A male agent picked up my call. He had fractured English, but I felt we could communicate. I explained that I had placed an order earlier in the day but had not gotten an email confirmation and was concerned they had an incorrect email address for me.
I gave him my email address again. He couldn't find the order from that email address and asked for an order number, which I then gave him. He found the order, said he would send a confirming email, and then proceeded to offer me a discount on a box of their famous pears. I decided to order the pears for Sharon as well. She always liked those. He said both gifts should be delivered to Sharon by Christmas, and I should receive an email confirmation shortly for both orders.
I checked my email several times later in the day and there was no email from Harry & David.
Three days later, I checked my email several times, but there was nothing in my inbox.
When I went to our apartment office to check our mail that afternoon, Martha, the office manager, said there were two boxes from Harry & David addressed to "Heather Lewis." She asked me if I knew who Heather was. I said, "I don't know who Heather is, but I think these boxes belong to us." I opened the boxes and sure enough, both the cookies and the pears were in those boxes addressed to "Heather."
My dream of having Sharon open Harry & David boxes addressed to her had been dashed by the Christmas Grinch of outsourcing.
Although Sharon's name wasn't on the boxes, she really enjoyed both the cookies and the pears that were of excellent quality in the great tradition of Oregon's Harry & David.
My first thought on the frustrating ordering experience was that this was just another corporate move to cut costs. However, after really thinking about it further, I concluded that this vendor of fine gifts is probably experiencing what so many companies, large and small, are dealing with now: a severe shortage of workers.
A declining birth rate, along with lower life expectancy, and the graying of America has finally caught up with what used to be a robust supply of labor in the market.
By Dec. 21, the cookies and pears were all gone, yet I still hadn't received an email from Harry & David. So I called once more and reached another broken-English-speaking agent to whom I explained my concern about never having received a confirmation email for my orders.
Lo and behold, a Christmas miracle occurred. I finally received a confirmation email 20 minutes later.
While writing this column in January, I saw a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning about the founders of the company Gridspace, who have created natural-sounding voice bots. They showcased an AI customer service agent named Grace, which was filling in for call center humans at more than 100 airlines, banks, hospital chains and phone companies.
Maybe next year when I order my holiday gifts from Harry & David, I'll be able to talk with Grace.
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business in Bridgman, MI. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.