From airports to banks to sporting events: the customer is no longer king


IT’S BEEN another bad week for the most oppressed and victimized section of capitalist society: the humble customer.

I’m old enough to remember when the customer was treated like royalty. When companies had a service called “Customer Service”, which did exactly what it said on the box, and where you could talk to a real human being! How picturesque.

Of course, those were the days when businesses needed a customer, uh, a custom and money to survive and thrive. They wanted people to have a good experience with them so they would come back with their hard earned money and tell others about their happy transaction.

Surely you don’t need a master’s degree in business studies to know that.

But modern businesses seem to try to attract and retain customers by treating them like vermin and filth.

The customer is no longer king, but enemy.

We saw it at Dublin Airport last Sunday, where travelers had to queue outside and then inside the terminal, were kept informed of delays and 1,000 of them missed the flights for which they had stopped in advance.

These would-be passengers were treated more like zombies in a scene from The Walking Dead than like valued consumers: people without whom the airport and the airlines wouldn’t survive a minute.

Liverpool fans stuck outside the ground show off their match tickets during the UEFA Champions League Final at the Stade de France, Paris.

We also saw it in the actions of French security teams during the Champions League final in Paris, where people who had spent thousands on tickets and trips were herded down like cattle – it was hard to escaping the feeling that a few stadium workers would have liked to tag fans with an incitement for their sassiness to, uh, want to attend a football game.

But it’s not just these high-profile cases where we’re witnessing the mainstream attitude that customers are viewed as a cross between an inconvenience and a danger to society.

I see it every time I try to call a utility company, where I’m invariably told that my call is important to them, but, oh, they’re getting a “high volume” of calls right now, and I might wanting to settle in for the long haul before I can talk to someone.

I see it every time I get a cold call from a company I already use who asks me a series of personal questions to make sure I’m the person they want to talk to and who they just dialed the number.

I see this callous disregard every time I try to engage with my bank too.

I have written here several times about the “customer service” of banks, because of all the institutions we use, they are surely among the most important.

We entrust our money to the banks and in return they often treat us with contempt, charging us far more than new customers for their services and making it almost impossible to leave them and transfer our clientele elsewhere.

I’m old enough to remember when banks were sacred institutions run by a hive of well-dressed, competent employees. Now you walk into a branch – if you can find an open one, that is – and are assailed by the sounds of giddy DJs chattering through the speakers, as you join a long line of waiting to speak to the only stressed and overworked cashier.

I often walk around retail stores these days and am guided by the cashier to one of those awful pay checkouts, devoid of human interaction and left at the mercy of a machine that seems to enjoy dropping down on the first touch.

Is it just me?! Not at all, I just know you’ve all had similar infuriating experiences.

What’s going on? Does every business think that if they all treat their customers badly, there will be nowhere to run from their trapped and defrauded customers?

And yes, there are extenuating circumstances. Many businesses are struggling to readapt to a post-Covid world, there are simply too few people to fill too many jobs (not a bad situation for those of us who remember mass unemployment) , and perhaps we should discourage football fans from attending finals without a ticket, adding to the already large crowds.

The hyper-inflation we are experiencing has us all wondering more about our bills, while perhaps the shift to remote working is leaving too many customers behind.

But that does not prevent consumers from feeling towards them, on a daily basis, a contempt which often, disconcertingly, borders on hostility.

No one wants to be that idiot in a restaurant or supermarket who treats staff with contempt and likes to humiliate them to cover up their own insecurities. These people can do a running jump.

But the vast majority of us ordinary, decent people are being let down by corporations – and it’s not the small shops and small businesses that are the problem.

It seems to me that the higher the company’s turnover, the less they treat the people who make them these gargantuan profits.

As a nation, we too often blame every problem and issue on our government and demand that it solve it. The poor treatment of customers isn’t really their problem, but they might just help find a solution.

In Spain this week, the government introduced a bill that will force call centers to respond to customers within three minutes, as well as companies to use a freephone number available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. .

The bill will also require a business to have a real person in place, not a chatbot, Spanish Consumer Rights Minister Alberto Garzón has announced. Utilities and basic service companies will have to respond to customer complaints within two hours. Those who break the new laws would face fines of up to €100,000.

These are excellent ideas that our government could adopt.

But ultimately, the solution lies in the cultures of the companies themselves. They need a guiding philosophy that treats the customer, if not like a king, at least like something other than a pawn in their game.

Only a few people, like Michael O’Leary and nightclub bouncers, should get away with treating paying customers with disdain.

There is a well-known quote often wrongly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but probably first uttered by a car company boss 80 years ago, that all companies should hang on their office walls.

“A customer is the most important visitor to our premises. It does not depend on us. We are dependent on him. It is not an interruption of our work. It is the goal. He is no stranger to our business. He is part of it. We do him a disservice by serving him. He does us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

Any company whose employees follow this mantra will deserve to succeed.

The rest can go for a running jump.


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