The customer is always right? Not in modern business world

I am beginning to wonder if the whole idea of service to customers is disappearing entirely, so asks Michael Patwell in his weekly column.
The customer is always right? Not in modern business world

“PLEASE CHOOSE FROM ONE OF THE FOLLOWING OPTIONS...” Complaints procedures to companies can be frustrating. Picture posed

MY article last week about ‘rip-off Ireland’ hadn’t even been posted when a mild furore broke out about the prices being charged for accommodation in Galway for its races. There couldn’t have been a better example of what I was talking about.

Prices of up to €500 per night were mentioned and what amazed me most was how many ‘commentators’ who were asked for their views defended it. Whether these people were actually paying the exorbitant prices being charged wasn’t clear to me but I would have to have some doubts about that. Comparisons were being made with other racing events, not just here but in the UK and on the Continent, and in particular the prices charged in and around Cheltenham for the annual festival.

Another commentator blithely referred to the old economics rules of ‘supply and demand’, as if that justified the blatant disregard for fairness in our dealings with our customers.

I’m afraid that didn’t impress me and I still feel that some form of price control for all sorts of commodities is long overdue in Ireland.

I have written about it before and I won’t, accordingly, elaborate much more on it now but in an industry — and I am referring to the hospitality industry as a whole — that could manage to persuade the government to give it a preferential rate of VAT, I feel that something is owed to the citizens of this country in return.

In fact, I wonder to what extent are our government and individual ministers lobbied in order to keep the low VAT rate of 9%. It should be possible to identify the lobbyists and the ministers who were lobbied. I think it is time to call ‘time’ on it and end it forthwith, without even waiting for the next budget.

Too many of our hospitality operatives have clearly shown they don’t deserve the break they were given. The fact of the matter is that the low VAT rate has not produced a reduction in prices. The only other possible result, therefore, is that it allows for an increase in gross profits of a whopping 14%.

I am beginning to wonder if the whole idea of service to customers is disappearing entirely. I now see in many petrol stations that more and more of them are charging €1 or even €2 for using their air compressor to check and inflate the car tyres. This is happening in petrol stations that are totally self-service — that is, where one has to pump the fuel oneself. In the good old days there was always an attendant to do that and if the tyres needed checking or the windscreen needed washing, the attendant did it for the motorist. He might or might not get a tip for doing so. I think, perhaps, I am showing my age here and I reckon there aren’t too many motorists left who remember those days. Certainly not under the age of 70.

On the ‘service’ theme, how many people have noticed that on going into a shop one stands at the counter and waits one’s turn. That isn’t a cause for concern, but on finally being attended to and halfway through the transaction the phone rings. The attendant immediately answers the phone and attends fully to the customer on the other end while you stand there as prices, delivery times or sizes or quality are discussed at length. Finally the attendant returns — he/she might say “Sorry about that” and casually ask: “Now, where were we?”

It seems to me that telephones should not be answered where customers are being actively attended to. That should be left to office staff, who could take a message and if a particular staff member is needed to answer the query then that staff member could make a return call during a quiet time. Is that too much to ask for the customer who has gone to a shop and patiently waited his/her turn?

Perhaps this is an ‘age’ thing too but I find it more and more frustrating to go into a bank to do a transaction and while standing in a long queue, stretching out from a single counter position, to be approached by a member of staff, asked in the presence of and within the hearing range of other people in the queue what is the nature of one’s business, and then be directed to a machine, accompanied by the staff member. I usually have to restrain myself from suggesting strongly that that staff member get inside the counter, open one of the closed hatches and actually serve the customer.

In this age of computer and online dealings, there are more and more frustrating practices developing too. So many of them have hugely elaborate websites which give the viewer multiple options depending on what exactly the customer wants. Often, however, we just need to contact somebody to help with a problem that hasn’t an identifiable link in the site menu. We might be given the option to click on ‘support’ or, if we are lucky, ‘contact’. There, however, the luck runs out and instead of a simple email address to which one could address the query, we are left with a string of ‘common’ queries. It can take quite a long while and a lot of ‘clicking’ before an email or telephone link is found, if one is found at all.

Since I moved house, almost two months ago, I have had a very poor mobile signal in my new location. I decided to contact my service provider, Vodafone, and ask if there was anything I could do about it. A friend had told me they have a device available to extend or strengthen the signal. I couldn’t find an email link on their webpage and decided to write to them by ordinary post to their offices in Leopardstown in Dublin.

By August 3, I had not received a reply and searched their website again for a direct link. I eventually found one and duly sent off a reminder with a copy of my original letter. I got a reply within 24 hours but very little satisfaction.

The reply said: “Please note: This email is for Business Customer use only. If you wish to discuss your query directly with our bill pay team, please contact them on 1907. Alternatively, we offer an online chat.”

I didn’t want to deal with my issue by way of a phone call; neither did I want to “chat”. I wanted to register my issue in a way that I retained a copy of it. I also wanted to have access to a record of how it was dealt with. That, it seems, is not possible for a non-business customer. Do we non-business customers not pay for the service we receive? In fact, I wonder what proportion of their revenue does the service provider receive from us, non-business customers. Surely a customer is a customer and should be treated equally.

In my frustration, I replied rather crankily and hoped for a further response but unfortunately my message bounced back as undeliverable because the message I got from Vodafone did not allow for a reply. The matter rests there — for now.

There is fair protection for consumers in this country but of course it would be impossible for every eventuality to be covered. Consumer contracts are protected by the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act, 1980. Under this Act purchasers of goods have a number of rights.

The main ones are: Goods must be of merchantable quality. They should be of reasonable quality, having regard to what they are meant to do, their durability and their price. They must be fit for the purpose for which they are sold and must do what they are reasonably expected to do. The buyer must not be mislead into buying something by the description of goods or services given orally by a salesperson or an advertisement.

It is important to note too that when goods are purchased in a sale, the buyer/consumer has the same rights as when the full price is paid for the goods.

There is a statutory office, The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), with responsibility for providing advice and information to consumers on their rights. In addition, the CCPC is responsible for the enforcement of a wide range of consumer protection laws.

The CCPC, however, does not intervene or become involved in individual issues or disputes between consumers and sellers of goods or services providers. It can, however, advise the consumer if there is a particular consumer problem.

Control over the quality of services being offered is much less clear. Quality control is a crucial function in an organisation that markets services, but is quality control the same thing in a service company as in a manufacturing concern? It would appear not and very little seems to have been done to protect the customers of service organisations. A consumer has to rely on the terms of whatever contract came into existence and that can be very difficult to identify.

Perhaps our Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Frances Fitzgerald, might address the issue with some urgency.

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