From airports to banks to sports events: customer is no longer king - but the enemy

Modern-day companies appear to go about enticing and retaining customers by treating them like dirt, says John Dolan
From airports to banks to sports events: customer is no longer king - but the enemy

Busy scenes at Dublin Airport. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

IT’S been another bad week for that most downtrodden and victimised of sections in capitalist society: The humble customer.

I’m old enough to remember when the customer was treated as king. When companies had a department called ‘Customer Service’, which did exactly what it said on the tin, and where you could talk to an actual human being! How quaint.

Of course, those were the days when companies required a customer’s, er, custom, and cash to survive and thrive. They wanted people to have a good experience with them so they would return with their hard-earned money, and tell other people about their happy transaction.

You surely don’t require a Masters in Business Studies to know that.

But modern-day companies appear to go about enticing and retaining customers by treating them like vermin and dirt.

The customer is no longer king, but the enemy.

We saw it in Dublin Airport last Sunday, where travellers were made queue outside then inside the terminal, were kept in the dark about the delays, and 1,000 of them missed the flights they had stumped up for in advance.

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

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

We saw it too in the actions of the French security teams at the Champions League final in Paris, where people who had spent thousands on tickets and travel were herded around like cattle - it was hard to escape the feeling that a few stadium workers would have liked to brand fans with a prod for their impertinence in, er, wanting to attend a soccer match.

But it’s not just these high profile cases where we witness the prevailing attitude whereby customers are viewed as a cross between an inconvenience and a danger to society.

I see it every time I try to call a utilities company, where I am invariably told that my call is important to them, but, oh, they are experiencing a “high volume” of calls at present, and I might want to settle in for the long haul before I get to speak to someone.

I see it whenever I get a cold call from a company whose services I already use, who proceed to ask me a slew of personal questions to ensure I am actually the person they want to talk to and whose number they just dialled.

I see this callous disregard whenever I attempt to engage with my bank too.

I have written here many times about bank ‘customer service’, since of all the institutions we use, they are surely among the most important.

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

I’m old enough to remember when banks were hallowed institutions run by a hive of well-dressed, competent staff. Now, you walk into a branch - if you can find one open, that is - and are assailed by the sounds of giddy DJs prattling on through the speakers, while you join a long queue to talk to the sole stressed and over-worked cashier.

I often walk into retail shops these days and am guided by the cashier to one of those dreadful pay-for-your-own tills, bereft of human interaction, and left at the mercy of a machine that seems to delight in breaking down at the first touch.

Is it just me?! Not at all, I just know you all have had similar exasperating experiences.

What is going on? Does each company think that if they all treat their customers badly, there will be nowhere else for their trapped, fleeced customers to flee to?

And yes, there are mitigating circumstances. Many companies are struggling to readjust to a post-Covid world, there are simply too few people to take up too many jobs (not a bad situation for those of us who recall mass unemployment), and perhaps we should be discouraging soccer fans from attending finals without a ticket, adding to the already large crowds.

The hyper-inflation we are experiencing is making all of us query our bills more too, while perhaps the shift towards remote working is leaving too many customers in the lurch.

But this doesn’t get away from the fact that consumers are experiencing, on a daily basis, a contempt for them which often, bafflingly, borders on hostile.

Nobody wants to be that idiot in a restaurant or supermarket who treats staff with contempt, and gets off on humiliating them to cover up their own insecurity. Those folk can take a running jump.

But the vast majority of us, ordinary, decent people, are being failed by businesses - and it’s not the small shops and companies that are the problem. 

It seems to me that the larger the company turnover, the worse they treat the people who make them those gargantuan profits.

As a nation, we too often pin every problem and issue on our Government, and demand they resolve it. The poor treatment of customers is not really their problem, but they could well help to find a solution.

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

The Bill will also force a company to have a real person in place, not a chatbot, Spain’s consumer rights minister Alberto Garzón announced. Utilities and basic service companies will have to respond to client complaints within two hours. Those falling foul of the new laws would face fines of up to €100,000.

These are great ideas that our government could adopt.

But ultimately the solution lies within the cultures of the companies themselves. They need a guiding philosophy that treats the customer, if not like a king, then 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 businesses should hang up on their office walls.

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so.”

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

The rest can go take a running jump.

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