Thursday, 10 November 2005

The customer used to be always right

A couple of years ago, I opened a savings account with a great big bank that spends a lot on advertising and, because they’re normally quite good, I recommended them to a friend of mine. My friend and I were talking about our bank yesterday and she said en passant she’d just received a present from them – a calculator. The accompanying letter read, “Happy Anniversary – and thank you for your loyalty! It’s been a year since you first opened a savings account with us and to celebrate we’ve enclosed a particularly apt gift.”

Hey, hang on! I’ve been a customer much longer. I like to be treated fairly, me. Let me have a tantrum. So I get on the phone to them and the man at the other end says, “We send calculators to a small selection of people every month – about 20,000 customers [doesn’t sound like such a small selection to me, but what do I know?] and I’m afraid your name didn’t come up.” I make some disappointed noises and he goes, “Hold on, Mrs So-and-Such [no one can ever pronounce my name properly and, as we know, banks do not recognize Ms], I’ll go and ask my supervisor.” He goes away and keeps me waiting for several long minutes. When he comes back, the answer is still negative. I say, “This is bad business practice, you know. In a case like this, the response should be, ‘Yes, of course, Ms So-and-So, I will make sure you receive a calculator as soon as possible. Don’t worry, I have your address and please accept our apologies,’ not disappearing for ages and then saying, ‘No, sorry, we can’t send you this calculator that’s costing us 5p.’ You don’t expect your customers to talk to each other, do you? That’s a big mistake.” He goes, “I will pass on your comments.” “Please do. This call has now become a complaint.”

It’s not the calculator; it’s the principle of the thing. Well, it’s the calculator as well: it’s very nice, with soft, rubbery keys and big figures, easily legible – just right for older eyes like mine. (What can I say: I like freebies.)

It’s the same with banks that give better rates of interest to new customers and forget about their older ones. It’s not fair. There’s nothing much we can do about it, except phone up and demand the same benefits.

Bad business practice can be found everywhere. Some years ago, tired from an afternoon spent traipsing around shops, my partner and I felt like having a little sit down somewhere. It was before the advent of Starbucks and other Cafés Rouges. We spotted a Pizzaland and asked whether we could have a pot of tea. The place was absolutely deserted, but the answer was, “No, we’re only open for meals now.” Pizzaland wasn’t exactly a chain of posh restaurants where tables were set with white damask tablecloths and napkins, which would have taken ages to change. This kind of thing would have been inconceivable in France and I expect in the US too. You do not turn a customer away when it takes so little effort to accommodate them.

Once I was in Debenhams, on Oxford Street, not long before closing time. I spotted a jacket I liked and tried it on; it fitted me and I took it to the cash desk. The sales assistant was about to start putting things away, but she hadn't closed the cash register yet. Instead of spending all that time telling me that she couldn’t let me have the garment, she could have taken my money (I was paying cash) and wrapped the jacket up in several layers of tissue paper and put a ribbon around it. But, no, she wouldn’t budge. I had to go back the next day (the jacket was that nice). Now, my parents had a shop and my mother would never ever ever have sent a customer away, whatever time it was: even if you’d turned up at 9pm (we used to have our meals in the back room), she would have served you. I expect that Debenhams sales assistant wasn’t on commission, otherwise she would have cared about a lost sale (she couldn’t know I’d be coming back).

How difficult is it to satisfy most customers?



  1. As usual, I find myself in complete sympathy with your complaint. My pet peeve (I'm thinking of naming him 'Rocky') is the cell phone companies which, like banks, offer fantastic come-ons to new customers - but if you're a loyal, long-term customer, they basically fart in your general direction. I thought their practices would change with recent passage of a federal law that prevents cell phone providers from holding your phone number hostage - in other words, the customer can now keep the same phone number even if he or she switches service providers. But nothing much seems to have shifted in the way of customer service. It's still more important to them to attract new customers than to satisfy the existing ones.

  2. the suck-up-to-new-customers-treat-then-oldies-like-shit bugs the hell out of me


    and then there was the MAJOR HIGH STREET BANK (the one who likes to say how you will always speak to a real person at your branch) who told me four years ago that yes, i had been the victim of identitfy fraud and that they would clean up my credit file but didn't and then, four years down the line, took many hours on the phone to find someone who didn't say 'sorry - snotmyjob!'

    which reminds me: i MUST get around to writing to the chief executive - all i want is AN APOLOGY

    slap slap slap slap slap!!!

    yours bileously,

  3. Thanks for your input, ladies. I know that kind of thing bugs everybody, but somehow things aren't getting better. I resent having to spend any time and effort trying to get what is owed to me (I don't mean the freebies; I mean good, fair service) and, when I do spend time and effort on it, I expect to be given satisfaction.

  4. Christina H.10/11/2005, 15:19

    To rectify the situation by giving you a calculator means that they care.Obviously, they don't. I find this new customer service in just about every aspect of shopping. I now feel like I must constantly be on the look out but, you know what, businesses just don't plain care. If you state that you will take your business elsewhere, that is fine by them. This is absolutely atrocious! If you have lots of money to spend at certain shops they love you. If you're not, you're s.o.l. They should be slapped, flogged , fired...But they just don't care unless you are going to make a significant financial impact on them. For example, Oprah expects special treatment because she has the money to impact Hermes,even for just one day of sales. Most shops will accomodate people like her to no end. Normal people, if they don't like it can go elsewhere. The problem is, there is now nowhere else to go that is any better.Sorry to rant but I suspect there are a whole lot of people that could tell horror stories.

  5. Once again, I am terribly, terribly grateful to have my credit union. I can honestly say I've never gotten anything but excellent service there (hope I didn't just jinx myself!)

    I wonder if the practice of using Ms. is much more common in the States than elsewhere? I think I have the option of Ms. on nearly every official type of document or bill or what-have-you that I have. I can't imagine how maddening THAT must be. Please keep in mind, though, that this is coming from someone who takes great glee when companies provide a blank rather than a checkbox for "title." I still have catalogs coming the house addressed to "Lord High Admiral," for example.

    With retail establishments in particular I find I am very cranky about service people who go out of their way to be UNhelpful. The effort they exert in being rude or useless could just as easily be extended towards providing actual service. Of course, I am also particularly sympathetic when I see other customers going out their way to be bad customers (rude, spiteful, undue sense of entitlement.) I notice many times it seems to have a ton to do with the leadership provided by a company/shop's management. If the management sets a tone that customer service is a high priority, and rewards staff for embracing that philosophy, it seems like problems like the ones you list don't happen with such frequency. I would also note that I also notice a strong correlation here in the States between how a company treats its employees and how the employees treat customers.

  6. Customer service really sucks in this country. I have a theory that it's because British society used to have servants, so people in service industries are really really keen to prove that they are no one's servant.

  7. What you said! SLAP!

    My grocery store has what they call "Bonus Cards." By having a Bonus Card, I pay less than folks who don't have one. Anyone can get a card, but what about folks who are just passing through? Why shouldn't the price of apples be the same for everyone?

  8. Penny wise and pound foolish, that's the way of modern business. :-(

  9. Christina H, I think you put your finger on it. There is a French saying that goes, “On ne prête qu’aux riches” (literally “Only the rich get loans”, but my partner, who should have been a translator, suggested “Money attracts money”), which encapsulates what you say about the rich getting preferential treatment. It’s like those bags of goodies you get if you’ve been nominated for an Oscar. You’re already paid several million dollars for a three-week job, do you also need the free Rolex, etc.?

    K, my remark about the use of Ms refers to an earlier slap (The bank that likes to say... stupid things - April 2005), which mentioned that a clerk, at another bank, refused to accept Ms could be used by any woman wishing to keep her marital status out of the equation: she told me it was reserved for divorced women!

    I don’t know whether how a company treats its employees has an effect on how the employees treat customers – I’ve had quite bad service from M&S staff, and M&S is famous for being one of the best employers around, but I've noticed I usually get better service from employees of American-owned companies, like TK Maxx, for instance.

    L, you may be on to something there.

    TLP, Tesco Shmesco (that's how the cat and I call our local supermarket) also issues loyalty cards, which enables them to tell what sort of foodstuff you like and also probably the name of your first teddy bear. Every quarter they send money-back vouchers (the odd pound or two) and discount coupons, like 20p off if you buy £10 worth of potatoes, useful things like that. It’s nice that they reward loyalty (and their captive audience, since there’s nowhere else to do the shopping around here), but, you’re right, why shouldn’t the price of apples be the same for everyone.

    Yep, WW, I think you’re right too.

  10. T. Lucy - Regarding grocery bonus cards - we have them, too. I was recently asked by a cashier if I would allow the customer ahead of me in line to 'borrow' mine - seeing as he didn't have one. Now, i had nothing against that poor shmope, but i found it supremely ironic that the store which instituted such a program in the first place must now appeal to customers to help other customers get a better deal. Idiots.

  11. Aha, that's a different kind of card from the Tesco Schmesco one: if someone borrows my card, points are added to it, i.e. to my account thingy and contribute to my receiving that one penny off £20 worth of apples (I can never use the vouchers b/c it's always for kilos and kilos of stuff that's cheap in the first place). I wouldn't mind if the entire queue of people borrowed my card every time. LOL!

  12. My bank NEVER sent me any gift T___T
    I belive I should be the one who has to them sending them gifts for still keeping me ^^

  13. OOps, I meant :

    I should be the one sending them gifts... :(


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.