Many years ago, when I was 11 years old, I bought a chocolate toffee bar (I now forget the brand name) from a small local shop. When I tore open the paper wrapping I discovered, to my surprise, that what was inside was a piece of plastic of about similar dimensions to the anticipated sweet. The bar was manufactured by Cadburys, and on the wrapper there was an address you could write to if you had a complaint. So I packed the plastic ‘sweet’ into an envelope and sent it to the company. About a week later I got back a big parcel with a letter of apology and a selection of Cadburys products. I was so pleased with this that for some years afterwards I always felt all the sweet packets before I bought them in the hope that I might find another plastic one. I never did, alas. But I was now aware of the concept of customer service.
In fact, customer service was never that big a thing in Europe. Or perhaps, even if you did your best to provide your customers with what they needed, you might not be inclined to do it with a gracious tone or good humour, as perhaps to do so was thought to be just a little demeaning. I remember in particular taking a holiday in the then Soviet Union in 1988 and being just amazed at the extent to which people serving you could reach what were for me totally unimaginable levels of froideur. Certainly a smile was always out of the question.
But then we all became more aware of how this was done in the United States, and we began to shift from the idea that ‘Have a nice day’ was really just annoying to a point where we saw friendliness and helpfulness as worthwhile attitudes. This even infected the public service in some countries, with officials emphasising their service role and inviting users to suggest ways in which it could be improved.
But now I wonder whether this is being rolled back. As we all know, there is a well known airline which has a degree of uncooperativeness vis-à-vis customers built into their business model, in part because meeting annoyed customer demands is expensive. And today I ordered something from an online service, only to be told by way of a rather curt email that they did not propose to deliver the product (which I had already paid for), for no reason they were willing to divulge, and with the added inconvenience that a refund (of the not entirely small payment) would be made only if I went through a rather annoying bureaucratic process. When I suggested by return email that an explanation and an apology would have been nice I got no response at all.
What are we to make of all this? Is it now the new business model that customers are expensive if they are not tightly controlled, and that it is a definite no-no to offer them any guidance, support or regret when things go wrong? Will this approach also infect the public service?
But more worryingly, are those who are pushing this new way of doing things in fact right? Is it better and more profitable to be unhelpful and unfriendly?