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The Death of Customer Service

by Lynda Goetz

Your custom is important to us” the disembodied voice tells you as you’re left hanging on the phone indefinitely. “We are very busy and all our customer service staff are engaged with other people”. Do you sometimes get the feeling that your custom is in fact of very little importance to these people and that they really couldn’t care less about trying to get their staff to speak to you and sort out your problems with their products or services? And yet these days when you buy anything it’s rare indeed not to receive an email within 24 hours from Survey Monkey or Trust Pilot asking you to rate the product or service you’ve just purchased. I can’t speak for everyone else, but if I’ve just acquired something which I expect to own for several years, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it will turn out to be ‘value for money’ or usefully do whatever job it has been purchased for. It may be more appropriate to review the item in a year’s time. So where’s the box for that, then?

One of the difficulties with a world which has to a large extent moved online is that the personal touch has been almost entirely eliminated. Whether we’re talking about buying an item of clothing, a piece of furniture, a flight or a holiday, gone are the days when you could call on the assistance of a person in the retail department whose job it was to show you what was available and attempt to match that to what you thought you might want, need or like. No longer do we find many travel agents whose staff have experienced or lived in the countries you might consider visiting or who have knowledge of the hotels and amenities on offer (though there are some notable exceptions to this). Nowadays, you usually end up staring at your computer or phone, scrolling through endless images of dresses, beds, fridges or hotels (of course with lots of pretty pictures of cocktails or ‘amuse-bouches’ as an additional temptation) and trying to work out whether these are the items you actually want to spend your hard-earned money on.

In order to help you there are of course those reviews – written by people whose tastes you have absolutely no idea about; individuals whose aesthetic sense may be zero, but who “absolutely love” whatever it is they’ve bought and have given it five stars. It might be helpful to know that ‘Jasmine’ thinks the curtains she has just purchased are “perfect”, but you’re not Jasmine, and her idea of perfection may be far removed from yours. Nor does it always help to know that the reviewer is in the same age bracket as you. Since when was being the same age ever a guarantee of identical taste? Then there are those who expect to pay rock-bottom prices for a luxury product. They invariably find whatever they have purchased “disappointing” or of “poor quality”, ignoring the fact that the warehouse business they’ve chosen to contract with is unlikely to have produced their clothes or curtains with quality, hand-stitched, material but rather with light-weight, inferior fabric, machine-stitched rather badly, or, in the case of furniture, flimsy wood or heavy MDF with a veneer and badly-made joints.

At least the rise of online shopping has engendered the custom of ‘free’ returns, so that in many cases it costs nothing to return the item with a prepaid address label to the seller. The cost of this service has of course been added into the purchase price, but most people are happier with this situation than one where, if they’re unhappy, they not only have to trek to the nearest Post Office or Hermes depot but pay the postage as well. But what if you want to do more than just post an online one-star review? You’d actually like to speak to someone and explain just why your new purchase is unsatisfactory. This is where things become more problematic.

After pressing 1,2 3 or 4 on your phone keyboard for customer service and waiting for a seemingly interminable length of time to be put through, can you actually get a real person to deal with your real problem? This will depend entirely on the nature of the business and the extent to which it has been digitised. When it comes to banks it’s now almost impossible to speak to a person who is able to do anything useful for you whatsoever. As for the ‘chat service’, I couldn’t even begin to describe how utterly useless some of those are! NatWest’s Cora, “your digital assistant” is quite likely to induce apoplexy in anyone trying to engage with the thing!

Say, for example, you have a temporary cash flow problem. You might be waiting for your promotion and pay rise to come through or waiting for a property sale to be finalised. In the old days, whoever you were, you would have been able to make an appointment to see someone at your local bank branch, explain the problem and agree some sort of solution. Now, there’s unlikely even to be a local branch and if you did choose to drive the 15 miles to speak to someone, it wouldn’t do you any good as “all loans are now arranged online” (unless, presumably, you’re Elon Musk). Even those privileged few who are paying through the nose to have a ‘personal banking manager’, will find that s/he will be unable to do anything and will refer you back online, probably after first asking whether you have the app, as “that makes it easier.” One friend had the rather bizarre experience of receiving an email from the ‘overdraft department’ offering advice and help, only to subsequently discover that this department had no direct contact or communication with the loans department! They were of no use whatsoever and ended up advising him to make an online loan application. When he did so, the system did not seem to be working properly and kept throwing him out at a certain point. For weeks afterwards, long after he had sorted out his cash flow issues, every time he logged on there was a notice on his screen suggesting he try completing his loan application! Algorithms just don’t get it!

For many months now there have been endless examples in the letters pages of various newspapers from those who’ve experienced the customer service deficiencies of the UK’s Driving & Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Passport Office and other civil service bureaucracies. To his credit, Mr Rees-Mogg (jokingly referred to at one point as the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century) has very publicly taken up the challenge of getting Civil Service workers back to the office. Although the Civil Service has gone as far as to claim recently that “work is no longer a place, but a state of mind,” it seems to be generally agreed by the long-suffering public that if it is indeed a ‘state of mind’ then not all those on whom we rely to provide taxpayer-funded services are ‘in the zone’. Many people simply feel that it’s a middle-class indulgence to allow public service employees the freedom to walk the dog, raid the fridge, cut the grass and fit in other jobs which normally have to wait until the weekend – self-indulgences that are not available to those expected to drive buses or trains, cook food, construct buildings, mend boilers, care for people, or do any number of other jobs which are most definitely ‘place-related’. Permanent secretary to the Home Office Mathew Rycroft may claim that Britain has a “world-class visa and passport operation” but it’s perfectly clear that we do not. Nor is it credible to state that the fact that the head of the Passport Office is working from home has “precisely zero-bearing” on the crisis which is engulfing the organisation which he is supposed to be leading. If we did have a world-class service, people wouldn’t be missing holidays because, although their application went in on time, their new passports are not returned soon enough to allow them to travel.

Way back in September 2020, financial columnist Matthew Lynn was already expressing concern about the effect on creativity and productivity of the Working from Home (WFH) phenomenon and has continued to do so in a number of articles since. Although the number of people now WFH has declined since the ‘back to the office’ edict in January, there remains a concern that the economy is being adversely affected, even if the ‘well-being’ of individuals is benefiting. In the private sector, there have undoubtedly been trade-offs. As Mr Lynn says in his most recent article on the subject, employees “may take a modest pay cut to reflect the savings on transport, agree to hot desking so their company can reduce its office space, submit to targets and monitoring so managers can check they are pulling their weight, and lose some perks along with some obligations.” After all, if they don’t do so, home workers could well find themselves without the customers and clients who pay their wages. In the public sector, none of this is happening. Civil servants seemingly expect to reduce their hours, costs and commitments, while retaining job security and gold-plated pensions. They appear to forget that the clients and customers who pay their salaries are the taxpayers, and those taxpayers are increasingly unimpressed with the service which is (not) being provided in return.

Covid, Brexit and now the war in Ukraine may have combined to make conditions for many businesses and services extremely difficult. Nevertheless, whatever work we do to put food on the table and provide the other necessities of modern life, we are all in some way or another answerable to the ultimate users of those products or services. Our customers and clients do matter. If they’re not happy with what we are offering or providing, then we won’t retain those customers or clients for long. Customers of private businesses can vote with their feet and change providers. In the case of government departments, we need the government to ensure that those services are provided in a timely fashion to those who need them and who, as taxpayers, are ultimately paying for them. We may never get back to the sort of service people expected in the 18th century, or even the 20th, but unless customer service improves across the board, the consequent frustration and rage are definitely going to undermine 21st century well-being.


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