The Columnist

We are always told that all this emphasis on customer care is something that has come into being quite recently, but I have an old friend called Bob who has been in the customer care business for as long as he can remember, which must be forty years or more.
            ‘I don't remember there being anything called Customer Care in those days,’ I said to him once.
            ‘Ah, well, in those days we called it The Complaints Department,’ he said. ‘And a great mistake it was too. It sounded as if you were already admitting that people might have justifiable complaints. You must never do that. The best thing you can do is to make the customer feel guilty in advance.’
            ‘How can you do that? ‘ I asked Bob.
            ‘Easy,’ said Bob. The railways do it when they ask you over and over again not to leave anything on the train. The airports do it when they say that any unattended luggage will be taken away immediately and destroyed. The underground railways do it when they provide those grim little windows called Excess Fare Payments or something, at which people who have travelled without a ticket can pay. The whole effect is to make the customer feel that it is his fault if anything goes wrong. That's what we are after! That's why we love putting up notices saying, “The Management Take No Responsibility For Anything Taken From Your Car While You Are Parked Here, Even Though You Are Paying Through The Nose For It ...’”
            Already, just listening to him, I was feeling guilty....
            ‘I thought you were after making the customer feel happy and wanted?’ I said.
            ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘We are. No question about that. We want them to feel so happy and wanted that they never complain. But if they complain, that's a different matter... Incidentally, you know that customer care is mentioned in the Bible? ‘
            ‘Is it?’
            ‘ “A soft answer turneth away wrath”.’  He said. ‘Our sentiments exactly. How many modern professions are mentioned in the Bible, I wonder? Not many, I think.’
            ‘But we customers don't want a soft answer,’ I said. ‘We want an honest answer! We want a hard answer. We want satisfaction. We want a complaint to be rectified.’
            ‘There you go again, using words like “complaint” and “satisfaction”, ‘ said Bob. ‘This all creates the impression that the customer has a grievance which needs to be dealt with. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
            ‘Surely some customers have genuine grievances?’
            ‘If that was our game, " said Bob, not answering the question, ‘ it would be called Grievance Care. But it's not. It's called Customer Care. Our primary aim is not so much to alleviate the grievance as to make the customer feel better. You can see this happening on a small scale when air flights are delayed at a big airport. If the postponement starts getting out of hand, the airline will announce that drinks are on the house and start arranging for free refreshment. It's not making the situation any better - it's just making the customer feel better about the situation.’
            ‘I don't see the average punter swallowing this,’ I said.
            Bob smiled in an annoyingly superior sort of way.
            ‘Not only does the average punter fall for this,’ he said,  ‘but he tends to do the same sort of thing himself.’
            ‘You mean, ordinary people like me go in for customer care?’ I said.  ‘You're kidding! ... ‘
            ‘Telephone answering machines, for instance,’ he said. ‘Nobody needs them, not really, unless business is involved. You don't really need to tell someone that you're out, do you? They know you're out. That's why your phone is not answering.'
            ‘Yes, but it makes people feel better if they can leave a message,’ I said. ‘It makes them feel that you're going to do something about them. It really gives them the feeling that you care...’
            ‘Customer care !’ he said. ‘This is customer care in your own home! Making people feel good. You do it. Everyone does it. You can't blame firms for doing it as well. Except that when you do it at home you think it's good, and you sneeze at it when we do it ... ‘
            ‘No, no,’ I protested, but he was off again.
            ‘When you let a driver come from a side road on to the main road in front of you ... when you answer an RSVP ... when you drop someone a polite thank you letter...’
            ‘This is just normal civility,’ I said.
            ‘And so is customer care,’ he said.
            ‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘Customer care is hypocrisy. It's being nice to people who are going to cause trouble. You don't lavish customer care on satisfied customers - only on unsatisfied customers. That's not normal civility.’
            ‘When you go on holiday,’ he said, trying another line of attack, ‘do you send postcards to the people back home?’
`           ‘Yes.’
            ‘Who do you send them to first?’
            I thought about it. The truth was that I sent them first to the people who would kick up a fuss or feel hurt if I didn't, but I was damned if I was going to tell him that.
            ‘I send them to my nearest and dearest and best loved friends.
            ‘You're a liar,’ he said. ‘You send them to the people who are going to give you a bad time if you don't. You call it being tactful.  It's also customer care! We all do it. But you don't call it customer care. So you don't admit it. Take Christmas cards, for instance. There are about ten people we really need to send them to. Relations overseas, etc. But we go through this whole performance of sending thousands to all our neighbours, and people in the office and so on. Why?’
            ‘Don't tell me,’  I said. ‘ I know. Customer care.’
            ‘Very good! ‘ said Bob. ‘You're catching on. Well, must be going. But I've enjoyed our little conversation.’
            ‘Have you really? ‘ I said. ‘Or is this just another bit more customer care?’
            ‘It's customer care practice,’ said Bob. ‘Being nice to curmudgeonly blokes like you is bloody good practice. See you! ‘
            I still don't know if he was pulling my leg or not.

Director Publications 1994/5


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