Charles Cezar who owned the Ritz Hotel in Paris back in 1898 became famous for saying "le client n'a jamais tort" (the client is never wrong). Granted he may well have said this because his Parisian employees treated the hotel’s clients poorly because they were not Parisians and thus in the staff's minds wrong all the time, but the motto became the standard by which he ran the hotel. Harry Gordon Selfridge remade the phrase to make it more emphatically positive with the better known “the customer is always right”.
Now considering the state of customer service in the country today’s phrase might well combine the two mottos to become “the customer is always wrong”. This seems to be the operative concept of most companies if they even think of the customer at all.
This was obviously the operative belief of United Airlines when it dragged a paying and seated passenger down the aisle on his back injuring him enough to put him in the hospital. This action was taken because United wanted to get some of its employees on board to another destination. The employees could have taken another flight on another airline to get to their destination but it was United’s belief that this would cost them money and inconvenience the flight crew they wanted to board so the passenger had to go.
This is an egregious example but there are many instances of “the customer is always wrong” or what I think is the most common belief “the customer does not matter” that we all run into everyday life. The waiter who ignored us at the restaurant; the bagger at our local grocery store who complained about working there and snarled at us, the person who answered the phone with “what”? But those are all examples of actively bad customer service.
It is the passive bad customer service that has enabled the negative attitudes toward customers and encouraged active disparaging service. Passive bad service does not have another individual included but you are provided bad service just the same.
Airlines are among the worst offenders with passive terrible customer service even if they do not drag all customers off of planes. They have taken an attitude that the customer does not matter at all. Just this morning I received an email from American Airlines telling me they had changed my times and flights for a trip I was to make. The new flight times puts me to my destination late for a meeting I was going for. No reason given. No concern at all for the customer.
Passive poor customer service is the result of changes in business models and technology. The new business model takes customer service completely out of the equation and has the customer supply his or her own service.
For example, there once was a time when if you went to get gas for your car, an attendant would come out, fill the tank, wash the windshield and check your oil. When the business model changed to self-attending gas stations where you did all the work yourself at no cost savings, this was a step to passive bad service.
The same change in business model affects the way we shop too. Companies have replaced customer service with either “do it yourself” or technology. When stores started to lay off sales people and having the customer do all the shopping work him or herself such as at a TJ Maxx, Macy’s or most any retail outlet, this is passively poor, or actually non-existent service. Amazon is testing stores that do not have any service at all. The customer finds the item, takes it to the check-out counter and checks himself out just like many big box and supermarket self-checkout-out lines.
McDonalds has taught us how to be our own waiters and bus our own tables and many food chains have caught onto having the customers do the work. Panera has taken this one step further by removing the counter server who might say hello and thank you out of the equation completely. Now they have computer stations at which customers enter their order and wait for a bag of food to be brought out or taken to the eating area.
When you try to contact a company with a problem but are not given a customer service number to call but are told to “open a ticket online”. This passive bad service again. Or when you get a phone number, call it and get lost in the labyrinth of technology not allowing you to talk to a person just an android voice who never quite understands what you are saying, again passive poor customer service.
Or now it is not considered rude or bad service to not return letters our phone calls from customers. Three weeks ago, I wrote two letters to two different companies about bad service and false advertising I received at two stores. No one has written back. I left three voice mail messages at another company but no one has called me back.
What companies have realized is that we will put up with passive bad service and not say anything about it primarily because there is no one to say it to. Companies claim that they are replacing people with technology to “enhance the buyer’s experience and speed up the interaction” but in so doing they have taken customer service out of the interaction. Kiosks for instance have replaced sales attendants in airports supposedly for our convenience but really for the airline company’s fiscal gain.
In replacing service with self-serve they have been training us to not expect customer service at all and we have been much too acquiescent. We accept the lack of service and have been taught to feel as if we are being independent serving ourselves. This is a false belief. By serving ourselves, we are encouraging passive bad service and hurrying customer service to the point at which when we go into a fast food restaurant we will make our own burgers and pull ourselves of a United flight.