When did the customer cease being right?

Maybe I’m looking at the past through the viewing screen of a rose-tinted tardis but I’m sure I remember a time when the shopkeeper’s mantra was ‘the customer is always right.’

Today the mantra appears to be ‘it wasn’t our fault.’

Mini-rant warning. Well, I am of a certain age and I have been provoked:)

This summer, Shelagh and I spent several weeks on the phone trying to sort out my mother-in-law’s home insurance – her policy had mysteriously changed several months earlier leaving her dramatically underinsured. All we wanted was the policy changed back to how it used to be, an explanation as to what had happened, and maybe, if the insurer had cocked up, an apology.

What we got was a brick wall and an invitation to bang our heads against it. The local branch said they had no idea what had happened but they’d change the policy for us. They tried and failed. All they had to do was change two figures but, according to them, their new computer system liked to suggest its own numbers and substituted its for ours. More phone calls, more promises. And any attempt to find out why the policy had changed in the first place was met by shrugs and suggestions that only Head Office could possibly answer a question like that.

Head Office was worse. They had data protection legislation to hide behind. We can’t possibly discuss your mother’s policy without signed authorization from her. So another week passed as we sent them the signed authorization (she’s 93 and easily confused) and tried again. It was like talking to a cornered politician. I’ve never heard so many different ways to deny liability. It wasn’t as though we were threatening a law suit.

Weeks passed. Head Office decided they had to talk to the local branch but the manager there was off sick, then she was on holiday, then she was off sick and then she was hiding under her desk. When she did finally emerge she found she’d suddenly remembered exactly what had happened to the insurance policy – it was my mother-in-law’s fault – she’d cancelled the policy herself last summer because she wanted to take out a brand new shiny one that she’d seen advertised in the window. When in doubt, blame the confused 93 year-old.

In December, it was our turn. Our phone line died and with it the internet. The last time this happened – when the 1999 tornado ripped the corrugated roof off our log shed and sent it slicing through our phone line on the way to perching astride our cherry tree – the line had been repaired in two days. This time … four weeks!

Why? Because we’d taken out an ADSL broadband offer from one of the new phone companies. Whereas France Telecom have engineers on their service lines, these new companies have call centres. And another mantra ‘the customer is always wrong.’

Now, I’ve worked in tech support and know the amazing ingenuity of Joe User. If there’s a combination of keys to press incorrectly he’ll find them. And, sometimes, it’s best to start at the beginning and ask if they’ve actually plugged in the machine. But not EVERY time!

We called this phone company more than 30 times in December. Once, we actually found someone who knew what they were taking about. But it’s far cheaper to fill call centres with non-experts and give them a script to follow. All our attempts to explain that we’d already done that, the modem’s fine, just get someone out to test our line – were met with the next question in the script as they attempted to take us through a step by step fault diagnosis of our modem. They were unfailingly polite but refused to answer questions that were not in their script. Do you actually employ any engineers who’ll come out and fix our line? Please unplug your modem and plug it into the primary phone socket.

Aaaarrgghh! The full story – and indeed there is more – is here.

In the end we had to go back to France Telecom, change our telephone number and get a new line. The engineers found the fault in ten minutes and recabled us.

So, back to the question in the title – when did the customer cease being right? Was it our fault? Did the increasingly litigious consumer frighten the old shopkeepers away? Or am I confused and mistaken?

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  1. 1. JDC

    When did the customer stop being right? When the customer stopped buying by anything except price. Like all good generalities, this isn’t universally true. But why did you switch from France Telecom in the first place? I’m guessing because the alternative is cheaper. It doesn’t always pan out but very often the really cheap option is “good enough”.

  2. 2. Misty Massey

    Last year, tax time was fast approaching, and we realized we had never received a statement of interest paid on our second mortgage. “No problem,” I said. “There’s an 800 number on the loan book. I’ll just call them.”

    I spent most of a week calling and following the computerized voice. No matter what I did, I always seemed to find myself stuck in a loop that led me to a recitation of the branch locations and hours. Pressing “0″ or saying “operator” just started the whole process over again. Finally I called one of the branch locations, and spoke to a charming young teller who, upon hearing my tale of woe, tried the 800 line herself, and was shocked to realize how useless it was. She found me the super-secret 800 line to the mortgage office, and a name to go with it. “Hooray!” I thought. “Now we’re down to business.”

    Except that the woman whose name I’d been given was apparently hiding under the desk with the manager from your story, because another week went by, with me leaving voicemails and hearing no response. At last, I called the branch again, and spoke with the charming young teller. She found me ANOTHER super-secret number, which at last led to a receptionist named Rudy. Rudy not only agreed to send out another copy of the form I needed, but gave me the numbers over the phone, so that I could finish my taxes on time.

    Lesson being…don’t deal with anyone in charge. Talk to the tellers and receptionists. They’re the only ones who have a clue. :D

  3. 3. Skip

    Back in 1987, Infocom published an interactive fiction text adventure titled Bureaucracy, that had been written by Douglas Adams. The game starts with you entering a change of address form, and you then spend the rest of the game trying to get it sorted out. As you do things incorrectly, your blood pressure rises, and if it reaches a certain level, you have an aneurism and die, and lose the game. It was one of the more difficult text adventures they ever produced, and quite fun. Probably not for you, though, with your experiences so fresh.

    The funny thing is, it basically came from a true story as its roots. Adams had moved from one apartment to another in London, and had to jump through many hoops to get things sorted out. His credit cards got canceled, among other things. In the end the bank apologized, sending the apology letter to the wrong address.

    So I’d say that this isn’t a new phenomenon.

  4. 4. Steve Turner

    I think the customer ceased being right when it became more cost-efficient for companies to outsource their call centres, and those companies make better profits by getting people on and off the phone quicker than they do actually solving the problems.

    Over a decade ago I worked in Internet tech support, and one of the final straws before I left the job was this realisation. You were not being judged on whether you solved a customers problem, you were judged on how quickly you got a customer off the line, which was easier for them to put in their reports to send back to the phone company, and make better profits for all concerned.

    So unless your service problems cause serious death or injury, or you can kick up enough of a stink to really get noticed (something like a class action), then these companies will keep behaving this way because it suits their profit motives better. That’s usually how it all works now of course …

  5. 5. Jonathan

    If its not new, It will probably continue in the future, so why is it only in Charlie Stross’ stories we see this sort of thing in the future?

    the stuff SciFi authors write about gets into the imaginations of engineers, and then – eventually – ok sometimes – it gets fixed.


  6. 6. Skip

    It’s not only in Stross’ stories. There’s certainly at least a hint of this in the Keith Laumer short story ‘In the Queue’. I think that one may be in one of the free books at the baen library.

  7. 7. Chris Dolley

    And in mine. In fact I’d just finished a story – Press Three For a Helicopter – where a call centre plays a prominent part, a day before my phone line died. Probably having taken umbrage:)

  8. 8. peacerenity

    The best thing I can recommend is to just not cooperate with tech support. Of course they’re going to try to keep you on the phone because that’s way cheaper for them. Even Apple, known for its phenomenal support, tried to do this one time. That’s when you have to stonewall and say, “I would really feel more comfortable if you guys sent someone out.” “But sir, just do XYZ.” “No, I want you to send someone out.” “But sir, it will only take a second.” “No, I want you to send someone out.” Usually they will cave. Sometimes being obstinate pays more than being nice.

Author Information

Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley is an English author of SF mysteries and fun urban fantasies, a pioneer computer games designer, and the man who convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. His novel Resonance (2005, Baen) was the first book to be plucked from Baen’s electronic slush pile. He now lives in France with his wife, a dolmen, and a frightening collection of animals. His memoir French Fried (2010, BVC) has just been released. Visit site.



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