Is the customer still king?

Allowing for my use of a soon to be cancelled phrase designed to suggest a universal truth about retail, that the customer must always come first, maybe this is actually no longer true anyway.

The sine qua non of retail has already been questioned for some years now – the fact that if you treat a customer like a king, they end up taking the piss and expecting too much, things like free returns. And we know where that’s gone don’t we.

We have even seen arguments to suggest that the employee should come first but that is really little more than virtue signalling by companies that want to tell you how much they value their staff. Customer and employee satisfaction are of course linked but not to the extent that they both rise or fall in unison.

The inhumanity of chatbots

And now we are in an age where service to the customer has in many cases been so aggressively automated that we should perhaps not call it customer service at all. Often, it is the customer that is doing all the work, serving the retailer not vice versa. While everyone is celebrating the growth of chatbots and other forms of technology that automate the connection between companies and customers, actually the burden of work has been transferred to the customer for the convenience of the company.

This burden has been transferred under the guise of giving the customer control, and there is something to that argument. Banks persuaded their customers into doing all their banking for them by putting the whole lot on line, and this has changed the way people manage their finances. But in many cases, this has gone too far; as soon as the customer has a problem that cannot be managed through the app or solved by consulting the FAQs, they will want to speak to someone. And that someone may or may not be accessible via an email form, which may or may not reply depending on how busy the customer service team (always busy by the way).

No calls please

You may have noticed that some companies have gone further than simply discouraging you from calling them, by removing the telephone number altogether. This is not to say that some companies give great service remotely, via email and text, but many do not.

These initiatives are generally driven by a desire to save money rather than improve customer service. In some cases, it is about generating more income. Take the airports, for example. It’s not for the convenience of the customer that the airports now charge customers for each and every drop off, forcing those customers into the short stay car parks in order to pick up passengers. The drop-off area is policed so that no car can stop for more than about a minute on the pretext that you need to keep things moving so that other cars can come through.

There is perhaps a case for saying that the old concepts of service have been invalidated by the advent of automation, and I guess this does apply to some areas of commerce; and it’s not as if we are ever going to go back to the old ways. But perhaps I can ask for one thing; can retailers that have automated customer service please spend a bit more time using their own systems so they can see just how easy it can be to get caught in a doom loop where orders cannot be placed or tracked, where payments are declined without explanation, where search requires a PHD in quantum mechanics, and where queries go unanswered despite the intervention of a chatbot.

I may be a thicky when it comes to negotiating on line retail, but hey, I’m still the customer, indulge me. It will absolutely be worth your while.

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