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The One Reason Poor Service Is The Consumer’s Fault

In The Thank You Economy, Gary Vaynerchuk argues that businesses should make social media their primary outlet of communication. He also encourages companies to give customers “shock-and-awe” experiences to hook them. He talks about how companies should treat every customer like a Hollywood star.

Exhausting or not, the numbers support the idea. Nine out of ten unhappy customers will not do business with you again. We know from studies that consumers are willing to pay more for better service. This is why all businesses should strive to improve their customer service.

The numbers are clear, yet many companies don’t act

The numbers are clear, yet many companies don’t act

On the other hand, consumers always feel entitled. They feel entitled to great service, a wealth of choice between brands, and especially low prices. All at the same time, of course. If the price is not low enough or the experience is poor, we find someone else who will do it cheaper and better. I’m guilty of it myself; we all are.

Companies don’t give “shock-and-awe” anymore because competing on price is more important. When you do that, there’s no room to up your game in customer service. And although it’s not a great place to be, that’s where most companies are. The reason is what I call the “Sort by price syndrome”. We agree that businesses are not doing well enough; my belief is that neither are we, as consumers.

When searching online, we immediately look after the “sort by price” option. This is why the likes of Ryanair, Momondo, and GoCompare survive. We’ve trained ourselves to always look for the cheapest option, despite knowing we’re going to hate what we get.

The default option is “cheapest” (31h+ journey), not “quickest” or “best” (~7h 30m journey).

The default option is “cheapest” (31h+ journey), not “quickest” or “best” (~7h 30m journey).

When I watched the United Airlines incident for the first time, I felt outraged. Had the incident been on board of an Emirates plane, I might have approached it differently. After all, they are known for excellent customer service. Because it happened on board of a United flight, who has a full backlog of complaints, I was furious. I thought to myself, “These miserable human beings should not be allowed to do business. I’ll never fly United. Ever!”. And while I intend to stick to that pledge, I also believe that the “Sort by price syndrome” is at fault too.

One of the world’s oldest airlines, British Airways, is going through hard times, as the low-cost likes of Ryanair and easyJet push them into the corner. So you can either pay £40 for a Ryanair flight from London to Lisbon, or £120 for a similar BA flight. You’ll also get more leg room with Ryanair. No wonder BA needs to take drastic measures to stay in business, while Ryanair keeps expanding like crazy.

British Airways leg space

British Airways leg space

A pledge to do better

The solution is a change of mentality, which is going to be hard, if not impossible. Changing mentalities takes time, so the unfortunate passenger on the United flight will not remain the only victim of our behaviour.

What if instead of sorting by price, we default an option called “sort by service”? The price will go up for sure, but what else will happen?

  • Manufacturers won’t be assholes when you need to get a faulty item replaced
  • The cabin crew won’t debate with you whether your second glass of juice was the last one you were entitled to on this eight hours flight
  • There will be someone at the end of the support line who will pick up within two minutes of you calling
  • Supermarket food will be healthier, because it won’t be full of refined sugar and artificial ingredients
  • Clothes will last longer because they are manufactured under good conditions, with good materials, by people paid well.

The internet has wired us to always look for free and cheap. We don’t buy music anymore — we listen to hundreds of thousands of songs for £9.99 per month, disregarding the fact that it takes artists months to produce a song, and they are paid $0.004891 per stream. Even worse, we can just rip music off the web. Only losers pay for music, right? We don’t pay for books, movies, software, or games either — we rip those off the internet too. Why pay for stuff when you can have it for free?

All the music in the world for £9.99?

All the music in the world for £9.99?

This has rippling effects in many other industries:

  • Designers can’t run sustainable businesses anymore. Cilents would rather pay 25% less for sub-par work.
  • Electricians, plumbers, and carpenters fight on price, so they are stretched thin. There’s no time to build rapport with customers, because they need to quickly drive off to the next job.
  • Supermarkets can’t afford to hire more staff, so either the checkout waiting time is insane, or there’s no one to ask when you can’t find the organic peanut butter.

In this reality, how can we wonder that customer service is a forgotten art? We get mad when we wait for 17 minutes in the phone queue: “You don’t value me as a customer if you keep me waiting for such a long time”. But do you value the business?

It’s also our fault. We’re stretching customer support departments thin, because everything has to be cheap — otherwise, products will age on the shelves. As soon as a company needs to cut costs, customer service is the first area they look at. They won’t fire engineers, designers, or strategists, because their efforts are visible on the bottom line. They make stuff. Customer reps on the other side…

Starting today, let’s do a little better. If a company stands out, pay the extra 15%. If they seem to genuinely care about customers, give them a chance. If their service is better, pay for it. I’m not saying we should throw ourselves at the chance of paying a high price for services that are not worth it. I’m talking about the opposite: paying the right price for the right product, because you know the business will always do right by you.