Customer service

We’re all used to the fact that dealing with big companies – you know the ones where you can’t speak to the boss – is often unpleasant. They’re so big that no-one is big enough to matter; asynchronous communication has been replaced by unidirectional communication: emails are from “Don’t reply@” and phone numbers are private.

Rather than grant a customer the right to query something, they prefer to use resources advertising the fact that they are a listening bank/store and creating FAQs that are banal and we are left to suffer. It’s usually the opposite with smaller companies which are keen to prove that they’re better than the competition. You can probably spot which of these examples that I have suffered/been delighted by recently are the big companies:

1. I gave notice to the satellite TV company that I was moving out of my London flat and only needed to keep my Monmouth account. They told me I would have to pay the full monthly charge, keep the box with its unseen recordings (are all these recording devices 75% full now or is it just me?) but never use it or else pay £80.

2. I gave notice to the internet provider too and told them that I would only need the one account in Monmouth. They waived the notice period.

3. I gave my gym two weeks’ notice but they insisted on the full month. I queried whether I had had the full service given that the pool had been shut for about 10 days in the last year; and they managed to run out of towels! I know that there are unexpected surges, but towels?

4. I took a rug back to the shop because it was the wrong colour. I’d accidentally thrown the receipt away the night before. I offered to email it but she exchanged it anyway.

5. The new winch on my boat stopped winching. I got into port and emailed the site at 8.30pm. By 9.30 I had a director on the phone and by 2pm the next day I had a new winch, even though I was 400 miles from where I had bought it

6. My ironing gets done weekly but the provider would only do it off-site. I asked for it to be delivered back in less than a week and got a delivery charge. I queried it, on the basis that it wasn’t on the price list, and arranged for the cleaner to drop it off on the way past. I got another delivery charge.

The first three are publicly quoted. The fourth is a big partnership and the last two are private. So it’s not always a question of size: any organisation can look after the customer and anyone can put themselves first. So what’S the deciding factor?

I think it starts with S. Prices usually follow an S curve: low as the business enters the market, rising as the product’s demand rises, then levelling off as demand catches up. It’s the middle phase - where companies think that they’re in control and lay down the rules in ways that are patently unfair in order to maximise profit- that the business plants the seeds of its own destruction, destroying customer loyalty and enabling competitors into the market who don’t have to try that hard to provide a better service than the one now offered by the incumbents.

This was always a problem before mass communication but is more acute now. Some businesses get this and are using their resources to maintain and improve customer service. It’s tricky in the ever more complex world where allowing customer service representatives power to waive fees is close to enabling employee fraud. But it is possible and so I plan to stay with BT. But don’t tell Sid.

By Malcolm Durham, chairman, Flexible Directors