The customer WAS always right

Written by: Dave Waller Posted: 27/07/2017

speak to the handWith social media regularly exposing company failings, it seems that many firms have their own interests at heart rather than their customers’

Earlier this year, David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor and father of five, was sitting aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, about to enjoy a routine trip back to Kentucky to treat patients the following day. Then three airport police officers arrived and asked him to get off the plane. And when he refused they dragged him from his seat, carried him down the aisle like a corpse and ejected him from the craft. Why? Because the flight was overbooked and United Airlines needed space on board for the crew from a partner airline. 

It was an everyday problem that could have been so easily sorted in civilised calm back in departures. But soon, the same phones that had eagerly captured the unfolding incident were filming Dao returning to the plane, glasses broken and face bloodied, pacing around bewildered and repeating the mantra: “I have to go home…” And suddenly the world had graphic evidence of a very distorted view of customer relations.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz’s immediate response was to write off Dao as ‘belligerent’. It seems United may have paid too much heed to the words, and the bellicose tone, of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. He once responded to the notion that the customer is always right by saying: “You know what – they’re not. Sometimes they’re wrong and they need to be told so.”

Indeed, while the United incident was a rare case of a corporation violently informing a customer of its decisions, others are at it in more subtle ways.

Take British Airways, which received a raft of complaints when its IT systems failed over the May Bank Holiday, grounding passengers at airports around the world, including Heathrow and Gatwick. It left customers up in arms about the lack of assistance they received as they camped out on the airport floor. BA’s Chief Executive, Alex Cruz, maintained a conspicuously low profile. 

All of which prompted The Guardian to point out that the customer was meant to be king, and to suggest such treatment was now the ‘new normal’. 

So, is the idea of the customer always being right now an anachronism? The slogan was popularised by the likes of Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the eponymous London retailer, way back in the early 20th century. It certainly was a different time back then – Selfridges boasted reading and writing rooms, and even a Silence Room, where punters could ‘retire from the whirl of bargains and the build up of energy’. If a customer wished to contact the shop, all they had to do was dial its phone number – 1. 

These days, customers are likely to be dealing with sprawling corporations, having to endure interminable instructions from an automated phone voice if they wish to query their gas bill, and paying upwards of £100 for a four-hour train journey, yet still finding themselves standing.

And if they have a complaint? The increasingly well-remunerated bosses will be on another planet – and it’s more time lost in the limbo of an automated phone queue. 

customer rightChanging times

Of course, it may simply be the case that it’s harder to maintain close customer ties in an era where companies are getting bigger, margins are being slashed, and everything happens at a speed that would have sent Mr Selfridge not only to the Silence Room, but barricading himself in. 

“I’d say it’s harder to get customer relations right these days,” says Charlotte Dunsterville, Customer Experience Director at Sure Communications in Jersey. “Let’s face it, it’s not an easy thing to do in times of cost-cutting and efficiencies. And now there’s massive customer expectation that just grows and grows – companies can’t afford to stand still.”

The cost of inertia could in fact be very high. Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane recently suggested that UK corporations risk ‘eating themselves’ because they’re too focused on the short-term goal of pleasing their shareholders, rather than truly sharing the benefits of their business with their customers. 

Meanwhile, Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer (this year headlined Trust in Crisis) shows that globally, only around half of people trust business to do the right thing. In the UK, that figure is down to 45 per cent. 

You only need look around to see the connection between declining trust in our systems – which people don’t feel are on their side – and the disconcerting rise of populism, where vast power shifts towards those who can exploit these feelings and offer a sticking plaster, no matter how simplistic or divisive. 

“I’d say that there’s no excuse for poor corporate behaviour,” says Adam Riddell, a Director at Crystal PR in Jersey. “Trust is at an all-time low, and you see the likes of Google or Starbucks making almost voluntary large-scale public tax payments as demonstrations of good societal behaviour. That would never have happened five years ago. These are obvious examples of companies realising that they need to be doing more to appease their customers and the wider public.”

Riddell makes a compelling point. These businesses are canny enough to realise that these days, customers do still wield a great deal of power – maybe more than ever. And one of the great enablers of this is social media. The only reason most of us were able to see the horror of the United Airlines violence is that people could film it and share it on their phones so quickly. 

And you only need to look at United’s eventual climbdown – after three days Munoz finally related his ‘shame’ at the incident – to see the power of the viral corporate disaster, especially in an age when some customers run to social media at the drop of a hat.

People power

“Customers have the power,” says Dunsterville. “It’s a case of ‘I’ll tell all my friends and everyone will find out’. As an organisation, it’s harder to get it right – and you’re under more pressure to do so. With social media, there’s so much visibility around how brands interact. Businesses have to be aware that everything these days is in the spotlight.”

That’s not to say businesses are in a no-win situation. Everyone makes mistakes; the key is how you respond. Companies that can harness the power of social media may find themselves flourishing.  

“Customers will be spreading their opinions on companies via social media and letting everyone decide for themselves, and it’s these opinions people now trust more than CEOs, politicians or journalists,” says Riddell. “That is a challenge for businesses, which now have whole avenues they need to be monitoring. 

“But at least it’s a two-way communication,” he adds. “So companies need to view that as an opportunity to engage and build trust, rather than being cautious or treating it as too great a challenge.” 

There are other steps companies can take to ensure their needs stay aligned with those of their customers – listening to them and empathising. Dunsterville, whose company has run Channel Islands customer service awards for the past few years, believes the key is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. 

“If United Airlines had just one person actually saying: ‘Imagine this happening to me’, it would have been dealt with in a far more sympathetic way,” she says. “But no one stopped to think that they’re not delivering what the customer booked and paid for.”

Dunsterville says Sure operates a simple values system that guides all internal decision-making, and that bleeds out into how its team responds to, and instils trust in, its customers. It’s about asking whether an action is the right thing to do, whether it’s simple, and whether it shows the company acting as one team. 

“What’s more efficient for a company often turns out to be what’s better for the customer too,” she says.

This advice sounds simple, and companies would do well to remember it. For United Airlines, it may be too late. Having settled out of court with Dr Dao, United staff have since managed to upset its customers in several spectacular ways – killing a giant rabbit that was on course to be the largest in the world by locking it in the plane’s freezer; trying to wrestle a violin from a classical musician because she asked if she could carry it in the cabin; and reporting a passenger to the authorities for having his hand too close to his five-year-old son’s genitals (later issuing an apology that the passenger insisted ‘wasn’t an apology’).

In each case, not only was the customer clearly not considered right, but their needs were barely acknowledged at all.


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