Customer servants

AUSTRALIANS are big on customer service. We’re entitled to it, and we’re shocked and angry when customer servants, as we see them, are not as servile as we demand. Naturally, as is the case in so many unbalanced relationships, courtesy and consideration don’t go both ways. I have seen many times more customers being rude to business employees than I see staff being rude to customers.

I have heard men and women use a pejorative ethnic term to abuse, and to even just address, staff who appear to have been born in another country, I have heard customers shout at staff, call staff idiots or issue such insults as ‘‘where were you when god was handing out brains?’’. But mostly customers’ rudeness is an offhandedness or aggression.

Such customers would be appalled if they were on the receiving end of this behaviour.

An exception, the only exception that occurs to me, was in Tasmania, where friends and I on a cycling tour were surprised by the belligerence of sales assistants, be they taking an order for a coffee in a cafe or pouring a beer in a pub. Perhaps, it occurred to me at the time, the staff appeared belligerent because they were not solicitous as to the customer’s day. No, we weren’t always in lycra.

Then there are customers who are unreasonably demanding, and restaurants seem to have more than their fair share of these people. I’m often surprised by the number of people who seem to believe the waiter is there to cater to their every whim and to only their whim. And I wonder if this relatively new expectation of servility and the willingness to be servile is a product of the relatively new American influence, which has given us also the fawning ‘‘have a nice day’’ and the more recent concern for our enjoyment of our day so far. The US gave us the adage that ‘‘the customer is always right’’, and we have come to believe that not only are we always right, that we have a right to be always right!

But are we entitled to good customer service any more than we’re entitled to low prices? We’re entitled to honesty, and we can reasonably expect courtesy, but I doubt that we have a right to what most Australians see as customer service. We do have a right to go elsewhere if and when our expectations are not met, and it is no coincidence that a business that knows there is nowhere else to go, a monopoly, is the most likely to fall short of our expectations.

An American Express survey of customer service experiences in 11 countries, an annual project it calls the Global Customer Service Barometer, has just found that Australians are the third most likely among the 11 to take their business elsewhere because of poor customer service, a propensity exceeded by only Indians and Mexicans and about double that of the Dutch and the Japanese.

But we have ourselves on, too. We’re also the third most likely behind the same countries to say we’re willing to spend more, about 12 per cent more, with companies that provide excellent service, yet it seems that the big department stores David Jones and Myer, which charge a premium for their customer service, are struggling.

Those who say they are not prepared to spend more for customer service, according to the survey about 30 per cent, cite prices already being too high, refusing to pay for good service, not being able to afford to pay more and increasing personal expenses as the reasons.

Two in five Australians say they have lost their temper with a customer service person in the past year, about average across the 11 nations, but it is how we do it that sets us apart. We are among the most likely to insist on speaking to a supervisor, to threaten to go to the competition, to talk about the bad experience on social media and to storm out of the store.

We are the most likely to hang up angrily and, wait for it, to swear at the customer service person.

Are our expectations of customer service overblown? Do we need a little more equality and reality in our dealings with business staff?

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