Saturday, November 06, 2010

The New Reality

One potentially good thing about the financial situation in the UK is that we may all start to receive better service from suppliers of goods and services. This ought to happen because of two factors.

Firstly, if a company has to lose customer-facing staff, hopefully the ones they will choose to go will be the least effective.

Secondly, with any luck staff will be so worried about losing their job that they will make sure they are as attentive as possible to their customers.

I have been saying over the past 10 years (to anyone who would listen), that the new reality is that the customer really is the most important person in any business transaction. That is to say, that because you can buy anything, or even acquire it free of charge, without even stirring yourself to get out of bed (except perhaps to make a cup of tea), you no longer need to have to deal with bored staff who have no interest in you whatsoever, and who seem strangely cut off from the fact that, were it not for people like you, there would be no need to employ them in the first place. In other words, the economics concept of consumer sovereignty is no longer merely a theoretical one.

I was reminded of my thinking on this yesterday. I wanted to respond to the Royal Society’s Call for Evidence on the state of computing and ICT teaching in the UK. As it was a beautiful day, in a blustery sort of way, I thought I would take myself to a local park, buy a lattĂ© in the cafĂ©, and sit outside reading my notes and drafting my thoughts, away from the tyranny of the screen. Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat spoilt for me by the fact that the girl who served me was far more interested in texting and making phone calls. It’s true that I had to wait only a few seconds for her to take my money because she was too busy reading her phone to see that I had offered it, but why should I have had to wait at all? Besides, it’s not a matter of how much of my time was wasted, but of attentiveness: I should have been the sole focus of her attention. Instead, I felt that I was interrupting her busy day.

Now this little episode was a clear example of bad management. Rather than tolerate this person’s behaviour, the manager, assuming she noticed it at all, should have given her a choice: either turn your phone off and actually do the work for which you are being paid, or leave and find another job. Which brings me back to the start of this article.

Of course, it probably won’t work out like that, ie companies getting rid of employees who give poor customer service, for the following reasons.

Firstly, I have noticed that as the economic situation bites, some stores seem to believe that a good way to survive in a recession is by increasing their sales rate. What this means in practice is that the quality of customer service goes down, at least in the short term, as companies try to increase the volume of sales per day or per month or whatever, at any cost. In a nutshell, how companies define "effective", and how customers define the term, may not coincide.

Secondly, for some bizarre reason, a lot of people who work in stores seem to have no sense of a connection between what customers do, ie buy stuff, and their (the employee's) income. It shouldn’t take a Harvard economist to figure out that once the volume of sales has fallen below a certain point, the job of a salesperson become superfluous.

But these are only short-term issues. I’m convinced that the better the customer service it gives, the longer a company, especially a small one like a corner shop, will survive. After all, if you want impersonal service, you might as well go to a supermarket, where at least the price will be lower.

Do I like the fact that as the recession deepens some people will lose their job? No of course not. But as a consumer I do like the fact that this situation may lead to my having more enjoyable shopping experiences more often.

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