The customer is never right

In corporate America today, the transformation is almost complete. The big ones are just about done eating the little ones. How many options does the consumer really have now when choosing a bank? Or an internet/cell/TV provider? Or an airline that flies a particular route? Even the grocery stores are coming under the the control of the increasingly few corporate parents.

As consumers have their choices reduced, and as companies who built their business on great customer service are acquired by companies that didn’t, the whole notion of trying to do right by the customer is becoming obsolete.

If you need to call Intergalactic Cable because they just added another $15 to your monthly bill for no apparent reason, you’ll soon realize the effort required to get that money back will cost you a lot more than $15 in time, effort and aggravation.

You wade through a maze of voice menus and finally arrive on “hold” listening to a recorded voice tell you repeatedly that your call is important to them. Your call is not important to them. It’s a giant pain in the rear end and they hope you just go away. But don’t forget to pay your bill promptly to avoid penalties.

When someone finally does answer, you soon realize they are entry-level employees in the Philippines or India or somewhere else where labor is cheap. They read from a script, often in an accent you have trouble comprehending. They have no authority to address your issue. They try to sell you additional “services”. Would you like to enroll in their auto-pay program? They’ll just go right into your account every month without you needlessly worrying about the details. So convenient!

You may be transferred and transferred again to other “customer service” people who also cannot help you. Sometimes you wind up back with the department you started with, but with a different person. Each step along the way requires you to provide extensive identifying information before you start all over trying to explain the problem. You’re fortunate if, after all this, you aren’t simply disconnected. And if you do achieve the goal you started out with – getting that $15 removed – you feel like you’ve won the lottery. But that $15 will reappear in two months and you can decide then if you’d like to repeat the experience.

If you’re dim enough to ask your insurance company to give you some money when you discover your car has been dented in the parking lot while you were shopping, your rates will be raised. The business model amounts to “you give us money, we give you nothing”.

The customer is not always right. The customer is a sucker to be fleeced.

The corporation has several constituencies that need to be served, and their interests conflict. First and foremost, management must be taken care of. The C-level few will get their obscene compensation packages whether the company does well or not, whether the products are faulty or not, and whether the customers complain or not.

After they’ve had their turn at the trough, the shareholders may or may not get some return on their investment, then the employees may or may not get some consideration, and then comes the customer. The customer gets nothing.

We’re supposed to feel good when we read a story like this one about Wells Fargo clawing back $75 million from two executives. Two! This is after six months of them  “investigating” themselves about the fraud which saw two million fake accounts created and 5300 employees fired. See, it was the employees who were actually the guilty ones! Why did these two jokers get paid so absurdly in the first place? Why does it take a media firestorm to get rid of them, and another to get some of the loot returned?

Here’s a piece  from last July that puts the nine-figure compensation of failed Yahoo CEO, Marisa Mayer, “in perspective”. She’s gone now. What would they have had to pay her if she actually did what they hired her to do, i.e. finally turn the company around?

You only get “accountability” from the guys at the top after they’ve exhausted all their other options. This weeks United Airlines fiasco is a case in point. First came the statements from the top about how procedures were followed and how proud they are of their employees. Then there was some talk about how they weren’t really the bad guys, because, see, it was actually law enforcement that screwed up. Then there was the obligatory blaming of the customer – he was “defiant” (as opposed to what?). Then there were some lukewarm “apologies” for having to “re-accommodate” some passengers (none of whom had actually been accommodated in the first place).

DC: Airline Industry CEO's Speak At Chamber Of Commerce

Only after it became clear that this wasn’t going away, that there would be lawsuits, that the paying customer was assaulted (lost his front teeth and was concussed!), that CEO Oscar Munoz is finally using some more-or-less appropriate language. As part of this mea culpa, he also said “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Actually, after you’ve knocked out your customer’s teeth, it is a little late.

But if you believe for a minute that any of this is sincere, that it’s anything other than pathetic attempts at damage control, well, you’re the perfect customer for United Airlines and all the other mega corporations for whom competition in our “free-market” economy is not a worry.

Anyway, I started writing this because today I read something about the airlines overbooking policies that bothered me. I wrote the other day that it seemed to me that, since you pay for your ticket when “reserving” it these days, the airlines will have their money whether you fly or not, and that the overbooking policy now is nothing more than an opportunity for them to sell the same seat twice. The article I read today said no, not exactly, because when people who purchased a refundable ticket don’t fly, they might get their money back and then the airline loses.

First of all, I’m not worried about the airline “losing”. They’re doing fine. Second, I’d need to see some statistics about how many of the no-shows actually bought refundable tickets, because they often cost twice as much or more than the non-refundable ones. And third, the airlines have already protected themselves against the possibility of losing money on no-shows. The full-fare customers who did fly have simply paid an insurance premium for something that didn’t happen. It’s all profit for the airline, and loss for the customer.

So what’s the takeaway here? Uh, I’m not sure. We’ve gone pretty far down the road of corporate consolidation to turn that ship around at this point. And I think we can rule out hiring Marisa Mayer to fix things, or anyone at Wells Fargo. But, beyond that?

Bernie for President in 2020?




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