Fence Sitter

All sales and marketing seminars preach the gospel that the customer is king. Companies die without him. He pays everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s. Praises accorded to that abstract consumer verge on idolatry.

But, is the customer always right?

Perhaps, the rise of the self-service culture enshrined in the Internet has eroded the quality (or even desire) for pampering the customer. E-commerce has left the servicing of customers to a programmer’s algorithm. The shopper can buy anything in the net: airline ticket, hotel booking, jeans, shoes, theater tickets, and car rental. The interaction between the automated service provider and customer is a multiple-choice sequence of decisions that leads into a payment method. And then it is just a matter of actual fulfilment with the delivery of a product, either in digital form (e-book) or as actual merchandise or service, as in travel packages.

The absence of face-to-face interaction in this sales cycle has removed the human interface from a growing number of sales transactions. The live interaction, whether on the phone with a “customer care assistant” or the live equivalent in a customer care office at the mall, has been on the decline, along with the skills associated with that. It’s like the skill for memorizing phone numbers, rendered useless by the directory on the smart phone.

On one side of the live customer interface is a stressed out attendant, maybe a contractual with an outsourced service provider. She may have undergone some basic training in the product features and is probably two pages ahead of the customer he is tasked to assist. On the other side is a disgruntled, maybe even hostile, customer who feels he has paid for a lemon that can’t even be squeezed into lemonade. Is it then unlikely that the conversation that ensues is not imbued with professionalism and civility?

In the more traditional fields of service provision, the customer’s ascendance is in even more doubt.

Is the waitress trained to avoid eye contact? In a busy restaurant, the customer who wants a glass of water, a menu, a person to take his order or present him his bill, and then to follow up his receipt and change can easily feel invisible. He waves at a uniformed attendant and makes eye contact to mime his needs (a tipping of the cupped hand for a glass of water). The service attendant (the preferred designation) is busy with her colleagues discussing the frantic movement in the peripheral vision and suppressing a laugh.

When the waitress moves her eyes finally, it is focused elsewhere, up the ceiling to check on crawling insects that may fall on the soup tureen, the table assignment by the door, and maybe an expectant stare through the walls to await the apparition of a long-lost grandmother.

What about the taxi driver? Does he treat the customer as a bridge out of his poverty? The customer instead is the object of an investigation — where are you going? Why do you have so many shopping bags? Why is your skirt too short? Only when the customer passes this interview does she get to open the door and rest her weary body inside — and ma’am you have to pay extra for breathing too fast.

Even the shared ride where the customer is expected to pay for the car amortization becomes unavailable at the least convenient time, or is charging for the replacement of all his tires as the price to ferry the commuter home.

Why is there no seminar on the rights of the sales agent — the salesman is always right?

Anyway, the customer should know what she wants. If she can’t make up her mind or doesn’t understand the product and its limitations she should brush up on this first and study the manual. Otherwise, she will be taking up too much time as the line behind her gets longer.

If the sales agent is engaged in a phone conversation or texting a significant other, the customer has to be patient and not be interrupting the former just to be attended to.

Should sales agents in neighboring counters be chatting with each other while attending to the customer? What’s wrong with small talk if one has the ability to multi-task? The customer has no right to butt in and insist on the focus to be on her requirements. That is just selfish.

The question should not be — is the customer always right? Maybe it should be rephrased — are you the right customer?


A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.