Thursday, 15 August 2013

15/08/13 - Customer Service

Customer service is really good these days, isn’t it? There’s an undercurrent of fear in the dead-eyed, nervous smiles of the average cashier, salesperson or support operative, as they’re scared to bits that you’ll report them for being rude or unhelpful. They have every reason to be scared too – with the ever-tightening squeeze of the global belt (or whichever shit recessionary metaphor you prefer), there are dozens of people lining up to pounce on any job that comes onto the market, and company bosses are keenly aware of this – if your staff aren’t being smiley and happy to a level somewhere beyond creepy, then there are plenty of others who will.

Social media has exacerbated this trend exponentially. In pre-internet times, if you were given crappy customer service by BT, say, or the kiosk attendant at the Jet garage, your best bet was to report them to Watchdog. Or punch them in the face. Or just take your business elsewhere. But nowadays it’s so easy to immediately vent your displeasure to a vast audience, many of whom might say ‘hey, yeah, those pricks mildly irritated me once too’, and company chiefs are watching this with some trepidation. Businesses have always lived and died by reputation (just ask Gerald Ratner) – the old adage about ‘if you get good service you tell one person, if you get bad service you tell seven’ (insert made-up numbers at will) remains true in principle, but the numbers are getting ever-bigger. So there’s really no reason for a business to give an employee a second chance if they’re having an off day and forget to be smarmy or overly familiar with a customer. And I think that’s a bit of a shame.

You see, with the relentless surge of corporate cheerfulness, I end up not trusting or believing anyone. It’s dishonest – if you’re a nice person then yes, that will shine through in your workplace manner. It used to be the case that, once in a blue moon, you’d come out of Boots or Topman thinking ‘that person on the till was really nice – I’ll probably shop there again’. But everyone’s that nice today, and very few of them actually mean it: they’ve hijacked the genuine behaviour of real nice people and smeared it as a dirty pastiche all over their smug, cynical fucking plastic smiles. We’ve lost the ability to differentiate between pleasing and mediocre service, because everybody’s so bloody nice.
The thing about this that really winds me up is that they’re so damned brazen about it. Take the example of my recent customer service experience with Sky…

I recently wrote an article about an old Ford Escort for a magazine. The Escort was owned by a chap in Ireland, and I needed to interview him over the phone. I only had a mobile number for him, so I wanted to see how much it’d cost me to call an Irish mobile from my UK landline. (I’m giving you far too much detail with this story, but we’re this deep into it so we may as well push on.) Sky provide my TV, broadband and landline, so they were the people to speak to. Having Googled briefly and found a number of conflicting tariffs, I decided that it was probably best just to speak to them. I spotted that they offered live customer support on their website, so I used that.
Now, the guy who helped me was very efficient and polite, and gave me the answer I wanted within a couple of minutes. No problem there. But after he’d done so (and, by rights, our conversation should have ended so we could both get on with our lives), we had to go through this absurd scripted rigmarole. He asked me to confirm the question I’d initially asked, and then to confirm the answer he’d provided, and then to confirm that I was happy with the answer and that there were no further questions I wanted answering. Then I had to answer a load of questions about the quality of service I’d received. It took far longer to do all of that than to go through the quite simple process of just asking one question and having it answered. Sadly there was nowhere on the form to write ‘it started well, but I fucking resent having to answer all of these mad questions which are being relayed to me through a veneer of false friendliness’. You could sense the desperation in the guy’s tone – please, please give me a good evaluation, otherwise they’ll post me into the memory hole to be consumed by the flames beneath. Poor bastard.
(The tariff was 48.9p/min, incidentally. In case you were lacking a sense of resolution.)

I preferred the good old days when wankers were wankers in the traditional sense, rather than pretending to be pleasant, functional members of society (which, of course, just reinforces the fact that they’re wankers). We should be able to spot who’s nice and who’s not without having to wrench aside the heavy veil of insincerity.
About ten years or so ago, I had to return a VCR to Comet. I was wearing a Wildhearts t-shirt at the time and, by some serendipitous quirk of fate, managed to find a shop assistant who was a massive Wildhearts fan too. This made things awkward. It’s difficult to open a discussion with a stranger through a shared interest and then immediately have to shift the tone of the chat to ‘I’m not happy about this thing you sold me, what are you going to do about it?’
He was shit, he really was. No idea what he was talking about, agonisingly stupid, and his manner swapped from friendly to aggressive in a heartbeat. He was clearly a dick. But then, you see, I could tell that he was a dick, he was wearing it on his sleeve. I never went to Comet after that. Especially since he called out ‘stay wild!’ as I was leaving – something that I’ve never before or since heard anyone say, Wildhearts fan or otherwise.
This logic didn’t follow with Currys/PC World, because they confused me. The branch near my house is an awful place to be; I don’t know if their staff work on commission, but they will never, ever approach you to help if you’re standing by something cheap – a £30 printer, say. If you want any assistance, you need to go and stand beside a £1,000 TV and poke it thoughtfully until they start swarming around you, then say ‘so, about these printers…’
They’re awful people. But at the same time, they’re overly nice. The smile is a yawning chasm of befuddling cheer. Just like every other shop assistant today. So, like the chump I am, when I wanted to buy a new laptop recently, I went to Currys/PC World and got it from there. I rewarded their reprehensible behaviour by giving them loads of my money. What was I thinking…? I was bamboozled by the fake smiles and ‘have a nice day’ aura. Fuck it.
You see what I mean? It’s not fair when they’re all pretending to be nice. You lose your bearings, and your principles soon follow.

Still, you can find havens of poor customer service in 2013. If you really want to be made to feel like a worthless, unnecessary piece of filth, try shopping at B&Q in Wandsworth.
I quite like going there – their disdain and indifference is so refreshingly honest.

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