My dad ran a fine Gloucester restaurant in the West of England and used to recite these words like a mantra. It contrasted with his considered opinion that many customers were philistines who didn’t appreciate good food and wine. Still, he acknowledged their custom nevertheless, knowing that his livelihood depended on them. That wasn’t the least bit unusual; it was the prevailing business attitude in those days before the term ‘customer service’ was invented.
Today, it’s a ubiquitous label used by corporation worldwide, ostensibly to establish in black and white that yes they really do care about their customers, but more often to deal with disgruntled ones. Getting through to someone with authority in the higher echelons of today’s corporations is about as easy as getting through to Barack Obama for a nice chat.
A case in point is Videotron, my cable internet supplier and, oh dear, a service industry. I called because I had been initially charged $5 for 5 gigabytes of bandwidth, but then $7.95 per additional gigabyte. Why, I wanted to know, were there two rates?
“Because,” said the customer service representative, you went over what you were allowed.
“Allowed?” I echoed. “You make me sound like a naughty boy. Don’t you want me to consume your product?”
“Of course we do, sir.”
‘Sir,’ of course, is meant to denote respect, but you’d never know it from her tone of voice.
“Well,” I said, “It seems punitive to me. Why would you want to upset your customers?”
“We’re not trying to upset our customers,” she insisted.
“Well in this case you have. Don’t you find that unbearable?”
“So why are there two rates?”
“I already told you sir, because you went over your limit. You’re not allowed to do that.”
“Allowed,” I mused. “There’s that word again.”
She ignored me.
“Please remind me, why am I not allowed?”
“Because you’ve purchased a 5 gigabyte package and have gone over the limit.”
“So I used more, and I have to pay for it.”
“Exactly,” she said, relieved that I’d finally seen the light.
“Fair enough,” I added.
“I’m glad you see my point, sir.”
“Good,” I added. “Now, why does the cost go up by 795%?”
Well, $5 for 5 gigabytes is a dollar a gigabyte, correct?
She didn’t answer.
“And $7.95 a gigabyte is 7.95 times as much, right? That’s a 795% increase.”
She’s still silent.
“Look,” I said, “If I’m not allowed any more, why don’t you just turn off the tap?”
“What?” Now she’s annoyed.
“Why don’t you stop supplying me when I reach my limit. After all, I’m not allowed any more — right?”
“We don’t cut off our customers like that sir.”
“Ah,” I said. “Could it be that you want me to go over, so you can the gouge me?”
“Is that it? Does Videotron engage in trickery?”
“Sir, why did you contact us?” Her voice suggests I’ll be nonplussed by her clever question.
“To get my money back,” I said. I’ll give you two dollars for two gigabytes. Seems fair to me.
“And what happens next month?”
“Yes, sir. You’re going to go over the limi again next month. Then what?”
“I’m confused,” I said. “You know how much bandwidth I’ll use next month?”
“You went over your limit this month. You’ll go over again next month, and the month after. Then what will you do?”
“Good Lord,” I exclaimed. “You see into the future? How can you possibly know what I’m going to do in the next month?”
“How much bandwidth will you use then, sir?”
I’m now irritated. “I don’t know. If I did, it would be none of your business.”
“You see?” she says, “You don’t know. That why you need to purchase our Extreme high-speed package.”
“Don’t want it,” I said. “Are you going to refund that extortionate billing, or do I move to one of your competitors?”
“Our competitors bill their clients exactly as we do, sir.”
“So that’s what we do. It’s perfectly reasonable.”
“Because they gouge their customers, it’s okay for you to do the same?”
She missed that one. The poor girl wouldn’t know a logical inference if it hit her in the face. Perhaps that’s because she’s sacrificed her wits for her job, trying to follow bureaucratically-designed customer service conversations instead of her own sense of right and wrong. She sacrifices her integrity daily to keep her job. Sad.
“So will you upgrade to the extreme high-speed package?”
“No thanks. I don’t need it.”
“Yes you do sir.”
“Who on Earth are you,” I explode. “God?”
“So why are you calling us?”
“Actually, I’m not calling you. I emailed you and expected an email response.”
“We called you back, sir. That is Videotron’s policy. We wish to speak directly to customers in order to resolve their concerns. It’s in the customer’s best interests.”
“Why is that, sir?” Oh boy, she ready for me now. I bet she has company policy memorized word for word.”
“Because you didn’t leave me a call-back number.”
“It’s not our policy to do that, sir.”
“I suppose that wouldn’t be in my best interests?”
“And you called, what, ten or twelve times, disturbing my wife and daughter with your incessant calls, leaving no message.”
“Sir, it’s not Videotron policy….”
“So what’s your answer? Do I get my refund, or find a new internet supplier?”
“You won’t get a penny more.”
“A penny more than what?”
“Than the $15.90 for the two gigabytes at $7.95.”
“You’re actually going to refund it?”
“I’ll give you a credit, sir. But you won’t get a penny more in credit.”
“Madam,” I explain, “You’re giving me exactly what I want.”
“That’s all!” she insists. “Not a penny more!”
I exclaim, “Oh dear!” Perhaps that will console her.
“Is there anything else I can help you with this evening?”
“Thank you for contact Videotron Customer Support sir, and have a great day.”
I hang up thinking about the Buddha’s injunction to avoid wrong livelihoods. It couldn’t be simpler. Put your source of income before your own integrity and you’re on a slippery slope to discontent and stress. Sure you need money, but you need mental health too, something too often pushed far down the list of priorities. When you think that Xeroxed conversations like this are being taught to tens of thousands of people in customer service centres worldwide, you can only wonder what the world’s coming to. But then, people wonder that in one generation after another, don’t they?
What a strange lot we are, human beings.