Why Do Companies Hate Their Customers?

Imagine an organization that hired real people to respond to phone calls and emails.

Man holding a giant telephone

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Back in the ancient days, there was a cliché about the first rule of business: “The customer is always right.” Obviously not true, but it guided generations of companies to unparalleled financial success, and American capitalism ruled the world.

Today it is almost impossible for anyone to interact with any business — or for that matter, government entity or insurance company or “service” provider. There are fewer and fewer “brick and mortar” stores where you can just walk in and get information from a salesman. And the “sales associates” in those that do exist usually know less than you do and have to poke around on their tablets to find out what you already discovered on your own.

Automated phone systems are a curse which just seems to get worse as technology grows. “Press One for This” and “Press Two for That” was bad enough, but now so-called artificial intelligence makes you bellow answers into the phone, most of the time getting a sneering “I think you meant…” as a response, which of course you didn’t.

The reason for all this, of course, is supposed efficiency — so these companies can make as much money as possible, and not paying real people to deal with customers is always an easy way to grow the bottom line. So the new cliché about business, at least from consumers, is “Trying to get an answer from them is hell.”

Why has the greatest and most successful business empire turned on the very people who feed that success? Do companies actually think it’s a badge of honor to have their customers hate them? Or is it the opposite — has their indifference to the people who are paying them turned into contempt? Is that what’s being taught in business school these days?

Populist politicians have often been successful by playing to resentment of the rich and powerful elite. But why haven’t many companies realized that peoples’ resentment against being taken for granted by big corporations could be channeled into business success?

Imagine an organization that hired real people — individuals with a modicum of common sense — to respond to phone calls and emails. Instead of the numbingly bad and inaccurate automated menus, your call could be directed properly. And then, yes, you might have to wait, but at least you would know that you were waiting for someone who could actually deal with your problem.

It’s actually not necessary to fantasize about such companies. Two I know of personally are Chewy, the pet-supply business, and shoe-­seller Zappos, whose late founder Tony Hsieh was legendary as a customer-service fanatic and who built his organization into almost a household name. No doubt readers might have others to add to this honor roll.

But why are there so few exceptions to the depressing general rule of being ground down and abused by the people who say they want your money? It wouldn’t take an advertising genius to spread the word that if you called this corporation or insurance company or ticket-buying service … as opposed to their competitors … you would actually be treated like a human being by another human being. Wouldn’t that be good business — for everyone?

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Some of the companies around where I live have realized that is a mistake especially when doing business in a rural area and have reversed this. It does little to save money with a robotic or computer voice only to result in disgruntled customers who may in turn leave for the competitor.

  2. Oh, what a great article! Of course, only Americans who enjoy talking to machines would disagree with the author and Bob McGowan, Jr and me. The machines which particularly enrage me are the ones which leave me with the few seconds’ impression that I’m talking to a human being.

    So many times, I, too, have marveled at the inability of corporatocracy to understand what a nightmarish world they’ve created, and how intensely we hate it. Having actual human beings to talk with would not only make the company a magnet for customers, thereby vastly increasing that company’s profits, the increased profits, if invested in significant part in improving wages for the workers, would help the flourishing of the economy, in general. And the advertising and public relations benefits would be huge.

    People used to understand this. Within my adult lifetime, they understood it. There must still be people in business who have the insightfulness and assertiveness to make these changes.

    No, I don’t enjoy waiting in a grocery store checkout line for twenty minutes because the Meijer corporation is too cheap to hire more checkers, let alone, pay them decently. I will always despise the Meijer corporation, because for years, two of their checkers, both middle aged ladies who had serious leg injuries and needed surgery, could not get that surgery because they were not covered by insurance.

    One of the ladies, the one who had a few missing upper front teeth, told me quietly that Meijer had canceled its annual Thanksgiving dinner for its checkers, giving them turkey sandwiches, instead.

    A great company, isn’t it?

    For years, the store I went to had a vanity biography of founder Fred Meijer on sale. No one ever bought one. Eventually, I realized what fun it would be to direct a side – of – the mouth jet spray of spit at the book as I passed it. I never got caught.

    It’s bad enough that Meijer is evil, disgusting that they’re dumb. Did they not realize the contempt they were creating in many hearts by their heartlessness? As I said, I will always hate them.

    Smart, Meijer. Meanwhile, we got a Trader Joe’s here recently. Guess what, Meijer?

  3. That’s right, Richard. A minimum of staff for a maximum of profits for the stock and shareholders because too much is never enough! I know a lady that works for AT&T and she told me whenever they have a luncheon for the employees, their next paychecks are docked by about $15 as to not cut a cent into all those billions.

    I asked her if she could opt out and she said she could, but when others did, the money was still deducted anyway. In the 90’s and 2000’s you could press ‘0’ or do nothing and get an operator. Now you’ll just be disconnected. Of course that’s likely to happen anyway after waiting an hour, finally reaching a person, starting to make progress, then getting the dreaded rapid busy signal.

  4. I don’t believe these telephone tree companies hate their customers.
    They are merely trying to run their answering services with a minimum of staff.


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