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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