Does the Customer Care about Customer Care?

by padraigcolman

This article appeared in the July 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: Demand Better Service! The customer has to care enough to benefit from quality customer service, Michael O’Leary points out.

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Max Hastings wrote that Margaret Thatcher would be forever remembered as the warrior queen who toppled the Argentinean junta and castrated the British miners; John Major would be remembered for one little thing: Major’s big idea – which, to Hastings, was a little thing, was the Citizens’ Charter. The mechanisms of initiatives such as citizens’ charters can be mere rituals to be endured to receive a badge.

 

Some years ago, this writer was planning to move home from London to rural County Cork. I arranged an appointment with a removal firm festooned with customer-care accreditations. Its representative was two hours late and said he couldn’t take my goods all the way to my new home, but would drop it off somewhere for me to collect. I suggested that there was a disparity between performance and accreditation. The response was a phone call saying I was talking “rubbish”. I asked the caller to puts me on to the managing director. He informed me that he was the managing director!

 

More recently, I had an exchange with one of the largest banks in the UK. I had been given the same incorrect information in two letters and the staff at the call centre teetered on the precipice of insolence while conveying an indoctrinated message through gritted teeth. The response from the ‘Senior Customer Advisor’ was: “Our staff are trained to deal with all customer queries as efficiently as possible.”

 

Hastings was wrong. The concept of a Citizens’ Charter is a profound and noble idea. It involves the very essence of ethical philosophy going back to ancient times. The ‘Golden Rule’ is the best guide to living, whatever your religion. It is about empathy – do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In the words of Joe South: “Just walk in my shoes.”

 

Major was not being grandiose when he talked about the concept of a citizens’ charter being the “central theme for public life”. According to the BBC, his attempt to establish measurable and accountable public services was his most important legacy.

 

The problem is how to prevent the ritual substituting for the substance – gritting the teeth and going for the accreditation.

 

Dr. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, a pioneer of the Citizens’ Charter concept, said: “It is all too easy for the idea to be absorbed and neutered by the civil service. The trick is to ensure that the system does not dissolve into a set of vague objectives couched in the language of management-speak, which helps nobody.” In any organisational set-up, one has to have a framework to translate a mission into practice- but if individual workers do not understand or feel the core values, they will merely pay lip service and perform the rituals.

 

Major’s concept was about better quality for consumers through the publication of service standards, establishing the right of redress, performance monitoring, penalties for failures by public services and tighter regulation of privatised utilities. Published charters set out the standards of service in many sectors of provision – both public and private – that consumers have a right to expec and in some cases, compensation could be claimed where performance is found to be deficient.

I have detected a certain degree of cynicism about whether the concept of citizens’ charters can ever flourish on Sri Lankan soil. In a speech at the opening of a special Consumer Court at Aluthkade recently, the Chief Justice said that the cause of the consumer had become utterly hopeless. He said that those who rob the country would end up in hell.

 

Citizens have written to the newspapers that government officials do not show the simplest courtesy of acknowledging receipt of any correspondence. A toxic miasma of sloth and arrogance permeates some offices.  Controllers see themselves as technicians, not managers, so departments are not managed.

 

One correspondent wrote: “Will the ministers do something about this situation?” The answer is that they won’t – if the customer remains passive. The customer has to care enough to insist on real customer care.

 

A citizens’ charter should make it easier for the customer. Perhaps, those sufficiently interested could

try to see to it that the provisions of Section 7 of the Consumer Affairs Authority Act (No. 9 of 2003) are observed. The CAA has among its responsibilities the duty “to protect consumers against unfair trade practices and to guarantee that consumers interests shall be given due consideration”. One of the CAA’s functions is to “promote, assist and encourage the establishment of consumer organisations”. It takes a mere 15 members of the public to set up a consumer organisation which can register with the CAA. You can contact the CAA at caaoffice@sltnet.lk.

 

In the UK, customers have achieved great victories in curbing the rampant profiteering of banks. Philip Cullum of the UK National Consumer Council wrote: “This isn’t about being anti-business. At the National Consumer Council, we want the good guys to make profits and the bad guys to lose out. The challenge is to create markets where companies are fighting for consumer attention, which in turn leads to efficiency and innovation. The days when British consumers were reluctant to say boo to a goose are gone.”

 

Persevering customers will prevail. Passive ones will be persecuted.

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