There aren’t many things in this world that I think I can speak on with authority, but after nearly 40 years working in various customer service jobs, the change in customer interactions over the past few decades is one topic I’m confident I can address. And if I had to pick one word to describe that change? It would be ‘devolution.’
I remember in my early years of high school, hearing the term caveat emptor during a class discussion. Translating to ‘let the buyer beware,’ it was my introduction to the idea that it was the customer’s responsibility to ensure the quality of their purchases, as opposed to the company’s responsibility to ensure they were selling a good product.
I didn’t agree with this.
Nowadays, of course, with an abundance of online reviews for absolutely everything, it’s pretty easy to research the quality of a product or reputation of a service provider before buying. But back then, it was damn near impossible. If you were lucky, you knew someone who had what you were looking at, but for the most part, it was a crap shoot.
By the time I hit university, cavet emptor was well on its way to being replaced by ‘the customer is always right.’
I didn’t agree with this, either.
I’d been in the service industry for long enough by then to realize just how many customers would abuse that idea. I even remember seeing a story on the local news, interviewing the owner of a shoe store discussing a customer who had brought back a pair of worn out shoes they’d bought years earlier, complaining because they didn’t last as long as expected. The store owner said this was the kind of customer who was putting stores out of business, then in the next breath said he’d ‘have to give a refund.’
I remember thinking, “No you fucking don’t.” (Okay, maybe not the ‘fucking’ part. I was much less swear-y back in those days.) I couldn’t understand why a shop would struggle so hard to hold onto the custom of someone who was costing them money. Still can’t understand it, in fact.
I appear to be in the minority, though, as over the course of my career, I’ve watched manager after manager bend over backwards for bad customers, throwing their employees under the bus time and again, in an attempt to keep that customer’s dollars flowing in – regardless of how much it costs in the long run. And while the majority of customers are decent people, the percentage of assholes has climbed steadily upward.
There was a small respite at the beginning of the pandemic, when those in the service industry, especially the ones working in jobs deemed essential, were hailed as heroes. But I don’t know anyone actually working in those positions who appreciated it. No matter how many memes are made, or messages are written in sidewalk chalk, or paper hearts are hung in windows, it’s all just words. Little meaningful action was taken to protect us, and as the pandemic continued, the hero narrative faded away and the backlash became extreme.
Customers are ruder, more aggressive, more insulting, and more threatening than ever. I could tell endless stories as examples, but I find this one to be the neatest encapsulation of how far today’s customers are pushing the Always Right envelope. It was recently said to a coworker of mine.
I am the customer, and you are my servant.
Oh, sweet Jesus fuck.
There are a lot of stories in the news these days about customer service employers struggling to find staff now that businesses are reopening. The common take on it is that it’s the result of people not wanting to work because they’re making more money on benefits. This is an oversimplification, and the response that employers should pay their employees more is flawed and incomplete.
See, it’s not just about the money. I mean, yes, absolutely, people in the service industry should be paid more, because everybody deserves to make a living wage. But beyond that, nobody wants to work in an environment in which they are abused and unsupported, and employees are finally in a position where they’re able to push back.
Caveat emptor and ‘the customer is always right’ are extremes, and maintaining extremes isn’t feasible in the real world. The reality is, sometimes the customer is right, and sometimes they’re wrong, and the same can be said for the companies they’re buying from. It’s the front line staff that’s caught in the middle ground between these extremes.
It’s about time for employers and customers to fucking meet us there.