In August, Steven Slater—you remember him, don’t you?—cursed out a customer, grabbed two cold ones, and jumped out a JetBlue emergency slide on his way to national notoriety.
He seemed to be channeling his inner Howard Beale for an “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment.
And for 15 minutes, he became a hero. He’s easy to relate to. At one point or another, just about everyone has daydreamed of stomping their feet, shouting profanities, and doing the unthinkable: walking out of their job without a moment’s notice in a blaze of glory.
But in a recent New Yorker column, James Surowiecki raises an interesting point: where’s the sympathy for the customer on the receiving end of Slater’s tirade?
Everyone knows that the contemporary customer is mad as hell, too—fed up with inept service, indifferent employees, and customer-service departments that are harder to negotiate than Kafka’s Castle.
Customer service is a classic example of what businessmen call a “cost centre”—a division that piles up expenses without bringing in revenue—and most companies see it as tangential to their core business, something they have to do rather than something they want to do.
A surprisingly few number of dissatisfied customers complain — 6% according to the article. “So when companies are looking for places to cut costs,” he writes, “it’s easy to justify trimming service staff, or outsourcing.”
Chalk up customer service as another casualty of the Great Recession. Unless, of course, the customer in question is a potentially new one. Large companies, says Surowiecki, are desperate for new customers but they arrogantly assume their current clientele will stay on board without any service effort directed towards them. Existing customer satisfaction has become a luxury afforded only to the rich.
For the small businessman or entrepreneur, this story paints a conflicting picture:
On the one hand, there’s clearly an inefficiency in the current marketplace upon which a savvy manager can capitalise. Even tech startups lose focus of customer service as they grow large—look no further than Facebook’s privacy issues for evidence. Providing excellent customer service is a great way to differentiate one business in a flooded marketplace.
At the same time, in this economic climate, cost is king. More consumers are initially attracted to companies that can offer them the service they need for the lowest price. And skimping on intimate interaction with individual customers is an easy way to keep profits while lowering prices. That’s why many internet, cell phone, and cable companies offer great deals for new users, while infuriating loyal customers paying higher prices.
Bottom Line: It’s an interesting dilemma that startups and small businesses have to face every day. Are they going to focus on attracting as many customers as possible with an terrific price, or are they going to keep existing customers coming back for more with excellent customer service?
Based on the reaction to Slater’s shenanigans, small businesses might be better off with the former.
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