x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

It'll take more than a week to improve customer service

Customer Service Week, you say? Customer service is a lovely concept, but it's more theory than reality in this country.

Did you know that the UAE's annual Customer Service Week 2011 is currently taking place? Or indeed, that customer service actually exists in any meaningful form across the Emirates? These are of course rhetorical questions, not meant to be answered. Just like our customer service complaints.

Our consumer culture has much going for it, but good customer service is certainly not one of those things. CSW's aim to "raise customer service standards through awareness, education and sharing of international best practice" is laudable, but, like the reassuring promise of a typical customer service agent, it's easier said than done.

Admittedly, complaining about customer service, as opposed to complaining to customer service, is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. From media companies and banks, to restaurants and "mega" stores, tales of exasperation abound.

Take telecom providers and television broadcasters. Many subscribers, months after lodging complaints, have yet to have new receivers installed or existing packages upgraded. Even the quantum scientists at CERN could learn a thing or two from the way these companies have managed to manipulate time, effortlessly stretching days into weeks, weeks into months.

A typical phone experience consists of 20 minutes waiting on hold, a security interrogation to confirm identity (as if these calls are enjoyable pranks we go out of our way to partake in), and ultimately little to no resolution of your complaint.

And they always leave the cruelest bit till last: "Can I help you with anything else?" Else?

Clearly, many service agents are nothing more than untrained, poorly paid phone operators - whether in the UAE or outsourced - left high and dry to deflect the ire of frustrated customers from the real culprits.

Earlier this year, columnist Susan Crotty, on these very pages. shed a disturbing light on the attitudes of those in charge of customer services at many organisations.

"In a tone that implied an idiot should know this, the head of retail consulting for a large international firm recently told me that investing in good customer service does not make economic sense in this region," she wrote. "In another conversation, a self-styled customer satisfaction expert said the issue was obvious ... train staff and let them know that secret shoppers would be watching."

The key phrase here is "in this region". Whoever decided that we, in this region, are not worthy of decent customer service? The implication, and what an offensive one it is, is that many residents come from countries with poor services and as such don't expect, or deserve, better. Regardless, it's clearly a policy that companies, to their ultimate detriment, are happy to adopt.

The father of capitalism Adam Smith once remarked on a worker's attitude, "It is the fear of losing [his]employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence."

But there is something fundamentally unsound about having to scare people into doing their jobs properly. Whoever these secret shoppers are, I can save their employers the time and trouble: it's not working.

Of course, if you are dissatisfied with a company's customer service you can always, in theory at least, take your business elsewhere. In some cases, that leaves you with very few options, if any at all. In others, like banks for example, the choices can be plentiful. The catch is that, and you all know this by now, you are unlikely to find significantly superior service at any competitor. With this demoralising thought in mind, many customers end up sticking to the devil they know.

It's as if the customer service departments, whose sole purpose is to advance the consumerist ethos of their companies, all agreed to provide equally inadequate services. Capitalism in reverse, if you like.

You know what that sound in the distance is? No, not the thousands of people abusing customer service agents, the other one. It's Adam Smith turning in his grave.