I WONDER if anyone ever walked into Coles or Woollies and thought, “You know, I really wish I didn’t have to be served at the checkout by a human. I would much prefer to be served by an irritating computer that will fail on my last grocery and leave me helpless, because everyone else’s irritating computers have failed on their last grocery too, and thus the sole staff member in the red vest is booked for the next half-hour.”
Have you ever thought that? Well, someone must have, because when I went to bed last night, self-serve checkouts didn’t exist. I woke up this morning, however, and found to my alarm that every supermarket from here to Zimbabwe has embraced them as the staff of the future. They chime, and they flash, and they tell you very slowly to put down your items, one at a time, like this, and then without any warning whatsoever they fail and the woman inside dies. And I find all that a bit discomforting.
It’s not just supermarkets either. McDonalds now has something called ‘Self-Order’ screens now, and despite the fact that you must type through an inch of human grease and nasal excrement, they’re actually quite a good. I say that because the staff at McDonalds are all 17 years old and listen to the iTunes so loud that when you say you want a Quarter Pounder, they actually think you mean a six-pack of chicken nuggets without the sauce. In which case it’s rather easier to just thump your order into the screens than bellow like a buffalo at a bewildered high-schooler.
But everywhere else, I think they’re unhelpful. After all, we live in a modern technological world; an impersonal environment so besieged with computers and auto-machines that a simple chat about the weather or your fruit trees becomes a treasure. Something so insignificant, yet so significant. We’d go mad without it.
It’s the same with every business nowadays, except those small-sort-of shops which are manned by friendly chaps called Peter, who still think it’s appropriate to joke with customers. Everywhere else – pah! When you call up Telstra or iinet because you asked for the phone line to be connected three months ago and nothing has happened, you don’t hear the pleasant and obliging sound of a fellow human being on the other end, ready to soothe your concerns. No. Instead you get this computerised drone which says something like, “Press 1 to speak to an Asian, 2 to speak to an Indian, 3 to speak to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and will put you on hold for three hours while they find someone who does, or 4 to hear the options again.” I would never call Telstra. Not even if I saw their silly tower on fire.
So I’d like to bring to your attention the Commonwealth Bank. Now, admittedly, I haven’t tried calling them (Telstra hasn’t turned on the phone yet) so I don’t know what they’re like in that regard. They could be curt and bureaucratic for all I know. But I rather suspect not. I know that whenever you walk into one of their branches, you are immediately greeted by veritable troop of freshly groomed faces in crisp Commonwealth Bank uniform. I have seen elderly people hobble into that bank and the warmth and friendliness and respect with which they were treated was something to behold. It’s a model which other businesses should be embracing. But they don’t.
Or do they? If you rock up in your old Toyota Corolla to the average car dealership, salesmen will be watching with binoculars from within, and as soon as you come to the pavement, they will tumble over each other trying to be the first to greet you. Ask a question about diesel engine specifications, and they will disappear like a genii and remerge dragging a rack full of glittering brochures. They will laugh at your children’s pranks, at least until the door lining gets scratched, ask about your mother’s health, and even tell you that you look about 15 years younger than you really are. Whatever you really are. And when you look like you might seal the deal, they’ll literally carry your bags up to the desk, and whizz around making silly jokes and pulling out paper and pens and deposit slips, and…and…and then they’ll change. As soon as the money’s theirs, and the car’s yours, their bring white smile will twist into a sneer and you are suddenly a piece of dirt that needs to be mopped out of the showroom as soon as possible to make way for the next customer. So no, your Brodie may not have one of those ornamental lollipops. They’re for charity. And if you come back with a complaint or because the stereo’s faulty, well, don’t expect anything to be done about it.
That’s the thing. The only time businesses are nice to you, and give you a nice person to speak to, are when you are about to pay them a great deal of money. As soon as that’s done, well, you switch from being an asset to being a liability. The nice people become computers. And if you try and take the problem further up the chain, you will talk to a man who just thinks and acts like a computer himself.
So what many people do at this juncture is just leave their car unlocked with a can of petrol nearby. So that it gets stolen, and set alight, and about two years later partially paid for by the insurance company. Occasionally this has backfired, and it is not recommended you try it at home.
But this predicament isn’t going to change anytime soon, because at the root of it all is money. And trying to reason with a businessman in any field other than money is like trying to reason with an environmentalist in, well, any field at all. There’s no point. Which is why I will attempt to reason it in exactly that field.
What businesses seem to forget an awful lot is that good customer service always pays dividends. If you agree to replace the whole engine of that customer’s car as a “good-will gesture”, you might be $5,000 poorer, initially. But as soon as that customer flies to her many social media followings, and they all go to buy their cars from you, or at least Like your page, you’ll actually be $500,000 richer.
However good customer service doesn’t just involve listening to customers and their demands. The way you listen is equally important. And that includes letting human beings speak to human beings. No one ever got off the phone and said, “I just spoke to a very pleasant computer about it all.” That matters. What comes from the heart, goes to the heart. Even if it only sounds like it comes from the heart.
The Commonwealth Bank seems to have realized this. They have to pay at least two staff members to stand by the door and greet everyone who walk in, and farewell everyone who walks out. They have to pay them to do that. But it’s money well spent. They won Bank of the Year. Ford has realized this fact. Somewhere, a breezy, wheezy old Yankee executive has been struck by a moment of genius and now Ford has embarked on a global campaign to improve their customer service And it’s paying big dividends. Volkswagen Australia, too, which up until very recently has had notorious aftersales service, has also committed itself to improving their relations with customers. I was reading CarsGuide the other day, and it seems VW’s CEO has personally seen to a customer receiving a “good-will” repair just out of warranty. Not too long ago such action on the part of VW would have received as much media coverage as whatever baby panda was born in captivity this week. And it turns out that Jeep, too, is coming to the party. Which probably means they will give out “good-will” fire extinguishers, posthumously, to customers in the event of their Compasses having spontaneously combusted, but never mind. The good news is that all of these companies have realized one simple business truth. Customers are not just liabilities, or even assets. They’re investments.
Now at this point Coles and Woollies with interrupt, and say, “People will come to our stores anyway, regardless of whether we have all self-serve checkouts or not.” Yes, they will. But some might also go to that Friendly Grocer down the road, and have a nice chat with Peter about the apricots this year.
And jolly why not?