When the Customer is Not Always Right - Latest Global News

When the Customer is Not Always Right

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One of the world’s best-known luxury brands recently conducted a survey across its global store network, sending local squads of secret shoppers to assess the level of customer service. Despite their excellent reputation, the branches in Japan fared poorly.

“The problem wasn’t the service. “It was the buyers,” says the responsible senior partner. “In fact, we knew that the service in our Japanese branches was by far the best in the world, but the Japanese customers we sent noticed deficiencies that no one else in the world would see.”

Many will see an enviable virtuous cycle in this story – a parable of what happens when a service culture is truly excited by and responsive to the idea that the customer is always right. High service standards have created high expectations, and who would see that as a disadvantage?

The problem is that in Japan, as elsewhere in the world, the mantra “the customer is always right” is starting to falter. Maybe existentially.

The concept has always come with some pretty serious caveats; More detailed versions of the original quote (with different attributions) qualify it with clauses such as “in matters of taste” that shift the meaning. But in a thornier, more interconnected world, reservations multiply.

Japan’s current experience deserves attention. After many decades at the extreme end of customer deification (Japanese companies in all industries routinely refer to customers as…) kamisamaor “God”), there is now an emerging vocabulary to express a healthy level of atheism.

The term “customer harassment” has entered the Japanese public consciousness in recent years to describe the type of justified verbal abuse, threats, tantrums, aggression and physical violence that customers inflict on workers in retail, restaurants, transportation, hotels, etc. inflict other parts of the customer-focused service economy. A recurring complaint was that customers required employees to kneel on the floor to atone for a particular violation.

As harmless as these incidents may seem in relative terms – when compared to often violent equivalents in other countries – the perception of a sharp increase in frequency means that the phenomenon is being treated as a scourge. The Japanese government is now planning a groundbreaking overhaul of labor law to require companies to protect their employees from the anger of their customers.

But the real breakthrough lies in enshrining in law the idea that customers can be wrong – a concept that could prove more liberating in a broader sense.

Luxury goods and virtuous circles aside, customer infallibility has not necessarily been the optimal guiding principle for Japan, and this is arguably even less so as demographics complicate the ability to provide the same level of service as before. Excessive consideration for customers during the country’s long battle against deflation bordered on outright fear that the slightest misstep could lose them forever.

So much respect was shown to the customer that companies were reluctant to raise prices, even though they themselves bore the costs of maintaining high standards of service. Japan became one of the great pioneers of product shrinkage during its deflationary phase: a phenomenon that, from some perspectives, made respect for customers seem like a disregard for their powers of observation.

Perhaps the greatest damage left by Japan’s superior service standards, however, is the chronic misallocation of resources. The fabulous but labor-intensive services that no one here wants to see disappear come at an ever-increasing cost to other industries as valuable workers are taken up. This is becoming increasingly evident as the working-age population begins to shrink and other sectors of the economy present more pressing or attractive needs. As with any large-scale reorder, the process will be painful.

However, globally, the biggest challenge for the customer is always that the mantra is “right” because it involves imbalance. Even when the expression is not used literally, it creates a submissiveness that seems increasingly anachronistic. In a research report published last month, Melissa Baker and Kawon Kim linked an overall increase in customer incivility and mental health issues in the workplace to the “customer is right” attitude. “This phrase creates inequality between employees and customers as employees simply have to deal with misbehaving customers who feel like they can do anything, even if it is rude and impolite and involves increased vulnerability,” write.

Japan may still be a long way from neglecting service standards very much. However, it may be very close to the decision that customers can have rights without being right.

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