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Customers today: even when we’re bad, we’re good

A few weeks ago, a silver SUV ran a red light and crashed into my car as I drove across an intersection. No one was hurt, but my car needed repairs. What followed was a crash course (pun intended) in being a customer in today’s exquisitely customer-serviced world. The experience taught me a lot about what it means to be a “good customer.” And, honestly, it was a little depressing.

At every step along the way, from registering my insurance claim to finally getting my car repaired, customer service agents worked overtime to gauge my satisfaction. This was occasionally done in person, but mostly on the phone and online. From the insurance adjuster to the body shop manager to the rental car sales guy, everyone wanted to know if I was satisfied with the quality of service I was getting. Each time I was asked to rate my experience I had to decide what kind of a customer I wanted to be in the moment. Pleasant? Patient? Perturbed?

Ironically, the more the people around me obsessed about the service they were providing, the less I felt my behavior mattered at all. My initial calculation that being a great customer to deal with would make things easier and restore my car more quickly, turned out to be wrong. As one week with a rental car turned into two, I began to feel that I could be any kind of customer I wanted… and it wouldn’t change a thing.

My initial calculation that being a great customer to deal with would make things easier and restore my car more quickly, turned out to be wrong.

Entitled and drunk on our collective customer power

Back in the day, being a good customer was simple. You frequented a favorite establishment, tipped generously, and were pleasant and courteous to the people who served you. Good customers worked to maintain personal relationships with everyone from the grocery store clerk to the bank teller. Repeat, face-to-face interactions built rapport, and that rapport would sometimes translate into special treatment. A win-win.

A good customer today no longer works to build a relationship over time, mainly because we’re chronically short on time. The definition of being a good customer has changed, distorted by our excess of options and a shortage of attention. We’re lauded for loyalty we don’t possess and rewarded without proving ourselves worthy.

Don’t like what you ordered? Send it back and ask for something else. No receipt (or rationale) for returning? No problem. While there are a host of experiences we can reasonably expect as a paying customer, there is a slew of other experiences we also demand to which we may not be entitled. Returns with no receipt and easy exchanges with a change of heart being just the beginning.

We’re lauded for loyalty we don’t possess and rewarded without proving ourselves worthy.

It’s easy to point to the current climate and blame customers for becoming pigs. But there are two sides to this story. Companies court customers so aggressively these days, we often feel less like a person with unique needs and more like a purchaser with a pulse. Chatbots and self-service options can make the customer experience easier, but risk taking the personal connection out of customer service and the humanity out of being a customer. Companies today employ sophisticated tools to understand customers’ habits and preferences. Loyalty programs, run on complex algorithms, render us just one more data point, not an intriguing world traveler, style maven, or wine enthusiast in our own right. In short, as customers, we’ve exchanged our individuality for entitlement. And it’s starting to feel like less of a bargain.

It’s good to be bad

My car repair experience highlighted another troubling trend: Being bad is good. As I waited days past the promised repair date, my politeness and flexibility achieved nothing. Only when I became angry and demanding did I finally get real action–and my car back. The lesson there?

It’s easier than ever to complain about customer service and get instant satisfaction. Don’t believe me? Call out a company on Twitter or leave a one-star Yelp review and see what happens. I’m betting the next thing you know, the business in question is DMing you an apology (and a discount coupon) and begging you to give them another chance.

As a customer, when satisfaction surveys feel rote at best, and like any friendly feedback isn’t going to do anything to improve the experience, it’s a sign that things need to change. (I personally would like to be more than a point on a graph telling Geico how well they serviced my accident report.) Perhaps it’s time for a customer reset, to redefine what makes a “good customer” good, and something worth striving for. Can we get back to earning respect rather than amassing privilege? And if so, might that feel better?

What makes a “good customer” good, and something worth striving for? Can we get back to earning respect rather than amassing privilege?

Human connection, as we all know, is on the decline. Conversations happen via text, online forums, and Twitter more often than they do face to face. This has its advantages as a customer, but as humans, the changing nature of our interactions can leave us cold. As we all look for ways to increase the number and quality of the personal connections we maintain, it’s not a stretch to propose that being treated as a more individual customer would feel good.

Studies have shown that interacting with strangers may confer health benefits much like connecting with old friends does. Meaning: if we can make customer interactions feel more human again, and less transactional, it could make us all feel happier. As customers, being understood and recognized for who we are would be the reward for treating those who serve us with respect. Good service for being a good customer. I’d give that experience five stars.