the blog of DC Drinking Liberally

November 3, 2005

Hell hath no fury…


…like someone holding their phone bill and discovering that the huge total reflects some unknown person’s voracious phone-sex habit. Until they’ve been on hold for three hours waiting to talk to a human being, that is. The story, or ones like it, has been around for some time, but the Motley Fool tells us that being a customer isn’t what it used to be. While it’s a phenomenon most of us are familiar with, very rarely does anyone look at the history of consumer relations in order to find an explanation. With the post-war economic boom of the 1950’s (domestically driven by the families enthusiastically participating in the Baby Boom), “the customer is always right” was the watchword for service. Now, you don’t hear it anymore. Why not? I have a few ideas:

1. Because it’s expensive. The no-questions return policy (for example) costs a great deal more than just the lost sale. More to the point, a bad marketing decision can mean tremendous losses.
2. Because it’s messy. Customers want to be special cases when things go wrong for them. Special cases take time and money, and time is money.
3. Because it’s much, much easier to identify them as consumers, and assume that consuming is something they must do.

Number three is the big one, especially with the concentration of ownership that is occuring in almost every industry, especially those that have an effective lock on a large number of customers. Any additional ones are nice, but bruised feelings are nothing to be concerned about. The prevailing wisdom is that most people won’t waste the time and energy necessary to raise Cain at a human being. Automated e-mail replies and phone screening systems make this even more difficult than they were a decade ago; have you ever gotten the feeling that complaints are handled as sort of an inverted problem in logistics - that the systems are designed to keep your rants away from the people who might do something about them? I’m sure you have; if I’m wrong, then you probably only write letters and mail them in, and include a few twenty-dollar bills with your letter (seriously, letters are the best way to get someone’s attention, even without “extras”).

To me, “consumer rage” isn’t a problem, it’s heartening. It reflects the growing political and social dissent in this country. Mostly from people who thought that if they did their jobs and generally tried not to cause trouble, eventually things would work out for the best (and are finding out that this isn’t to be). Not that screaming at the pizza delivery driver who hands you a cold, upside-down slide-pie is a political statement. It’s the entire process of realizing that you’ve been stepped on and then doing something about it. It’s habit forming, and I wouldn’t feel guilty about venting some righteous fury. Just do what you can to make it effective, rather than venting at someone who is paid to intercept the well-earned anger of people just like you.

And once you’ve told your long-distance phone company what it can go do with itself and begun the cycle anew with another, perhaps you could sharpen your technique on your Congresscritter? Try your state or local government if the line’s busy. I’m sure you can think of an elected official out there somewhere who’s done something that deserves a heated reaction.

May I suggest the needed revitalization of environmental and “consumer” protection laws as a possible starting topic?


  1. While it is true that recently service seems to have taken a turn for the worse, and that customer service is better in California (where there is more consumer protection, although, people are generally nicer too), I can’t say that things are WORSE than during the 1970/80s. Remember how stringent return policies were then? Or the fact that you couldn’t substitute ANYTHING on the menu? Or how about those “refills” that were charged as new drinks? I think, conversely, that the problem is we’ve become spoiled and there is a strong sense of entitlement brought on not just by better customer service but a general growing (and growing) American arrogance. (No doubt related to the growth in the tacky upper middle class.)

    Christopher7:10 pm, November 4

  2. Hmm, I can’t say that I’ve noticed any dramatic shifts for the better in restaurant service. Fraudulent refills have been around forever, and likely will always be lurking somewhere. I’d say they are and were a problem of specific (especially pricy) restaurants rather than something time-related. Same with substitutions — in fact, it was only a few months back I was reading people griping about chefs who wouldn’t allow substitutions or even omissions.

    On the other hand, I’m glad that the days of “allow 6 to 8 weeks for delivery” are long gone.

    Keith7:18 pm, November 4

  3. Think if you will back to the glory days of Ma Bell, when “seven nines” wasn’t a goal, it was a daily fact of operations (99.99999% uptime). Think of when power companies actually made some effort to soothe angry people calling from unlit dwellings.

    There have always been shmaltzy salespeople, and you’re right, there was a backlash in the 70s and 80s to the “customer is always right” of the 50s, but in the 80s, they didn’t have the idea of the “consumer” down to an almost rock-solid-reliable equation of “if I open a Wal-Mart in location X, with a demographic breakdown of Y, a specific number of customers Z is guaranteed to walk through the door.

    Fortunately, living things tend to break down the assumptions that hold these equations together when you start taking them for granted.

    Unfortunately, they know it, and are fighting back.

    I’m betting it won’t work terribly well. The study of marketing is a young one, and only reluctantly acknowledges a perverse truth: “Given precisely controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, humidity, and lighting, the organism will do exactly as it damn well pleases.”

    StealthBadger11:41 pm, November 4

post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


DCDL is a blog by Washington, DC-area members of Drinking Liberally. Opinions expressed are the writers’, not those of Drinking Liberally, which provides no funding or other support for this blog.

Upcoming Events

See information on the revived DC chapter (2012).

DCDL Member Blogs

DCDL Speaker Links

DC Links

Liberal (Mostly) Blogs

Liberal Groups

Internal Links


Drinking Liberally

Recent Comments

Recent Posts


Search Blog



46 queries. 0.369 seconds