Contempt for Customers

by Dave Michels

Thinly disguised contempt for the customer is an easy trap to fall into, after-all, without customers our jobs would be a lot easier. There is just one problem with this line of thinking…

The first time I heard the term Thinly Disguised Contempt for the Customer was from the book In Search of Excellence. The example provided was overhearing a flight attendant refering to boarding passengers as “Here comes the Animal.”  Thinly disguised contempt, in unchecked, grows – and can destroy any lingering notion of quality customer service.

Unfortunately, telecommunications and airlines are the stereotypical worst at passive aggressive thinly disguised contempt toward customers.

For telecom, the best example was the Ernestine character by Lily Tomlin- a regular on Laugh-in.  Earnestine was a nosey, condescending telephone operator. Famous quotes include:

  • “Here at the Phone Company, we serve all kinds of people; from President’s and Kings to the scum of the earth…”
  • “Next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don’t care. We don’t have to. (snort) We’re the Phone Company!”

Ernestine worked back in the days when Ma Bell was a monopoly, but the breakup of Ma-bell only spread the contemptuous practice to all kinds of telecom firms – carriers, equipment makers, cellular providers, web services, etc. The monopoly is gone, but telecom firms still hide their customer appreciation behind long term contracts and “your call is important to us”  recordings.

But all in all – I think airlines still take the cake. They don’t have long term customer contracts and are facing  an arguably tougher competitive environment.  I just flew UA – the first time in a while. Instead of long term contracts – the airlines use frequent flyer programs to determine the kings to the scum of the earth.

I used to play the frequently flyer game – but decided a few years ago that the “free” trips weren’t that valuable with their limited availability and restrictions. So I made a conscious decision to select flights that offered the best schedule and fare without artificial loyalty. While the decision was sound based on the free trip “rewards”  – the service impacts were underestimated.  UA has two types of passengers – valued and tolerated. Over the past few years, the real value of mileage programs has transitioned from free trips to better customer service.  “Valued” customers get shorter lines, live answer attendants, better seats, etc. Unfortunately, those perks are what used to be standard, so those without “status” get a substandard experience.

I just flew Denver-Dallas round trip. The flight is only an hour and a half. I paid $650 to UA for an economy ticket featuring a middle seat. When I played the game at UA – I was a Mileage Plus Premier member. Today, I am grateful for the “free” soda.

Here are some examples of the thinly disguised contempt.

  • I printed my boarding pass at home – and was once again offered lots of ways to pay even more  (better seat, shorter line, first class upgrade, and mileage accelerator). After rejecting all those, I got my ticket with my boarding group 4 (which is actually something like 7) – also known as dead last.
  • At the gate, they have two boarding lines. The difference is a “red carpet” – actually a red mat. They have two lanes for boarding the plane and only valued customers can step on the red mat. Don’t even think about stepping on the red mat unless invited to do so. They didn’t actually use the two lanes at the same time – it just took space. Secondly, about 90% of the plane boarded via the red mat. In other words, boarding through the red mat isn’t special or a privilege, but ‘no matters’ are scum.
  • While waiting to board – the gate staff kept repeating that the flight was full and there is no way anyone in group 3 or 4 will be able to bring on their “rollerboards.” They kept on “offering” to check the bag for free at the gate.  I don’t mind waiting, I prefer the open seating assignments on SWA, but here I have a seat assignment so no rush. However, the issue at hand isn’t the seat, it’s the overhead bin. The bins get full on UA flights. This doesn’t happen on SWA. My assumption is SWA passengers don’t pay extra to check bags so there is less carry-on. Basically, the no matters don’t get to bring carry-ons – that doesn’t seem fair. Did I mention I paid $650?
  • After boarding, the stress about carry-on’s intensified. The flight attendants kept begging passengers to check their “rollerboards” at the jetway. This now requires swimming upstream to the front of the plane. Once we finally had everyone sitting, the flight attendants still could not close three bins, three bags were causing problems. Since the UA flight attendants won’t actually lift bags, and since the bags were stuffed no where near their owners, it took five minutes to identify the owners of each of the bags. This was necessary for proper routing of the bag, because UA wants to know exactly what city to avoid. Of course, they did not need to check all three as checking two freed-up some room, but that’s a different conversation. I am no more loyal to SWA than UA – but I have to say SWA doesn’t have any of these carry-on/baggage problems.
  • Now I can sit back and enjoy the flight. Only one problem. I’m in a UA economy seat. UA actually has three classes on domestic flights – first, Economy Plus and Economy. The difference between Economy Plus and Economy is leg room. Economy Plus has too much (I felt this when I had Premier status) and Economy doesn’t have any. This Goldilocks situation makes the back of the plane unbearable. Working on a laptop is out of the question – it’s a good thing they don’t give out peanuts as there isn’t room for them either.

Of course, it is just money. I could buy first class tickets and many of these problems would go away. Or, I could fly more to reclaim my Premier status. But here is the irony- I don’t want to fly more on UA. Air travel is painful enough (special points to TSA), and UA doesn’t make it better. The experience is terrible and flying 25,000 miles a year in order to get more leg room (when available) seems like a bad trade. I can generally pay less, get leg room, and overhead bins on competitive airlines without feeling like an intruder.

The loyalty program creates a situation where – fares and schedules being equal – I will avoid UA (disloyalty program).

Is telecom better?

Not much. On the CPE side, most manufacturers don’t want to talk to their customers (call your dealer). If you are not loyal (current version on maintenance) then don’t expect a return a call. From a channel perspective, the most loyal customers tend to pay the highest prices – discounts are for new customers. From a hosted or services perspective it is all about self help – buy your POE and phones from a

Things are improving – the complexities of a UC&C solutions do create a lucrative opportunity for vendors to strut their service. UC is complex and confusing allowing the dealers, vendors, and service providers an opportunity to distinguish themselves on service. The mobile space is more competitive than ever – Apple taught the industry a few lessons by not purposely debilitating phones, but unfortunately, not all of the carriers were paying attention.

I do feel a bit of loyalty to T-Mobile as they allow me to tether my Kindle and Laptop without a penalty. I know some people that are loyal to Sprint – but I’ve never heard anyone say they love Verizon or AT&T. That doesn’t stop them from sending in monthly checks. I say life is too short for that. If you are feeling nickel and dimed or otherwise disrespected by your vendors and/or carriers, move on!


Thank you for reading, I know you have a choice in your blog content and I appreciate you choosing this one.