“Stop arguing with the fish,” and other helpful business philosophies

There’s a poster up in my workplace with a quote from our founder: “If you want to catch a fish, you don’t start by arguing with it.” The text goes on to expand on this, saying how, if we hope to attract and keep customers, we need to give them what they want, provide a service and resolve problems – not delay, debate, or refuse to sort things out. I like that very much and I like working that way.

It got me thinking because I have felt incredibly frustrated in the last month by what to me are some very poor experiences of customer service. I really don’t like complaining or asserting my rights or making a fuss and if I think I have I am very angry with myself afterwards. However one thing that really winds me up and at the moment, uncharacteristically sends my externally directed anger shooting right up (ie angry feelings towards the outside as opposed to just the anger I feel to myself), is customer service that really is not serving the customer. I’m not quite sure why this angers me so disproportionately at the moment.

In particular, when the focus of the person who is supposed to be helping customers seems to be not at all on helping and resolving but on at all costs emphasising how they are not personally responsible, have done nothing wrong, are completely in the right, even have no duty to provide customers with explanations or information. They even seem to do all they possibly can to be obstructive and argue and prevent access to further sources of support (information, colleagues, their manager etc). To the point of talking over the customer, refusing to give information, refusing to connect to a manager, threatening to hang up unless they are allowed to continue saying various lengthy obstructive things, refusing directly to answer questions or giving one-word, irrelevant and rude answers, refusing to send written confirmation of important contractual information and discussions, refusing to diverge from sending automatically generated form letters even when numerous conversations or correspondence has been had that makes them irrelevant yet still full of threatening, scary demands….

Is it just me, or is this kind of experience of customer non-service on the up? In the last months I’ve had this experience to the extreme with a mobile phone company, a bank, a housing office, shops and a hair salon. In a couple of cases it caused me a lot of stress and I’m sure others are equally affected by it, especially the vulnerable (unwell, elderly, poor, etc).

It can be hard to pick apart whether what’s so distressing is the unpleasantness of the interactions, the complete non-service provided at times when you very much need help and are already likely experiencing considerable anxiety, the delay, the fear and panic caused by threatening letters (in the case of the incident with my bank) that come after you have done everything you can and everything you were asked to, or even the complete clash with one’s own values. Honesty, helpfulness, providing a service, taking responsibility, acknowledging the customer’s feelings and needs and being willing to undertake everything I possibly can to help them, are so central to me.

What is the more distressing part of it? I’m not sure. Are my reactions totally out of proportion? I’m not sure. I’m scared by the explosiveness of my feelings of anger.

Still, I wish more people would stop arguing with the fish and swim alongside them for a while instead.

PS re my customer service model: I think sometimes you don’t even need to “catch” the fish to keep them there. If you make them a lovely clean pool, light and air it right, make it pretty* and give them just the right kind of food, then they’ll like to stay there or make return visits of their own accord and perhaps they’ll bring along their fishy friends. [*Okay, perhaps not pretty, I haven’t yet seen many fish that appreciate interior design, but I still think they should have a pretty pond to play in. Potential over-extension of fish pond metaphor alert. Probably time to stop writing now 🙂 .]

Ginny xx

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