first class
Some articles have a long shelf life. Case in point: This BusinessWeek cover story from four years ago called Why Service Stinks. Bottom line is that, like everything else in the US, and to a lesser (but growing) extent elsewhere in the West, your value as a consumer (and as a citizen) is a direct function of your wealth and your propensity to spend it. So if the computer of the person who’s serving you says you’re the buying rep for a ten billion dollar company, believe you’re going to get great service. But it that computer says you’ve only bought one thing from them before, and it required service under warranty: “Sorry, we seem to have a bad connection.” *click*

This is part of a larger malaise that tries to make us believe, for the benefit of the corporatist aristocracy that owns and runs more of our lives every day, that we are only what we buy. If it’s easier for you to buy a replacement for the shoddy item you bought, than to return it or get it fixed, then if you can afford to do so you’ll replace it. The vendor will therefore make sure it’s easier to buy new than repair or return it under warranty. And if you can’t afford to buy a new one, the vendor doesn’t want to know you.

Companies know just how good a customer you are–and unless you’re a high roller, they would rather lose you than take the time to fix your problem, says BusinessWeek. They explain how companies allocate service reps according to the amount of business they get from each customer group (which is why, for example, corporate Dell customers are routed to one ‘help line’ while ‘retail and home’ customers get the Indian help line). They call this practice of triaging customers by wealth and spending habits corporate apartheid and that’s a perfect analogy for it. The world in which corporate aristocrats live today is increasingly separated from all contact with the masses: Private chauffeurs, private rooms in private clubs and restaurants, private schools, private jets (and Elite Class perks when they’re forced to travel on the same planes as menials), private rooms in private health care facilities. The people who live in this bubble of fawning privilege have no idea what life in the real world is like: they never see it, and they never have to deal with it. This remains my #1 concern with the concept of The Support Economy (though its author, Ms. Zuboff, was gracious in trying to refute this concern in personal correspondence with me): That only the very wealthy few will be able to afford it.

The BusinessWeek article shows that the customer experience is a function of wealth and spending no matter what industry is supplying the product or service: financial institutions, brokerage houses, retailers, machinery manufacturers, phone companies, airlines, insurance companies, you name it. It’s no accident that the code for spending volume on many computerized customer information systems is called Status or Class or Value.

A Maytag exec sees nothing wrong with this. People who buy top-of-the-line “not only want more service, they deserve it“, he says. If he had been referring to a racial class rather than an economic one, such a remark would provoke outrage.

BusinessWeek foresees a future in which “the service divide may become much more transparent. The trade-off between price and service could be explicit, and customers will be able to choose where they want to fall on that continuum. In essence, customer service will become just another product for sale.” So the discrimination will depend not on your wealth or past spending volume, but on what you’re willing to pay now for ‘superior’ service, or to jump the queue. Is that fairer? Do we all deserve the same level of service, or should service depend on what you can afford? Where do you draw the line? In Canada, we (most of us, anyway) consider the idea of the rich jumping the queue for critical medical services to be morally repugnant, but in the US this is accepted as natural, just ‘the way things are’. So much for “give me your huddled masses”.

I remember a few years ago I was waiting in a long customs and immigration line-up in a sweltering third-world airport terminal at 1 a.m. chatting with the son of the British High Commissioner to that country who’d come in on the same flight. Suddenly, a boy came rushing up to me, asked my name, and then said “Give me your passport.” When I looked alarmed, he pointed to a mezzanine gallery where the friend who was meeting me on my arrival was waving and nodding. The boy took my hand, walked me to the front of the long line, whispered in the ear of the customs agent, and I was whisked through, no questions asked, and into my friend’s waiting car. “In this country, it’s who you know, not how much money you have, that counts”, she said. I was embarrassed and astonished. But is this any worse than the system that rushes first-class airplane passengers in many cities through shorter, less confrontational customs and immigration line-ups?

Call me naive, and idealistic, but all kinds of apartheid offend me. The wealthy and the connected don’t deserve any better service than the rest of us. To the corporations that believe that service should depend on what the customer’s ‘worth’, and the rest should either self-serve or go away, my response is: Welcome to my Boycott List. Good-bye.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Doug Alder says:

    sometimes Dave determining how much customer support a person gets really does have to depend on their spending habits with that company otherwise thecompany would go broke. Case in point is the industry I work in, the wholesale hosting industry. We run two data centers and we do give better customer service that any other wholesale ISP in our class, often spending more on support for a client than they pay us for the first month just to get them going, but there comes a time when you just either have to charge a client extra for support, stop supporting them or recognize that this customer leases 60 servers off you at several hundred dollars per month apiece so they go to the head of the line over someone who rents one $24.95/mo virtual server off of you and can’t figure out how to use it (and thus keeps breaking it). Depending on the industry you have to perform triage in one way or another on your customer support or you are going to go broke, guaranteed – the cost to support those who can not use your product correctly due to lack of knowledge or carelessness (and obviously this applies more to computer/high tech/internet industries that any others) will exceed your total gross revenue from that customer (especially if you are NOT using workers in India for your support team)

  2. Stentor says:

    If he had been referring to a racial class rather than an economic one, such a remark would provoke outrage.I don’t think this is quite a parallel, because the reason that the rich get better service is not simply prejudice that says they’re inherently better than the poor (as would be the case in racial apartheid). It’s a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” thing. The latter is more insidious, both because it sounds more justifiable on the surface, and because it’s rooted in deep social structures rather than arising from a psychological attitude.

  3. Su says:

    Great post :) The relations between corporations and consumers reflect the logic of capital. The trend is to accumulate capital and to exclude people. Everything are ‘products’, everyone is a consumer, not a citizen.hugs from Brasil,Suzana

  4. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with companies selling cheap stuff with crap service and good stuff with good service or even cheap stuff with good service and good stuff with bad service. Customers should pay for what they get. Many people would gladly pay a few dollars more for better service while others are happy saving a few dollars for lesser service (maybe they couldn’t afford that product othewise). Choice is a good thing. What I have a problem with is corporations misleading customers into thinking that the cheap stuff and the good stuff have equal service levels. I also have a problem with the fact that more and more we are not getting any choice and our only choice is bad service.

  5. Avi Solomon says:

    The root cause of service inequality is disassociating economic logic from the human scale/values. ‘Efficency’ has a price-inhumanity!

  6. gbreez says:

    And,so, we become less human day by day; objects to either be revered or reviled, not due to personal worth but personal $Worth$.It stinks, just like everything else that is going on today in our society stinks. Except great blogs,like this one. :)

  7. Steve says:

    Gadzooks Dave, haven’t you just described the world as it has always been? I’ll bet Dwork the caveman meat seller offered free delivery to the dude buying a mastodon quarter while the fella who just wants a toe for tonight’s stew is cash and carry. Seems like you can buy service with cash or volume but whichever the case, service must be paid for and a businessman who gives service to those who don’t pay for it will soon be an ex-businessman. …I’ll bet you a loonie that a boatload and a half of rich and sick Canadians cross the border to get in on a little queue jumping. It is sick rich folks money that powers the cutting edge of medicine, is it not? The benefits of capitalism are oftimes obscured by the fear and greed that drive it.

  8. Good thought provoking stuff as usual. I share your frustration with the amount of pseudo-service out there in the world.I would draw some distinction between quantity and quality of service. In some ways, if a corporate wants to hurl £5000 at an airline to cross the Atlantic they are probably subsidising my £300 flight. In return, I don’t mind if they get more space and more food than me, indeed if they get more people attending to them. The flight is over in a few hours and we’re all back to normal human beings on the jetway.Where would hope for equality is that what service there is is delivered with basic politeness and respect. Rather as with healthcare, I feel there is some minimum we are all entitled to; beyond that, the rich will always be with us.I also think we need to keep in mind our own individual part in this drama. Corporate service may suck, but then again many customers can be abusive and dishonest – witness the reality Airline TV shows on either side of the Atlantic.

  9. Ahmed says:

    Great post Dave.I think the argument sounds fairly harmless when applies to, say, washing machines or consumer products but it goes a lot further than mere customer service.One of the lessons of the 2000year old civilisation project is that the the only value you can attach to a human life is wether it is a life birth. We are now entering an age when your value as a citizen is based on your spending power. If you have an inability to pay you deserve worse healthcare, insufficient education, less dignity. Your children deserve fewer opportunities. You deserve a shorter life because you cannot afford decent food.The idea that not all consumers are equal is natural consequence of a market economy. Its extension to the public sphere is happening now in many parts of the world.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: Of course, but that’s because the economic system is designed that way — it doesn’t make it fair.Stentor: The “I scratch your back” mentality applies in other forms of discrimination besides economic — ‘redlining’ in real estate being one example. You’re right, it’s insidious, but so was slavery, without which, Southerners were told, their economy would collapse.David: Agree with your latter points, but the ‘choice’ you refer to in your earlier points suggests everyone can afford to pay more to get more. A lot of people can’t. Steve: Yes, some rich sick Canadians jump the queue by crossing the border, but that doesn’t make it right, or fair. And it’s not the only way to advance medicine, any more than pioneering things in the military is the only way to innovate new technologies, even though in the last century that’s how a lot of innovation occurred. The problems in both case are systemic, and it’s not enough, in my opinion, to apologize for them and just say ‘that’s the way it is’.Johnnie: Yes, you’re right, some customers are abusive and unreasonable. But I’m not sure I’m happy that the guy flying on a $5000 first class ticket is really subsidizing my $300 ticket. That $5000 cost is passed along to customers — us — so we’re the ones who are actually paying for it.Ahmed: Eloquently put — thanks.

Comments are closed.