Poor customer service has brought many to the end of their tether Image Credit: Jupiter Images

One day at the end of March 2008, a musician called Dave Carroll was sitting on a United Airlines flight that had just landed at the Chicago airport. He and his band, a pop folk group called Sons of Maxwell, were due to catch a connecting flight to Nebraska. As they waited to disembark, a woman sitting behind Carroll said something that made his blood run cold. “My god,” she exclaimed. “They’re throwing guitars out there!”

Carroll looked out the window and, to his horror, he saw the baggage handlers picking a bass guitar out of the aeroplane’s hold and nonchalantly tossing it on to a trolley. His guitar, a 710 Taylor, was worth about £2,000 (Dh11,701)! He pointed out what was going on to a flight attendant. “Don’t talk to me; talk to the lead agent outside,” she said. Carroll followed her finger to a woman on the tarmac but when he spoke to her a few minutes later, she told him she was not the “lead agent” but the “acting lead agent” and couldn’t help.

Shirking responsibility

Carroll spoke to a third employee at the gate. When he told her that baggage handlers were throwing expensive musical instruments around, she couldn’t have been less interested. “That’s why we make you sign the waiver,” she said. Carroll explained to her that he hadn’t signed a waiver and, besides, no waiver could excuse what the handlers were doing. She told him to take it up with the ground crew in Nebraska. When Carroll and his band arrived in Nebraska, it was about 12.30am and there were no employees around. Carroll was tired and his guitar case looked OK, so he went to the hotel and went to sleep. But it was not OK. The next day, during a sound check, Carroll discovered that the base of his guitar had been smashed.

Thus began a long and tortuous attempt to claim compensation.

Back to square one

At the airport in Nebraska, he was told to start a claim at the airport where his trip began: Halifax, in Nova Scotia. At Halifax, he was given a phone number. When he called that number, he was told to return to Halifax airport and show the damage to a member of staff. When he did this, he was told United Airlines “didn’t have a presence” at Halifax. Instead, he would have to speak to United’s partner, Air Canada. They opened a claim for him but told him to take the claim number and phone United again.

Three months later, his claim had still not been settled. He was told he would have to present his guitar for inspection in Chicago, where the damage had taken place. Finally, eight months after the incident, Carroll received an e-mail from a United Airlines employee calling herself “Ms Irlweg”. It wasn’t good news. She explained that, because Carroll had not reported the damage when he landed in Nebraska, he was not eligible for any compensation. He tried to reason with her but to no avail. A month later, he received Ms Irlweg’s final word on the subject. United would not be taking any responsibility for what had happened, she said, and that was that.

Not one to surrender

Carroll didn’t give in. He wrote a song and posted it on YouTube. To date, United Breaks Guitars has notched up more than six million hits and attracted 24,000 comments. The video’s popularity has shone a light on something else — the boiling, pent-up rage of millions of ordinary people towards the organisations that sell us goods and run our services.

The emphasis on customer service suddenly changed in the Forties with the introduction of self-service stores, the forerunner to supermarkets. For the first time, customers collected goods from the shelves themselves and stores no longer had to rely on the quality of their front-line staff. Selling more, faster and at less cost to the company became the priority.

Budget-oriented decisions

Call centres, which began to appear in Britain in the Seventies, were the next logical step. If you could speak with your customers by phone, the theory went, and deal with all calls in the same place, huge savings could be made. “The job of a call-centre worker was to solve a problem with the minimum of cost and the minimum amount of repercussions,” says Simon Lidington, a management consultant and expert in the customer-service industry. “It was never about enhancing customer experience.”

Such disdain for the customer meant that the calibre of staff was not high. They received poor training and poor salaries and were ordered to stick to infuriatingly precise scripts. Agents were even given books that tried to predict everything a customer might say. Nowadays consumers will fight back, so companies have to raise their game.

“There has to be a commitment from the top of the organisation to look after customers,” says Don Hales, the founder of the National Customer Service Awards. “The best companies are not for customer satisfaction but customer delight.”

Resources to complain in the UAE :

  • Dubai Police Toll free: 800 4353, Traffic: 04-269 4444, Criminal investigation: 04-201 3430 or email: mail@dubaipolice.gov.ae
  • Dubai Airport: www.dubaiairport.com, Luggage loss: Emirates Airline toll free: 04-214 4444, Baggage help line: 224455
  • Abu Dhabi Airport: Baggage claim/Lost & found: 02-505 2771, email: adas_ll@adas.adac.ae
  • Mall of the Emirates: Customer service: 04-409 9000,050-558 4629 (supervisor), email: info@maf.ae
  • Dubai Mall: Customer service: 800 38224 6255 or email: inquiry@thedubaimall.com
  • Ibn Battuta Mall:Customer service: 04-362 1901, 04-368 5542 (after 4.30pm) or email: info@ibnbattutamall.com
  • Dubai Taxi: Complaints line: 800 9090