Customer Service: Be more Cooperative and less Hermes

Over the past few years one of the things that has concerned me is the apparent rise in extremism – whether it be political views, economic conditions, attitudes on the environment, and so on. The concept of ‘echo chambers’ – whereby similar-minded people talk to each other and not engage with people with differing views is one that intrigues me. I suspect that it has always existed, but perhaps social media has allowed it to be even more extreme.

But today I want to mainly focus on another form of extremes – some customer service that I have experienced that was poles apart.

Before getting on to discuss the specific examples, let me add a bit of context. I studied business studies at university. I am familiar with the theories involved with customer service. And, as a consumer, I experience different forms of customer service on a regular basis (even during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns). Furthermore, although I don’t like thinking of students as customers, I acknowledge that some of the principles involved carry over to how we need to think about improving the education (in the broadest sense) that students receive.

Within my studies at university I was taught about the Japanese saying that “the customer is God”. I learnt the English version of the phrase before I learnt the Japanese one or before I had been to Japan many times. The Japanese version is 客様は神様です (kyakusama wa kamisama desu). This could be translated as “the customer is God”, but it shouldn’t. Some also use the term “the customer is always right”. This is also not correct – either as a concept or as a translation of the Japanese phrase. Even in Japan the customer is not always right – have you ever tried taking back a product that you decided you didn’t want to a shop to get a refund? Quite a straight forward process in many countries, but not Japan.

I take issue with kamisama being translated at God. Using ‘god’ is an improvement, but still isn’t quite right in my view. I prefer the translation ‘deity’. Without getting too drawn into a discussion on it here, there are two reasons why I prefer this term. First, it avoids any nuance/conceptual issues that exist with the term ‘God/god’ (I made such a change when translating one of the JL123 isho (last messages) in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan). Second, from my readings about Japan and observations in Japan, turning to kamisama is something that is done when it is convenient, expected or necessary – there is not, as far as I am aware, an idea that the kamisama need to be put above all else all of the time or that they are even necessarily above all else.

So yes, service can be good in Japan. But it is not always. Many will rave about omotenashi (indeed it was part of Tokyo’s pitch for holding the Tokyo 2020 Olympics), but as I touched upon in my book Japan: The Basics (which is what the image on this post relates to), I am not sure it is as amazing as some think it is. If nothing else, I think it leads to a lot of wastage. Behind what you see with Japanese service, there is a mechanism, a system at play. Everyone has their roles to play in this – even the customers. Much of it, I suspect, is quite superficial. Judging and uncovering how much this is true is not easy. I have done a bit of research in relation to service provided by the railway companies and airlines, but in the end, although some interviews have helped, a lot is based purely on observation and remains relatively subjective. As I plan an update to Japan: The Basics, I think this is an area that I should explore and discuss in more detail, not least because it also ties in with my interests in symbolism and discussions about Barthes, Empire of Signs and ’emptiness’. It is also one that I think I should discuss more in my novels – although it’s already there in Tokyo 20/20 Vision in particular.

When it comes to customer service, I expect to get what I paid for. If something works well, I will often give reviews. I don’t actually like reviews – especially just giving stars (for example) – as it is empty and meaningless if you don’t know what the tastes of the other person are. If someone has a different taste in music to me, for example, their review about a particular album is not likely to be relevant to me, but Amazon and others cannot distinguish this through their star system.

And if something doesn’t work, I will often give feedback. At the heart of this I guess there is a selfishness. I’ve probably paid something, so I expect it to do what I paid for. But there’s a bit more to it than this. I know from my studies that an overwhelming majority of people may moan to people in their house or on social media, but most don’t actually complete customer surveys or contact companies to give feedback. Want a good example of this? Just look at the next news story when it discusses viewers complaining about a programme or advert. Often the numbers are less than 1,000, many times not even much above 100. This compares to maybe 1,000,000 or many times more that will have seen the same thing… and who, for whatever reason (either they didn’t have an issue with it or they cannot be bothered to comment formally) did nothing.

In the past week, I have been dealing with some IT issues. To cut a long story short – after ruling out issues with WordPress, a couple of other websites, and my internet service provider, I have found that the source of my problems were Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome. So I am now using Firefox on all of my devices. And in the process, I have made my life a bit easier now, but also (hopefully) through discussing some of it on a forum on WordPress helped others find a solution if they come across a problem. Similarly, just today, I may have come across a solution to a bizarre bug that I had found with the app called iSyncr (which I use to sync music between my Android phone and iTunes on my PC). I let the company know about it so they can maybe find a fix (though my work around works perfectly fine). I don’t expect rewards for this. There’s nothing wrong with co-operation and everyone working together. I also feedback as I sometimes feel that the employees of some companies can’t actually be using their own products or they’d never allow for such errors to exist (Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Renault I’m looking at you).

So (finally), I can get to the part that’s relevant to the title of this post. Let me tell you about two very contrasting bits of customer service that I have been on the receiving end of recently.

First, the Co-Operative (or Co-Op) (I hope you appreciate the pun). I noticed that (yet again) when I went to my local Co-Op this week that I didn’t get a discount that I should have. I won’t bore you with the details, but I sent a Twitter message to their help team asking them to look into how their computer system works to see if the problem can get fixed. I got a prompt reply asking to see the receipt and check some details. I provided this. Within just a few minutes, not only had they assured me that the IT people will be notified (let’s hope they do find a fix), but they had sorted out a refund for double the amount I should have got (I had neither asked for or asked for this). I have also experienced such good service from Amazon on a number of occasions.

Now let’s turn to Hermes. For those who don’t know this is Britain’s answer to the courier companies that many of us use in Japan. On 4 January (keep in mind it is 5 February now and this is still an on-going case), I sent a parcel next day delivery for someone’s birthday. It was not delivered until 6 January. I contacted Hermes pointing out that I had paid the additional sum for next day service and this had not happened and asking for an explanation and, as it impacted a birthday, some sort of compensation. I used both their contact service (once I found it) and also Twitter. I still haven’t had a reply via Twitter.

It took two days to get any reply at all from Hermes. Then they just told me that they were looking into it. Soon another message. They confirmed that the parcel had now been delivered. Although they said sorry for the delay, there was no explanation as to how it happened, no offer of any refund for the extra I had paid for next day service, no reassurance that a problem like this would not happen again. They said the case was resolved. I disagreed and contacted them again. I had to send messages reminding them that I was waiting for a proper reply 4 times over the next week. Their only response was to change the status of the enquiry to ‘Solved’. I messaged again (we were now on 21 January!). Still no reply by 28 January.

Finally on 1 February a reply from someone at Hermes – it was in a mixture of fonts (suggesting some copying and pasting from a standard reply), asking me to contact the retailer to sort out the problem. Retailer? What retailer? I never mentioned a retailer. This was something that I was sending. A point that I made. A reply came the next day… to which they apologized for not being able to find my item and giving me links to how to fill in a loss claim. Wait, what? Who said anything about losing a parcel? With that they said the case (again) was ‘Solved’. I immediately pointed out that it was far from solved.

Two days later another reply… and an apology… that I could not access the claim form and so asking for specific information about the parcel. Despite them asking for information that didn’t seem relevant, I provided the details (although they had all of this from the parcel tracking number). A reply came the same day (we are talking about yesterday, 4 February, in case you are lost). An apology to me and my customer! What customer? But also now saying that they cannot process the claim as “I can see the delivery was compliant”. What does that even mean? Are they suggesting that a delivery that takes two days is appropriate when the customer has paid for next day delivery? So the case continues and is unresolved. In the meantime I have had two emails from Hermes asking for my feedback on their customer service – but whenever I click the link I am told that the survey is closed. Why doesn’t it surprise me that they don’t actually want feedback on their customer services?

Why am I writing this post, you may be asking. In part as I wanted to highlight the issues of extreme differences in service that can exist. But also in the hope that Hermes (and others) may read this and learn from it. And if not, there is the hope that some others may read it and take their business elsewhere and as a result the lost revenue to Hermes will be greater than the level of compensation that I would have accepted (by my calculations it would only take about 2 customers to achieve this!).

UPDATE: Within 30 minutes of my blog post above going live and me informing Hermes of the post, Hermes contacted me and offered a £4.88 refund as a “gesture of goodwill” to cover the cost of the postage. Doesn’t really address the issue that their mess up ruined a birthday present, but at least it was something. Shame it took a month to get to this stage!

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