Wednesday, September 03, 2008

British Columbia: Where the Customer Is Always Wrong

I have a cosmopolitan and multi-faceted upbringing, but I ultimately consider myself a B.C. boy. There are many things, though, about my home province that make me livid with rage. My poor significant other, who herself hails from B.C., has to hear my rants and railings on this (and many other subjects) all too often. Since I was just there, I had a refresher course and will now share some of it with you. Today's subject is customer service.

You see, in British Columbia, the customer is not always right. Actually, he or she is usually wrong. It's strange is such a greedy and commerce-oriented culture that this should be so. I don't really understand the roots of it. It is probably connected in some ways to the general resentful humility of english Canada in general, where we are too frightened to complain. But somehow, it really gets distilled in B.C.

I'm in the bank in Golden, a lovely town at the foot of the Rockies, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. I am depositing a cheque that is greater than the quantity currently in my account. The teller tells me it will take 8 business days to clear. Now this is the same ridiculous bullshit that goes on in any bank in Canada and the states, basically shit service by huge corporations raking in the profits (record-breaking years for Canadian banks recently) and I was in no rush to get the money. But I challenged it anyways, as I always try to do if I have the time. The teller is new and very polite and directs me to the assistant manager. The assistant manager gets her back up and tells me that it has to be sent to Vancouver to be cleared. I asked how that could possibly take 8 days. She made some vague statement about how long it takes to get things to Vancouver, that I should ask DSL. Well, I had just come from Vancouver the evening before, on the Greyhound (head still connected to shoulders, thankfully) and it took 12 hours. I pointed this out. She said "We live in a valley here." That was just so absurd that I let it go.

Clearly, the bank has a ridiculous policy and doesn't train their employees properly. But the real point of this minor anecdote is her attitude. All she had to say to me was "You know, I don't really know why it takes so long. I can see from your perspective that it doesn't seem to make sense. I'll pass your concern on to my superiors when I get a chance." But that is not the mentality in B.C. Our exchange was polite and she was not annoyed with me per se (believe me, I annoy people so I recognize it when I'm doing it). She was annoyed that anyone would question a policy. It's just not done. For her, it's 8 days and that's it.

Earlier, I had been in Vancouver. I went to a privately-owned liquor store on Commercial & 10th. As I went in, there was a young Japanese couple who were clearly tourists. The guy was outside smoking and his girlfriend came to the door and said something to him. He came in (as I was coming in) and went to the counter where his girlfriend had left a case of beer. It turned out that she was under age or didn't have ID. I guess the guy had sent her in to buy the beer while he smoked. So the guy went into buy the beer. He did have ID.

The employee behind the counter refused to sell him the beer. "I just saw her go out and talk to you. You're clearly buying the beer for her." I was too busy paying attention the shitty and overpriced selection of whiskeys (yes, we're in B.C. here) trying to find a gift for people I'd been visiting in town. At some point, the employee took the beer and put it behind the counter. So the Japanese guy left the store, came back in, got another case and went to buy it. I guess his strategy was that if he took it himself to the counter, it shouldn't be a problem. The employee wasn't having it and started to get righteous. I said, "Hey, come on, it's obvious that they are together. He's not just buying beer for some minor." The guy had a nice righteous spas then, going on about the $2,000 dollar fine and then capping it off with "and if you take his side, you'll be refused service as well." You could tell that he was really psyched to be acting all superior about the liquor laws. The other guy behind the counter had that look like "yes, the guy I work with is a dick and there is nothing I can do about it." So I said, "Fine, you lost this sale." which would have been a few bottles of top-shelf liquor and left. I sympathized with the Japanese guy (yeah, welcome to B.C. where the economy depends significantly on tourism and oh yeah we're going to have an Olympics here in a year and a half where we'll be hosting citizens of the world. Good luck with that.) and told him where he could get some off sales nearby (another brilliant B.C. invention, where you have to go to a bar, pay twice as much as the already insanely expensive beer).

Part of the reason that employee could afford to be such a cockface to two potentially-paying customers is because of the government restrictions on liquor sales (which I've already starting ranting about but should be its own blog post). In effect, they have a regional monopoly. Stores are extremely limited and so there is no competition within easy walking or transit distance. But it is also an example of the general attitude that a customer should not buck the existing structure and that if they do, it is them who are in the wrong, not the business.

Later in the week, H&M stores hit the news in B.C. because a woman who was breast-feeding her baby in the store had been asked to leave. This caused a huge uproar and a great protest where hundreds of women went to the store to breast-feed their babies. H&M handled it well, sending out their head of PR from Toronto, welcoming the women and apologizing. But I can just imagine the initial encounter and was not surprised at all to hear that such an event took place in Vancouver. I can picture the employee, probably getting backed up by the manager, later talking together about the customer's poor behaviour. I mean how the hell do you do that to a customer when you are trying to sell clothes to women? Considering the baby boom going on right now, pregnant women and new mothers are your market. You should be welcoming them to your store. Not in B.C.

Politically, B.C. is a complex place, an interesting mix of old-school left government support and resource-based free market principles. For the last decade, the Liberals have been in power, espousing the business side of things. Most people in B.C. seem to like it and they have certainly been benefitting from the economic growth, especially in the real estate market. But it is still the most bureaucratic province I've ever been in and there is a strong foundation of government in the economy and society. The cultural tradition is there as well and I think this may be the source of the terrible customer service. People are used to doing their business in government-run establishments (like the post office, ICBC, the liquor stores) and they think that private retail establishments should be run like that. That would be great if the government was still offering the strong infrastructure services and social support like they used to. But those budgets have all been slashed. So it's the worst of both worlds (as is usually the case when the government sells out to private industry) and the average consumer is the one who gets screwed.


Buzby said...

I hear what you are saying, these people in bureaucratic jobs (like banks and crown corporations) don't have any respect for customer service. I have had similar experiences in Toronto. But, bad customer service is not unique to BC, it happens everywhere. For example, I was in London looking to buy a couple of expensive suits for work and the sales person told me that I can't browse with a coffee in hand. He gave me two choices, either go outside and finish the coffee or give him the coffee to throw away. All this because they were concerned that I would spill my coffee on their suits. I left the store and have not shopped there since.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yeah, I may be forcing my thesis here a bit, but I have to stay on theme!