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Do You Hold Your Customers in Contempt? Or Do You TRULY Value Them?

June 7, 2010

Updated April 9, 2014

Once upon a time yours truly, as a young university grad and newly married, found himself working as a loans officer for a large finance company. Being young and naïve, I found it rather exciting to get out from behind my desk, jump in my manager’s company car and go loan collecting. After bringing in new business for loans, mortgages and conditional sales contracts, the more seamy side of my work was pounding on doors, especially at month end when stats were due for the regional manager.

The excitement gradually wore off as I began to realize, as a 23 year-old, that these were people I was hounding, often single mothers with several young children, left as my sole source of contact since their irresponsible husbands had taken off. After about a year of working in the loans industry, Sue and I had our first child (with three more to arrive later on). I then began to see the world through a different lens.

Beating on doors or harassing people at work or on the phone was no longer a thrill. It was pretty disgusting. I got sick of seeing the rat traps in some of the tenements where I collected, or watching the single mom shaking the hell out of a piggy bank to scrape up a few bucks so that her account could be moved from a 90 day to 60 day. All for head office.

After two years I could no longer stomach the job so I quit and went back to university to earn a Masters in economics. It was after my graduation that I entered the Public Service of Canada and where I worked for three decades.

So what’s my point in sharing this story with you? It’s about how organizations treat their customers and clients and how they TRULY perceive them. The finance company I worked for held their customers in contempt, seeing them as an easy means to profits. The type of clientele for the consumer finance industry was and remains people of lower education and economic means. I well recall a few of the customers of my company being of limited mental capacity. On one occasion, a conditional sales contract was approved for a mentally retarded young man who worked at a gas station. When his boss found out he went ballistic, to the point where we had to repossess the stereo equipment he had purchased on credit.

But it’s not just finance companies that prey on people. On a much bigger and more devastating scale, huge investment houses and banks mercilessly manipulated, deceived and in the end stole from tens of millions of Americans, not to mention the financial carnage in other industrialized countries.

My stance is that US banks, investment houses and finance companies held their customers and clients in contempt by systematically scheming and plotting on how to extract maximum dollars from their hard-earned wages. These firms, as described by writers such as Michael Lewis in The Big Short, methodically manipulated consumers into high risk mortgages and loans, if not outright lying to them, deceiving them into believing something else.

As a long-time practicing economist and a big believer in capitalism, this is not how it’s supposed to play out. Business earns its desired profits while consumers derive the value from the goods, services and investments they’ve purchased. This is not rocket science, nor should it be perceived as some lefty altruistic theory. It’s reality. However, when greed steps in, superseding the process in which capitalism is supposed to work, all hell breaks loose.

The 2008-09 financial meltdown has been an eye-popping study on how greed, stupidity and naiveté, on the parts of business and consumers, catapulted the U.S economy and, by association, other industrialized economies into a major recession. And despite assertions by some individuals that the “system” is now safer and that consumers better protected, Michael Lewis argues otherwise in his new book Flash Boys in which he reveals how the stock market has become rigged due to high-speed computerized trading.

When financial institutions, regardless of size, begin to treat its customers and clients with contempt then it has begun a slide down a very slippery slope to possible–read probable–insolvency. As the saying goes, what goes around comes around eventually. We’re witnessing that in America. Now we’re witnessing what is tantamount to a clandestine stock market trading system that undermines both consumers and human being stock market traders.

The question remains is: will business people learn anything from past mistakes? Humans, as a fallible species, have a tremendous propensity to keep repeating the same mistakes. We love to talk about learning from experience, the lessons learned, etc. But history is littered with examples of mistakes that kept being repeated years later. Ever hear of the 1929 stock market crash, which was almost replicated in 2008?

Reflect on how you view your customers and clients. Are they simply a means to an end, or do you TRULY value them for who they are and what they bring to your company or organization?

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

-Lord Acton

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 9:09 pm

    Unfortunately, I think you are very right about this in about 2/3 (but not all) cases.

    • July 12, 2011 9:31 pm

      There are many good companies out there, and in some instances public servants who get it and really strive to serve well.


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