I actually come from a long line of shopkeepers. For three generations the men of the family have been their own boss, but despite this pedigree no one is really surprised that none of my generation have chosen this path. For over a decade its been apparent that small businesses are in rapid decline. The signs are everywhere; once every main road in the city was lined with shops, record shops, barbers, butchers, bakers, newsagents, shoe repairers, all sorts of shops, but look now and you’ll find many of these shops have long been converted into flats the only signs of their former use a frontage looking oddly out of place with its surroundings. Then there’s the empty precincts designed as community hubs, but more often than not menacingly silent. Some independent shops remain, clustered together as if they are huddled-up trying to draw strength from each other in the face of what seems like an inevitable fate, but overall the prospects for many small businesses are not good.

You can argue that this is just market forces giving people what they want, and to an extent this is true, but there are many things which have been lost perhaps that people didn’t even realise would be lost until it was too late. The most significant of these is undoubtably the change in the relationship between a business and its customers. At the heart of this relationship was a personal bond between the proprietors of a business and its customers. With a small business the two would often be on first name terms and for the proprietor a quality product and good service was a matter of personal reputation. For my great-grandad when affected by wartime shortages this impulse was so strong that he preferred to close his doors and take early retirement than to supply what he felt would be a substandard product and in thus doing lose the reputation he had strived to build over many years.

Contemporary customer services aims to mimic this relationship, but whilst the very best may bear some resemblance on the surface deep down it can never come close. It’s almost clichéd to say, but most businesses over a certain size cease to see their customers as individuals viewing them instead as if they were some kind of indistinguishable specks viewed from the top floor of the corporate skyscraper.

Sometimes it’s almost heartbreaking to see how much a customer invests in a business emotionally demonstrating this sometimes by taking the time to write a letter of thanks, or to make considered suggestions for improvements to products as they want the company to succeed only for the letters to be fed into a shredder lucky if they receive the briefest of standardised letters in return.  Recently one of the companies I take calls for decided to offer its most loyal customers a ‘loyalty bonus’ of 13p on an average spend of approaching £20. The fact that they thought this would help retain customers shows just how out of touch they can be as quite rightly most customers felt insulted.

Most common of all it’s when someone who is clearly a loyal customer has a genuine grievance and rather than it being dealt with gets messed about by a series of call-centre operators they’ve never spoken to before and to whom their years of custom mean nothing. I don’t blame the call-centre operators here, at least not all of them, it’s the call-centre system which is wrong. Operators are never encouraged to take charge of issues and see them through to completion, rather it’s an assembly line system where one person bolts in the steering wheel and another fixes the windscreen; then in the blink of an eye they’re onto the next one. Ok if it is well-coordinated and everyone does their job, but in the call centre it is rarely like that and in my view the customer really suffers from lack of continuity and consistency.

Yep, call-centre land is very different, relationships between the customers and the company are, transient, ad-hoc and anonymous. As an operator the hardest part of this all is not being able to offer the customer certainty. They want to know what will happen, when it will happen and where. In short they want re-assurance. Unfortunately we can’t ever give this as we have little power to make anything happen, all we can do is pass them along the line and hope that at the end of it something which vaguely looks like customer services drops off the end of the conveyor.