Monday, September 23, 2013


Our economy has become a consumption economy and the conventional wisdom says that the consumer dollars go where they get best value, which is generally understood to be a combination of best quality and best service. But I find in my own personal finance that an awful lot of money goes to places where a good product and attentive service are hard to find. It goes there because there are no better alternatives.

In a consumption economy, marketing and - more specifically - advertising rules the roost and advertisers know only too well that it is their job to sell perception for reality. The whole purpose of advertising is to plant a perception in the consumer’s mind that the advertised product is something you cannot or should not do without.
The advertising world has also understood that it should hold out the promise and expectation of a great service experience to attract and retain the customer and so we get bombarded with commercials that are like the proverbial vacation destination brochure: the product and service you actually receive bear no appreciable relation to the impression created by the advertisement.

Banks, airlines and cable companies are probably the best examples of what I am talking about. Can you remember a truly pleasant experience in dealing with any of these unavoidable “service” providers? Mass merchandising stores are not far behind.

It is a troublesome thought that the financial health of our nation is so dependent on our preparedness to spend money on things we may or may not need, many of which have no lasting value and most of which offer only a mediocre value experience. The truth of the matter is that the only service provided in most of our c
consumptive lives is lip-service! Everyone in business is trained to liberally throw around slogans like “the customer comes first” and “great service is our promise to you” but very few actually provide the real thing. 

It shows, because we actually feel surprised when we encounter an example of really great customer service. It happened to me on our recent trip to Alaska when weather conditions delayed us for a day to get to our destination on the remote Aialik Bay of the Kenai Peninsula. The President of the company, Alaska Wildland Adventures, sent us a letter with his apologies for a situation that he had no control over but had us deprived of a day at our chosen destination (it was made up by an extra day at the Kenai River). The letter included a $300.00 credit and a certificate providing 25% discount for our next visit to that destination.

Turning a negative into a positive for a customer is one of the secrets to offering an exceptional customer service experience. It came on top of an otherwise flawless delivery of everything we were promised by this tour operator including the fact that we never had to worry about our luggage that somehow magically always managed to come back to us at the right time in the right place. It is positive incidents like this that remind us how we have become beaten down by indifferent and less than mediocre treatment we have to put up with most of the time we are buying.

I wish we could dial back advertising, but ironically it is our cherished First Amendment to the Constitution that stands in the way of doing so. How much better would our TV watching experience be if it were not constantly interrupted by seemingly interminable sequences of commercials? For one thing, it would be a great relief if we would no longer be pestered by the demeaning commercials for Cialis and Viagra. In fact, I think that all advertising for prescription pharmaceuticals should be banned because it interferes with the authority of the physician who should be in charge of selecting the proper treatment for our ailments.

The Romans, who - in so many ways - were the trailblazers for modern humanity, recognized the problem. They came up with the saying: “Mundus vult decipi; decipiator ergo”, which translates into: “People want to be deceived, so let them be.” This is language the advertising industry understands!

We all know that the Roman Empire ultimately fell because it exhausted itself in futility and, after its glory period around the start of the Christian calendar, could no longer revitalize itself and rally its people around a vision for a strong and sustainable nation. In the end it could not defend it vast borders and ward off the onslaught of hordes of enemies of much less sophistication and civilization and the world descended into the dark ages.

I see our preoccupation with consumption and our resignation in accepting shoddy service for purchases of vital needs like banking, transportation and communication as a writing on the wall that we may be heading the same way the Romans did. We are putting up with mediocrity and thus we are getting more of the same. We do not demand continuous improvement, much less excellence. We are allowing ourselves to be deceived time and again and yet we keep coming back for more. The advertising world wants to make us believe that “Perception is Reality” and we are paying lip-service.

It is time to push back against that self-serving fallacy. We are living in a make believe world and it is time to get back to valuing substance over image and investment over consumption.