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Before the advent of the internet and social media, citizens and consumers had little recourse when they spotted injustice or suffered abuse. But that's all changed. Thanks to ubiquitous mobile phone cameras and internet content sharing services, when something goes down, there's a good chance it will recorded and posted online.

A customer service assistant for London Underground recently learned that the hard way after he hurled harsh words at an elderly passenger. The incident was 'caught on tape', uploaded to the internet and an uproar ensued. Consequently, the customer service assistant is voluntarily no longer employed by London Underground.

The RMT Stations & Revenue Council was upset about the incident. But not for the reasons you might expect:

RMT Stations & Revenue Council reps are deeply concerned about the posting on the internet of a film of a Customer Service Assistant allegedly behaving inappropriately towards a customer, and the resulting campaign for his dismissal.

The CSA concerned is not a member of RMT, and RMT reps will not comment on this CSA's actions. However, we feel that the internet and media campaign has potentially harmful consequences for all frontline London Underground staff, the big majority of whom are RMT members.

Incredulously, it went on:

London Underground must not allow itself to be pressured by this campaign into taking disciplinary action that it would not otherwise take. To do so would encourage more and more people to film staff at work, hoping to catch them appearing to behave inappropriately. This would undoubtedly lead to miscarriages of justice and would put staff under intolerable pressure in our day-to-day work.

There is a valid point here: a society in which everything is recorded, and in which those who interact with members of the public have to fear that they're being recorded, is lamentable. As is the fact that what's recorded doesn't always paint an accurate picture of events as they really occurred. Yet this cat is already out of the bag. Anyone who is in a customer service role has to be aware of a simple fact: if you do something really, really dumb today, there's a decent chance you'll find yourself on YouTube. If you choose to ignore that fact and you suffer the consequences, it isn't the fault of the internet.

The reality is that citizens and consumers have far more power today than they have in the past, in many areas. This isn't all good or all bad, but companies and organizations in both the public and private sectors have no choice but to recognize that there's far more transparency when it comes to their interactions with citizens and consumers.

There are some who take this to extremes and promote an unrealistic level of customer-centrism. They essentially argue that the customer is always right and always needs to be accommodated. Personally, I think that's hogwash. The customer isn't always right and it is sometimes appropriate to tell the customer that you disagree. But if that's the case, what are companies and organizations to do? How can they provide an acceptable level of customer service without bending over too far backwards in the process?

I think the internet and social media have made the answer pretty clear: you'll be okay if you follow the Golden Rule. In other words, treat your customers with the dignity and respect every human being deserves, and you'll be fine, even when you have to tell the customer 'no'.

As it relates to this London Underground incident, had the customer service assistant kindly asked the elderly man if he could please wait, this wouldn't have made YouTube. Of course, this incident stems from the fact that the elderly man was apparently uncooperative. But that's easy enough to deal with following the Golden Rule: when the elderly man refused to comply, the customer service assistant should have calmly explained that he was making the situation more difficult and putting his own safety at risk. Had this been done, the customer service assistant would still have a job. What people were upset and angry about what the fact that the elderly man wasn't treated with dignity and respect.

While it's sad that it takes the threat or fear of recording to encourage some people to follow the Golden Rule, we should thank, not blame, the internet for this encouragement. If the RMT believes its staff members are unable to follow this Golden Rule on a daily basis, then it might want to rethink who it hires, as should all companies and organizations who question the empathy of new recruits.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 October, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (2)

Jonathan Moody

Jonathan Moody, Freelance at Language4Communications

Even before the advent and rise of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook etc I always found that my customer service issues were resolved much more quickly by bringing the PR, communications and marketing people into loop of my dealings with customer service. This worked for mobile telephony, car hire and airport authority.

almost 7 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Great post.

Every passenger on the Underground is filmed every moment we're in their stations.

They can use that film if they feel a passenger has broken the rules, even if it might "undoubtedly lead to miscarriages of justice and would put [passengers] under intolerable pressure in our day-to-day [commute]".

The only difference here: now the public has cameras too.

So we ALL have to behave like civilised people, even Undergound employees.

almost 7 years ago

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