I don’t know about you, but the recent call for some manifesto of “rights” for passengers on airline flights is sweet music to my ears. As a man who is 6’4” tall, I can hardly wait until they draft the “leg room” plank of the bill. “Whereas the suffering of humans in the name of profit is grotesque way before it’s immoral, and whereas Americans vary in size and shape and few are as limber as, say, a 110-pound magician’s assistant…”
I hope they’ll call me to testify about loss of circulation and my inability to get either foot to point forward after five hours in coach. But even if that doesn’t happen, I’m wondering if, out of the flames of unrest fanned during the Valentine’s Day flight delays, there might rise an entire movement that somehow puts customer experience in first position when it comes to American products and services. Call it “The American Consumer’s Bill of Rights.”
Yeah, sure, that’ll happen. “Bartender, another beer over here…”
Still… Imagine that every manufacturer and service provider in the U.S. were compelled to consider the needs and use experience of the consumer in the same way they monitor margins and stock prices. At the end of the day, isn’t that what hurt Jet Blue? Didn’t they simply ignore the fact that their customers were having a horrible experience with their travel product, and instead focused on completing flights and thus holding down their losses? Okay, nobody died. But Jet Blue did bludgeon its relationship to its customers. The customers. The ones that have the money that Jet Blue wants them to spend on Jet Blue flights.
I’m not implying that there is a “Consumer be damned!” mentality in American business, but, honestly, is the quality of our experience with their product or service really at the top of their priority list? Yes, they say that on TV commercials and in print ads. But if that were true, they’d pay more attention to us. And I don’t mean research and using bar codes to spy on our spending habits. I mean a simple, “Is it good enough for you?”
Take something like the ongoing struggle between “paper or plastic.” Of course grocery stores want to foist plastic bags onto their customers, since they cost about two cents per billion plastic bags. But consumers continue to resist. Many want earth-friendly bags, and I think some just prefer the texture of having the food they eat snuggled in brown paper rather than distended polyethylene. Not to mention that sagging plastic bags cut into your hands like Santiago’s marlin line in The Old Man and the Sea.
But this example underscores that consumers have to care in the first place. Long lines at the Southwest Airlines building at LAX indicate that consumers are willing to take a beating for low prices. So to some degree, all of this bounces back on us. Would our “Bill of Rights” include such things as being faithful to the products of American companies who refuse to relocate their assembly plants in Mexico? Would we go out of our way to support the American companies that utilize environmentally friendly packaging? And would we promote friendly, pleasant exchanges between employees and consumers by improving our attitudes and losing our embarrassing “moneyed class” sense of entitlement with those who serve us?
Last week a startling piece of videotape circulated, showing an army of rats taking over a Taco Bell/KFC outlet in New York at night. It isn’t so much that rats disturb us, although that’s plenty bad. It’s that knife-sharp contrast between the fake feeling of purity we get receiving fast food handed to us in various protective wrappers, and the too-real image of vermin crawling all over the tables and chairs of the outlet. There are similar layers of protective wrapping between the image of service and quality projected by American companies, and their real feelings about us as cattle to be milked for profit. As unwieldy as any “bill of rights” might be to enforce, maybe we need it… even if all we do is roll it up and use it to swat the rats.