For Adam Smith, the one characteristic that set humanity apart from the beasts was our ability to strike a bargain. “One dog”, he wrote, “does not change a bone with another”. The exchange of bones, grain, motor cars, iPhones and the rest has built up over the last 250 years into a system more complex than even Smith could have imagined. At its heart, however, capitalism remains a grand bargain; we as consumers make clear the force of our demand, and producers respond to that with the scale of their supply. The nuances of that extend to pricing, to service, to quality and to the behaviour of companies in society.
It may seem of late that one side of the capitalist bargain is no longer being upheld. Beyond the economic car-smash of the banking crisis –with causes so obscure as to be beyond the understanding of most consumers– in the last few months no newspaper has seemed complete without at least one headline of the "Big Company Does Bad Thing" variety. PPI mis-selling, large-scale tax avoidance and rumours of price fixing are only some of the most prominent. Indeed, the malaise goes deeper. In the UK, we suffer some of the highest costs of living in the developed world, combined with some genuinely poor standards of service.
Research shows that, in the UK, more of us care about service than we do about price – by a factor of something like 2:1. That’s good news for companies, as it means that competitive advantage needn’t mean a squeeze on the profit margin. On the other hand, it’s bad news for consumers, the majority of whom say that they are unhappy with, or indifferent to, the standard of service they receive. The UK media would appear to be on the consumer’s side, and are all too ready to hurl opprobrium, whether for illegal rate-fixing or long call-centre queues. The phrase “responsible capitalism” is used often, but not always in a responsible manner; it’s noticeable that the media punishment does not always fit the corporate crime. However, when even the President of the CBI calls for more responsible attitudes from business, as he did recently in the Guardian newspaper and also at this week’s CBI conference, then that can be taken as a sure sign that it’s time for change.
As consumers we have as much power as companies do to effect that change. After all, two parties to a transaction have equal rights, to progress or to withdraw as they see fit. While it may be harder for us, as consumers, to fully exercise our power I would suggest that not only do we have the right to do so, but that we have a responsibility. If our capitalism has become irresponsible, then we cannot lay the blame for that solely at the feet of producers; as consumers, we too must consider what we might do better.
The same research that shows a disparity between what consumers want from companies and what we actually get, also shows a disparity between our desire for change and our willingness to act to achieve it. In a nation where customer boycotts are rarer than hen’s teeth, it’s perhaps unsurprising that unethical business practice can go unpunished by the consumer; it may be that we simply don’t care about tax evasion as much as our media does. It’s much more surprising that, for a nation that values good service over almost everything else, we are unusually reluctant to speak out about bad service, or even to seek better. Compared to consumers in the US, for example, or Poland or Russia, we are less likely to complain, to ask for the manager, to get angry with staff, or even to shop around for a better deal. The higher standards of service enjoyed in these countries is a testament to the success of such tactics.
In the UK, we consumers need to decide on our priorities (though it seems that many of us have), and to act to make them a reality (which we do not, as a rule). We should not expect to have the best service or the best price handed to us on a plate; that simply isn’t how capitalism works. Whether at the market stall or in the call centre queue, if we suffer in silence it benefits no-one and changes nothing. Only by making our views known can we hope to build the positive customer experiences that we all expect.
Returning to Smith, it may be time for us in the UK to refocus ourselves on “the constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition… the principle from which opulence is originally derived”. As consumers in the UK, there’s an opportunity for us all to gain a little more “opulence”. If we could take our obligations as consumers as seriously as we take our rights, then we would all feel the benefit, and our companies would too.
Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.