Time for consumers to take some responsibility

The shoppers and the shopped.

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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No, Matt Hancock: under-25s are just as entitled to a payrise as the rest of us

At 25, parts of my body were more productive than the whole of Matt Hancock, says Jess Phillips.

I had never heard of Matt Hancock before today, which may be a sign of how productive he has been. He sprang up in my consciousness when he said this at the Tory party conference, when justifying not giving workers under 25 a payrise:

"Anybody who has employed people knows that younger people, especially in their first jobs, are not as productive, on average. Now there are some who are very productive under the age of 25 but you have to set policy for the average. It was an active choice not to cover the under 25s.”
No it bloody wasn't an active choice based on productivity! Lord knows this Government have failed to remember productivity for the past five years. How convenient to remember it when swindling young people.

Let's pretend for a minute that the Governments living wage is just that. Is Matt Hancock saying  that workers under 25 don't deserve to afford be able to live? By the time I was 25 I had a 3 year old. Did my son and I not deserve to be able to live? Oh and while they are there telling me I'm was an undeserving yoof, Hancock is now calling me useless. I don't know Matt Hancock I won't assume he was a lazy entitled toff, but I will wager at 23 I was as, if not more productive than him. I bet you I could have done his job, but he would have struggled to do mine. Maybe I'm wrong and he would have been a great support worker for refugees and carer for people with Alzheimer's all on three hours sleep a night whilst lactating.

Now, I'm not being fair. Of course he couldn't lactate.

The reason the government did this is nothing to do with productivity levels of young adults. It is because once again their limited life experience means that they think mummy and daddy pay for everything. Look no further than ridiculous student fees, cutting housing benefit for young people and now this "you don't deserve to be able to live" wage.

The hilarious thing will be when some employers completely disprove Hancock’s assertions and rush to employ lazy unproductive under 25s because they have to pay them less.
I won't bore you or Hancock with lists of brilliant examples of productive under 25s. The Twitter hashtag #at25 is full of great examples. The history of sport, science, music, art and computing is awash with inspiring world changing young people.Mr Hancock, here is a lesson I learned from the hundreds of productive young people I meet, be honest and say what you think. Your insulting gaffe is a pathetic spun cover up you arrived at when you were backed in to an impossible unjustifiable position. What you should have said was, "oh the reason we don't want to pay under 25s more is because we don't really care about them and let's be honest they don't really vote. Toodle pip."