Are all customers equal? Or are some customers more equal than others?

A couple of days back, I visited the local branch of a bank to get a Demand Draft. When I reached the counter, the officer greeted me with a smile and put out his hand to collect my DD Application, coolly ignoring three customers who were already waiting there. I returned the smile and the greeting, but did not hand over my DD Application. Instead, I gestured to him to first attend to the other customers. After he had collected their DD Applications, I handed over mine to him and sat on a chair in the waiting area. Instead of processing the DD Applications in the sequence in which he had received them, he processed my DD Application first and handed it to the clerk sitting next to him with an audible instruction to print my DD immediately. I received my DD within 3 minutes of handing over the application! (The norm is 10 minutes.)

This was my first encounter with this particular officer since he had only recently been transferred to this branch. Then, why had he given me preferential treatment even though I had clearly shown that I didn’t want it? The answer is simple. On the basis of appearance and attire, he had decided that I am a ‘privileged’ customer, while the other three were ‘non-privileged’ customers!

In most banks and offices, I have seen that all customers are NOT treated equally. ‘Privileged’ customers are generally treated well, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally have to put up with curt behaviour.

Customers are classified as ‘privileged’ or ‘non-privileged’ on the basis of economic status, political ‘connections’, skin colour, religion, caste, educational background, profession, etc..

Even when there are machine-operated systems, the bank/office personnel manage to give ‘privileged’ customers preferential treatment. For example, many banks have a token system for cash transactions or for updating Pass Books. Tokens are issued by a machine, and customers are attended to strictly as per their token numbers. However, the treatment given to each customer generally (not always) varies. Most of the time, care is taken to ensure that ‘privileged’ customers are issued only new notes or notes that are in good condition, while ‘non-privileged’ customers generally get the older notes. Pass Books of ‘privileged’ customers are updated immediately, while ‘non-privileged’ customers are often asked to wait or to collect their updated Pass Books the next day.

What is the solution? In his book ‘A Better India: A Better World’, N. R. Narayana Murthy states:
“Technology is a great leveller. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor. For, example, one of my younger colleagues who is a janitor at Infosys is happy to use an ATM because it does not discriminate against him – unlike the clerk at the manned bank counter.”

I have myself seen how ATMs do not discriminate against customers on any basis. The last time I visited the ATM near my house, one person came out after using the ATM and another who had been waiting went in to use the ATM. I waited for my turn. The first person was the young man who delivers milk to all the residents of our apartment complex. The second was a woman who works as a billing clerk at the local supermarket. The three of us received service in the sequence that we had reached the ATM. The ATM treated all three of us equally.

Introduction of technology will definitely help in reducing the inequalities in our society. Till some years back, a telephone at home was a luxury that could be enjoyed by very few people. Today, almost everybody has a mobile phone. There are many such examples.

However, will all this really change our ‘mindset’? Will it lead to a truly egalitarian society?

What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Are all customers equal? Or are some customers more equal than others?

  1. Some people will mellow and change. Some people will always be tight-a**ed about judging based on appearance. It is ingrained in their DNA.

    I’ve seen people speaking English being treated better at these establishments and those who appear illiterate being treated like dirt.

    The great thing is technology making a difference. After all, surveys show that there are more houses with mobile phones than toilets. My local “pourakarmika” or municipal worker pushes her heavy iron trolley on the stretch of road covering our building with one hand, and her other hand is always stuck at her ear. I love how they get their business done.

    I saw an advertisement on TV – where this young guy gets into a lift – and the lift operator asks him if he’ll add him on Facebook. The young man acts snooty, looks sarcastic and reluctantly agrees. I remember feeling like giving him a one tight s.

    🙂 Times will change, though.

  2. Entirely agree that technology is indeed a great leveler.
    It can be irritating when the ‘system is down’ is unable to update passbooks or ‘back office glitches’ delays cheque books.
    The criteria for ‘privileging’ that generally depends on the amount and volume of deposits but sometimes extends to preventing the nuisance value of some customers as well – the earlier they are serviced and let go the better.

  3. I personally have had a similar experience at various nationalized banks when I was younger courtesy of the fact that my mother used to work in a bank and therefore actually knew the staff in the bank, but that being said, your points about technology is so apt. Today in my neighborhood branch, there is even a machine which prints out the pass book and similar to the ATM Machine, this does not show any discrimination towards any customer on any counts. Lovely post 😀

  4. Preferential treatment does happen at such places. And indeed many a times you feel like punching the guy/gal sitting across the table. As Vidya mentioned, with technological advancement, some will change for the better and many will not change. I just hope more people change for good.

  5. We live in a capitalistic world. The thoughts expressed in the write up are communistic. Does Mr. Narayan Murthy travel by public transport or his own chauffeur driven car when he goes to America? Does he live in budget hotels? Does he draw his ration from public ration shops, or treats his illness at municipal hospitals?

  6. It happens here in Bangladesh too. So annoying to be ‘upgraded’ in treatment without asking for it simply because I’m white. I think you’re right that technology will help in leveling all classes and divides – but it will continue to be a long, slow journey…

  7. In US you will be glad to note that this kind of egalitarian society has been achieved ! It amazes me to think how it is possible considering most people are average of IQ and no match for our desi ‘smarter-than-thou’ or ‘cheat-and-get-smarter’ attitude (sorry, my take). Human servers attend to only ‘ONE’ customer at a time – be it in immigration lines, banks, post offices. They would not even look at the next customer while attending to their current customer. If another customer tries to grab their attention they will be told firmly but politely to wait their turn. Usually the next customer needs to wait behind a line a feet away. This way there is less pressure on the server who is able to focus on their current customer and provide a satisfactory service to each customer.

    The answer may lie in equality/standardization of public school education. The K-12 education in public schools is ‘free’ (well actually funded by property tax from home-owners). Some public schools are not unfairly ‘better’ than others. The kids develop an amazing sense of fairness. This fairness is practised in day-to-day life thus making it second habit. The kids do not cheat or find shortcuts in order to get better marks. They rarely seek help from parents to complete their homework assignments. Cheating and lying are big NO-NOs. All these factors pave the way to a ‘fair’ and ‘classless’ society.

    Our desi sense of discrimination as we know is deep-rooted and age-old. In melting pot cities like Bombay discrimination is observed to a much lesser degree. As mentioned technology is a great equalizer. But I think ‘fair’ education is an even greater equalizer… hopefully technology can help provide it.

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