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?

(This post was originally published on Nov 09, 2013.)

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

  1. I agree that technology is a leveller, but as you’ve suggested with the tokens people with enough motivation will always find a way around that. The problem is so deep it is difficult to understand where it began! But I think that the key to a more equal society lies in psychology. Why do we care about status? Because we are competitors. I think it’s human nature, and it certainly plays a key part in the general process of evolution. But as humans we’ve taken healthy competition and made it a way of life – how can we reverse that?

  2. Almost all people’s eyes see the people they come across as male or female, educated or not, rich or poor, and also can figure out their status. Is this human nature ? Also are we conditioned from the very beginning of our lives to treat people according to who they are, rather than treat everyone with the same respect and dignity? I remember when I commented on your blog about Asha and Gopal, I said they were not like most human beings. They were capable of truly being blind to status, educational background, religion etc. Lets hope that reading your blogs, some people will be influenced enough to change our own behavior, and that in turn will inspire others also to do the same. Yes, good deeds are also contagious.

  3. >>Technology is a great leveller. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor.

    I agree. But the problem is that we cannot keep interacting with only machines all the time. We have to interact with people at some time or the other. Unless the mindset is changed, this problem will still remain. Also, if we think further on this line, we will realize the real threat is that because of introduction of technology these real problems (at least partially) get hidden under the carpet. We can pretend equality more. That makes us a more and more hypocrite society.

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