Sunday, July 19, 2015
Expressing sympathy or thanks are not business obligations
Several months ago, I wrote about P.W., a reader from the Midwest who wondered if customer service representatives had an ethical obligation to thank buyers for pointing out errors in shipments. After receiving a package rather than the intended recipient who lived two states away, P.W. had alerted the company. She was sent a shipping label so she could forward on the package on, but no thank you note.
P.W. also wondered if customer service reps were ethically obligated to express sympathy for customers when it was clear buyers were dealing with the loss of a loved one. After her stepmother died last year, P.W. called 12 magazine publishers to cancel her stepmother's subscriptions. Of the 12 reps she told about the death, only three expressed sympathy.
While it would have been thoughtful, kind and ultimately good business to thank P.W. or express sympathy, the customer service reps were under no obligation to do so. Their obligation was to provide a competent and honest response to P.W.'s requests, and each did so.
Now, M.M., a reader from St. Catherines, Ontario, wants to know if courtesy expectations are a two-way street.
After exchanging email with a customer service rep from a major retailer , M.M. got the information he needed to complete his transaction.
"I sent a simple 'thank you' (note) as a follow-up," M.M. writes. Shortly after, he received an email response from the rep indicating how much she appreciated M.M.'s thank you. "She wrote that she responds to hundreds of customers each day and only rarely gets thanked," writes M.M. "It seems to me customers should recognize that courtesy goes both ways. Are customers obligated to be courteous, or is the fact that they're paying for the service thanks enough?"
Kindness and thoughtfulness are virtues and certainly ones I'd encourage in both parties to a business transaction. If a customer service rep is particularly helpful, then expressing thanks for that help is a good thing.
But customers are not ethically obligated to send thank you notes, any more than customer service reps are obligated to express thanks or show compassion to customers. A customer, such as M.M., is obligated to be honest in his dealings with a company. And customer service reps are obligated to work with customers like P.W. and M.M. to respond to their needs.
The right thing for both parties to do in such transactions is to be honest, respectful and responsive. These are the most basic measures of what makes for an ethical business deal.
The handful of customer service reps who expressed sympathy for P.W.'s loss reflects well on them and their company. The same goes for M.M., who took the time to thank a helpful rep. None of them were ethically obligated to show such kindness. Perhaps each of our business dealings would be a bit more positive if we followed their lead.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.