Blaming customers for chaos is a bold strategy for companies. Let’s see if it pays off for them

From Dublin Airport to the Stade de France via TUI and Primavera, overpromising has hurt reputations everywhere

Customers – how dare they? Showing up too late for things, showing up too early, showing up at all.

Who do they think they are presuming their telephone calls should be answered and DMs replied to this side of eternity? Why are they demanding to receive the products and services for which they have paid? Why do they complain of thirst?

Bizarre behaviour, frankly. Remember the pandemic when, finally – for once – there were none of these needy humans milling around with their boring problems and special requests? Blissful.

Weirdly, it has been a pretty pathetic year to date for customer relations. This is weird because it should be an easy time to make consumers happy. People are ready to be happy. We are on the cusp of happy tears.


But rather than lap up our gratitude and bask in the glow of our joy, some companies and organisations seem intent on making us angry and even shifting the blame for their mistakes on to us. It’s a bold strategy, as the meme goes, let’s see if it pays off for them.

It was the night before Dublin Airport’s hapless, reputation-scarring collapse that a big-screen message at the Stade de France announced that the UEFA Champions League final kick-off had been delayed due to “the late arrival of fans”.

The rage-inducing claim was instantly debunked on social media by Liverpool supporters who had been kettled by French police outside the stadium for hours, some tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed for their trouble.

And still it took UEFA almost a week to muster up the will to apologise for the “frightening and distressing events” spectators had experienced or witnessed, while accusations made by two French ministers of fake ticket fraud on a “massive, industrial scale” have yet to be either substantiated or retracted.

One lesson, while we await the quasi-independent UEFA review, should already be clear: in 2022, people are primed to spot nonsense, and they have long had the smartphones to push back against it.

Let’s taxi along to Dublin Airport and its May 29th statement that people queuing outside might not make their flights “due to significant queues inside the terminal”.

The explanation, though technically true, allowed people to supply their own context: airport operator DAA’s clueless underestimate of the numbers who would fancy leaving the island – and visiting it – the moment the Covid threat receded. How could they get something so mission-critical so wrong?

Outgoing DAA chief executive Dalton “Platinum Services” Philips might have been contrite when he appeared before the Oireachtas transport committee, but his contrition was drowned out by concurrent headlines about planned “holding pens” for would-be passengers who have the temerity to show up “too” early – an entirely rational response to the DAA’s disarray.

Even when the consumer-blaming is only a fragment of a nuanced and otherwise apologetic analysis of any given debacle, organisations should know the consumer-blaming is all anyone is going to remember.

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Take the vaccination booster queues of last December. This wasn’t the finest hour for the otherwise commendable programme rollout and really not the best time for the Taoiseach to grumble about no-shows, especially when people were receiving texts for multiple appointments they couldn’t cancel.

Take, also, passports. I can only imagine that those people whose applications have fallen into an unknown black hole were delighted to hear the recent Department of Foreign Affairs clarification that while the Passport Service is “experiencing a very high volume of applications, this does not represent a backlog”, and, by the way, 40 per cent of people send in forms that are incomplete or incorrectly filled out.

As the Tánaiste subsequently reasoned, if this is the case, there is an issue with the forms, not the applicants. Indeed, if your instinct is to pin problems on users of systems and not the actual systems, then it’s time to check your instinct.

Yes, exceptional circumstances applied at the height of the pandemic and can be said to still apply now. Nobody has ever navigated a pandemic recovery before. And yet business chiefs must have realised that one was coming at some point. Under-resourcing might be an economy-wide constraint, but that barely absolves highly remunerated managers who flunk the “you had one job” test.

We can all feel sorry for the small restaurant forced to cut their opening hours because they can’t get enough staff. We’re not obliged to feel sympathy for large companies that used the pandemic as a cover to shrink their cost base, placing severe strains on their remaining employees and then offering less favourable conditions as they try to staff themselves up again.

Irish consumers hate unfairness. In the Reputations Agency’s annual RepTrak study, the conduct of organisations – defined as whether they are fair, ethical, open and transparent – became the biggest factor in their reputation this year, based on the responses of 6,500 people, overtaking the actual products and services they offer.

It is not, ultimately, staff shortages that are causing the messes we see, it is overpromising. If the self-inflicted harm to companies’ reputations proves lasting, it won’t be a surprise. Even from afar, the disappointment and desperation of people being let down after more than two years of Covid grimness is unbearable to think about.

So please don’t, like German holiday giant TUI, oversell holidays if the labour squeeze means you’re going to have to cancel them, in some instances when passengers are at the gate or have boarded the aircraft.

Don’t stage a music festival, as the organisers of last weekend’s Primavera Sound in Barcelona did, if you don’t have enough bar staff or water access points to prevent ticketholders mass-tweeting about dehydration.

Don’t conveniently forget your legal responsibilities to customers with disabilities just because you’re operating on fine margins. Don’t advertise waiting times on your app if they’re not reliable. Don’t offer to host sporting events if you’re not up to the task.

Try not to run out of toilet roll. But, above all, if overambition does lead to chaos, don’t dismiss the right of customers to be both gutted and furious. Don’t imply that we should just suck it up – because nothing will serve as a more effective guarantee that we won’t.