I think you may have mistaken my friend for an ordinary person.

When I had to fly to Edinburgh from Gatwick for a meeting the other day, my PA Sue bought the ticket and checked me in online.   My office is a stone’s throw from Victoria, so I drove here from home, left the car in the office car park and took the Gatwick Express.  Standard Class was pretty full, but First was fine.  At Gatwick, the queues in the South Terminal to check in for the donkey flights were horrendous, and actually the security queue in the North Terminal wasn’t great, but going Fast Track I was through in five minutes.

After that, half an hour in the Executive Club lounge, a couple of those quite decent bacon rolls and onto the plane.  (Since I’m 6 foot 6, I was pleased that Sue had got me one of the emergency exit seats over the wings with the extra legroom.)  An hour up to Edinburgh, and then straight out, into a cab and into town for my meeting.

Why have I bored you with this tedious and uneventful narrative?  Just to make a single point:  at no stage at all on this journey was I treated like an ordinary person.

An ordinary person doesn’t have a PA to buy their ticket and check them in.  An ordinary person doesn’t have a parking space a stone’s throw from Victoria.  An ordinary person doesn’t travel First on the Gatwick Express, use the Fast Track check-in or wait in the BA lounge.  And an ordinary person has to travel in to Edinburgh on the bus, not in a cab.  At every stage, an ordinary person’s experience would be different from mine.  Different in the sense of slower, more difficult, less controllable and worse.  But also, of course, different in the sense of cheaper.

At an insurance industry dinner last night, the conversation turned to a familiar subject: why oh why  do insurance and other financial services companies provide such crap service?  One old friend at my table was particularly pissed off with his recent experience of a big life insurer’s telephone underwriting process:  the girl at the call centre simply hadn’t been able to understand what he was saying about how the medication he’s taking for his asthma, together with the medication he’s taking for his blood pressure, combine to make him a lower risk than average, not a higher risk.

The reality, of course, is that the call centre girl is undertrained, underpaid and probably needs to achieve an average call time of less than 15 minutes if she wants to keep her job.    Or to put it another way, the reality is that the service isn’t designed for high-powered financial services consultants:  it’s designed for ordinary people.

I’ve never travelled to Edinburgh with my grumpy friend, but I suspect his travel arrangements would be very similar to mine.  I suspect that like me, he eats in expensive restaurants much more often than at McDonald’s.  When he needs medical treatment, I’m sure that like me he goes private rather than undergo the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the NHS.  Like me, he has some kind of premier banking account rather than the vanilla service.   Like me, he stays in four and five star hotels, not B&Bs or Comfort Inns.  And like me, he has kids at posh private schools where the headmaster is happy to meet for a chat at any time of our choosing.

In short, my friend and I are extremely unused to being treated as ordinary people:  we live in a world where you pay more, and get looked after better.  But financial services is one of the few remaining areas of life where you can’t really pay extra for a better service.  (Well, actually, you can, by paying an IFA to take care of it all for you, but that raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

Where am I going with this?  Should insurance companies do what the Gatwick Express does, and offer Standard and First levels of service, with price tags to match?  Should insurance companies offer everyone a first-class service at a standard class price?  Or should people like my friend shut up, get real and recognise that standard-class service is almost invariably rubbish?  

There seem to be a lot of people, many of them working in the industry, who assume almost without question that the middle option is the only acceptable one.  I don’t want to sound cynical or negative, but that seems to me more than a little unrealistic.

3 thoughts on “I think you may have mistaken my friend for an ordinary person.

  1. No Lucian, you are not an ordinary person. An ordinary person would have realised that posting these words would have made them sound insufferably smug and pleased with themselves. Which means they wouldn’t have pressed the ‘submit’ button. ‘Kids at posh private schools’, indeed. Jesus.

  2. People with money don’t live in the real world. What worries me is this bunch of pompous and unrealistic people run the country, set policies and change laws which impact on our lives. They have no real understanding or even empathy for you and me. They have allocated parking, first class travel, assistants to manage their lives, can go on holiday when they want and where they want, fancy new cars with no real concerns. I wonder how they would feel if they actually had to live like the majority of people using public transport standing without a seat every day, spending hours on the phone to utility companies who have charged you incorrectly, queuing in the supermarket, having to save up to go on holiday and worrying about paying bills.

    Money gives you power to get treated better which is unfair. Why should the hard working class family be treated differently just because they don’t earn as much as the boss of a company? Some people don’t want to earn a fortune so why should they be discriminated? I needed to call my bank about my mortgage and after 15 minutes of waiting my call still wasn’t answered. I tried several times over a couple of days probably spending around a few hours. Crazy! On the third day I’d had enough so when I called instead of opting for option 2, I pressed option 1 which was ‘Premier Banking’ (although I’m not a premier banking customer as I don’t earn over £100k a year) and guess what within 10 seconds my call was answered.? Shocking treatment. When I asked the call centre handler why they treat customers in this way he had nothing to say.

    I always knew that financial companies care little for their customers but this really takes the biscuit.

  3. Hmm. I think this piece didn’t turn out how I wanted. I’m not “smug” about my privileged life. I’m continuously amazed and embarrassed by it. But in any event, this badly-expressed personal stuff got in the way of the real point – which was to ask a very serious and I think under-discussed question, how much service can you expect at “ordinary” mass-market prices? I flew back from France on easyJet last night, and we were three hours late (I got home at 3am) and we were treated like cattle. On the other hand, the flight “only” cost about seventy quid. Should I a) feel angry and aggrieved, believing that the airline fell far below the standard I’m entitled to expect, or b) think that’s what you get for £70 and if I’d wanted to be treated better I should have paid £500 for BA Business Class?

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