When it comes to customer service, I’m a name not a number

Lab Rats by Marcs 'I'm not a number'

This post describes an experience that I recently had with my water company, Southern Water. I think it illustrates how many companies organise themselves but what it shows is that they are organised in a way that is for the benefit and ease of themselves and not their customers.

This flies in the face of trying to be or claiming to be more customer centric and providing good customer service.

Anyway, here’s the story:

Southern Water wrote to me about a problem with my account and address details.

I read their letter.

It seemed like a clerical error and easy to sort out so I called them.

I then quoted the reference number in their letter to them.

No joy.

I then quoted my full name, full address with postcode and my date of birth to them.

No joy.

They couldn’t find the right record or details of the letter and asked me for my customer number as that was my unique identifier!

I didn’t have my customer number to hand (it’s not something that I carry around with me) but we couldn’t progress until I gave it to them.

Now, I didn’t have time to start digging into my household files and so what it meant was that I had to log onto my internet banking site and retrieve some information from the direct debit that I set up to pay them every month.

I did that and then we got it all sorted. Finally.

This may sound like it is a bit of a gripe and I understand why it is easier to look up numbers in a database. But, as a customer……I don’t care. I’m up to date with my bills so for me there is no problem.

It was Southern Water’s mistake not mine. I didn’t do anything wrong so I felt slightly aggrieved that I had to do more work to help them sort their problem.

More importantly, as far as I am concerned, my full name is my unique identifier.

If my name is common, which mine isn’t, then I may expect to use my address and my postcode to identify myself to a company that I do business with and then, maybe, my date of birth, perhaps.

Following on from that I may answer some security questions or provide some other information.

My account number or customer number, I would suggest, would come way down the list as something that I would use to describe me as a customer or to uniquely identify myself.

Is it just me?

However, there is a serious point to this. Organising your information and customer data in a way that makes your customer do the work every time they call you, may make sense to you and how you structure yourself but is not going to help your customer service promise or cause.

For me, when it comes to delivering okay or good or great customer service it starts with the customer and I am a person with a name and not a number.

What do you think?

Thanks to OccupyMCR for the image.

13 comments On When it comes to customer service, I’m a name not a number

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  • Hello Adrian
    Aha, you have experienced the real reality of organisations as opposed to virtual reality created by ‘guruspeak’, ‘consultantspeak’ and ‘organisationspeak’.

    It does occur as a shock when moves out of the virtual reality bubble of outside-in, customer focus, customer experience, customer obsession, customer-centricity, blah blah blah and in confronted by what is really so in the real world!

    And here is the question: you are still a customer of this organisation, right? So what is it that you have communicated to it? That you are OK with, will live with, are living with their way of doing stuff! So why should anyone change the way the process works?

    My point is that as customers we stick with suppliers irrespective of what we say when the survey guy/girl comes around. And because we stick with suppliers, they continue sticking to the way they do stuff including interacting with us. So if you/I wish to influence/shape organisations we need to act – to stop doing business with such organisations as well as writing about them.

    What do you say?


    • Hi Maz,
      Thank you for your comment and you are right that the best way for us to act as customers is to ‘walk’ and take our business elsewhere.

      For my part, I am looking into changing suppliers but fear that the way water supply is set up in the UK will make this hard ie. we have no choice unlike other utilities but I am looking into that.

      I’ve also sent this piece to Southern Water and will wait to hear back from them. I have low expectations about what I hear back if anything but I wait with a small amount of hope 😉

      All the best,


  • Oh yes, agree with that. It’s definitely not just you. What would your life look like in customer reference numbers? Have a look! http://systemsthinkingforgirls.com/2012/12/04/your-life-in-customer-reference-numbers/

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  • Adrian.

    I used to work for an organisation where they counted “accounts on file”. I now work for one where they count “policies in force”

    Both of them used to talk a lot about “customer” but neither of them recorded “customers”.

    I guess your water company would fall into the same bracket


    • Hi James,
      The language that the companies that you mention use to describe what they do says a lot about them. Probably, says a lot about how they think about and handle ‘customers’ too……More numbers than people. I wonder if that applies to their employees too?


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