The Independent, 14 September 2011

The thing is that everyone is now pretty much agreed that we’re skint, and we’re getting skinter. Inflation is up again this month, wages are still frozen like the polar ice caps used to be, and that’s before I remember fondly how I could fill the tank of my first car for £13, which is what it now costs to fill a small petrol can for a riot.

So now more than ever, companies need to seduce their customers with the retail equivalent of some bad teenage poetry and a trip to the pictures on a Friday night. Making bad customer service good, by which I mean finding someone human to be nice to us rather than some passive-aggressive chatbot crapping on about key performance indicators (whatever they may be. And no, don’t write in. I honestly prefer not knowing), is surely the cheapest thing to change about a business.

Marks and Spencer seem to have realised this better than most. When a customer complained about being over-charged for a sandwich, he received a reply promising him a gift card. The card didn’t arrive. He wrote to them again, asking for the card and for ‘a hand-drawn picture of a smiley dinosaur’ to compensate him for the inconvenience.

Steve Jones, the customer adviser who processed his claim, sent him both a £5 gift card and a rather sweet hand-drawn picture of a smiley dinosaur. The picture has already gone viral. And while it might just be because everyone likes his artwork, it seems more likely that we are charmed by the man who did what customer service people rarely do: try to make the customer feel better, even if that customer was being rather capricious.

Of course, a bean-counting joy-vacuum might point out that the time spent drawing the picture (not to denigrate Mr Jones’ work, but I would guess five minutes, tops) was time he should have been spending answering more phone calls and fobbing off more angry customers. But actually, taking a few moments to make one person feel special is exactly what customer service should be about.

All too often, the subtext of bad customer service is, what are you going to do about it? Don’t like your energy provider, or bank? Well, the others are just as bad. But consumer confidence is more than just the money in our wallets: it’s based on feeling like customer loyalty is a two-way street.