People working in the private sector get used to having to be polite, engaging,friendly in order to win business and retain customers. The smaller the company, the more individuals in it have to go out of their way to woo and charm, to retain and impress. Everyone in a competitive business knows there are others wanting to take their order or their customer away from them. Everyone accepts the customer is king or queen. All know that courtesy is part of service.
Most of the time customers respond in a similar vein. Politeness and concern can beget politeness and concern. There are a few who abuse the private business. There will always be someone who thinks it’s fine to be sick from excess drink in the taxi or acceptable to demand money back for a fault which the business did not commit, or to be aggressive with the staff. Business has to learn to deal with the troublesome minority as best they can within the rules of the game. Customers are usually in the right, and nearly always think they are.
Many public servants also observe the code that they should always be polite, helpful and concerned for their clients. After all, the very ideal of public service is designed to offer a better standard than the commercial market for some of the most sensitive services on offer.
However, it is different with some public services. The BBC blasts its potential customers with aggressive letters about licence payments, knowing they have the force of law behind them. Public services can decide when they are available and when they are closed to suit themselves rather than to meet the convenience of their clientele. Some GP surgeries I am told are difficult to contact and make arranging an appointment a complex matter.(I do not currently have cases for this problem in Wokingham). Some hospitals book people in for operations which are cancelled at short notice, or give appointment times which the Consultants do not observe. When it comes to presenting the bill, the authorities can be demanding and unwilling to accept that people find the complexity of their process difficult to handle. I receive various cases from people who have made honest mistakes over Council Tax, car park fees and Income Tax, or have been on the wrong end of the authorities’ mistakes, who need help. People have to devote large amounts of time these days to compliance. If they make a mistake with the public sector car park charge, with the Congestion charge, with the tax return, with the business VAT return, with the school catchment application or with the way they put their refuse out they can find themselves on the wrong end of an angry public authority.
This attitude of some in the public sector of knowing the strict letter of a very detailed and voluminous law and wishing to enforce it come what may can generate an equal and opposite reaction from the public. It leads to “I know my rights”. It can help generate unfairly aggressive responses from members of the public to any shortfall or mistake they perceive by those in the public authority. It can lead to a coarsening of the language and hardening of the heart. It ceases to be a generous public service welcomed by a grateful member of the public. It becomes a battle between the client and the provider, between the individual and the public authority.