The Customer is Always Right?


When my mother-in-law died last July, the funeral home informed us that they would contact the Social Security Administration, as required by law. We didn’t think anything more about it until just recently when my wife deposited a check into an account we’ve been using to cover expenses at her mother’s still-unsold house. That’s when she discovered there was about $5,000 more in the account than she expected. A customer service agent explained that the Social Security Administration was still wiring funds each month.

Thus, we began the task of trying to get the checks stopped. First Mary spent twenty minutes on hold before the connection was lost. Then I went to the SSA website, where I found link after link to pages showing how to collect benefits, how to increase benefits, and how to search for benefits you didn’t even know were there. Plus, now you can do it in Spanish. (I didn’t have time to look for the “Benefits for Illegal Immigrants” page). Unfortunately, there was nothing about how to stop collecting benefits.

I ended up sending them an email. Meanwhile, Mary had gotten put on hold again, though this time, after twenty minutes a recorded voice came on to inform her “Well, aren’t you the stubborn one? Congratulations, you have managed to enter the second level of ‘Talk to  Me.’ Because of your diligence, you can hang up now, and we will call you when we are ready.”

Sure enough, they called us back. I had the pleasure of initiating our end of the conversation, as Mary was on the other line. When I tried to explain what was happening, the woman said, “The funeral home never contacted us.”

“We called them, and they said they did.”

“Well, they lied then. We didn’t receive anything.”

“There’s no other option?” I offered.

“Nope. We never received notice.”

Interesting that a mere cog in a vast governmental machine such as the Social Security Administration knows instinctively that the mistake, or willful deceit in the case of the lying funeral home, must necessarily lie elsewhere. What other explanation could there be? She works for the government, and the government doesn’t make mistakes.

By the end of the conversation, after she told us that “Treasury will come in and take that money out of your account one of these days,” our friendly bureaucrat informed us that probably the funeral home had incorrectly informed the SSA. “Your mother collected through her husband,” she explained to Mary.

Aha! Mystery solved. The funeral home failed to determine the source of the deceased’s social security payments. They foolishly notified the SSA without reminding them to check whether she had been a surviving spouse. The funeral home representative forgot how important it is to help government employees do their job. No doubt the employee didn’t understand the bureaucrat’s truncated job description because, working in the private economy, he or she recognized that the failure to accommodate the customer’s needs and wishes will result in the loss of sales and business failure.

This simple message, that you must respect the customer, is forever lost on the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat doesn’t give a damn whether his customer likes him. She has no stake in whether the customer is satisfied or not, because she knows she has a monopoly. There is nowhere for the customer to go except back to the unsympathetic bureaucrat.

This is the reason the public sector will never pull an economy out of the doldrums. The public sector doesn’t produce value, it only consumes. In the private sector, businesses have to perform. While it is true that many people in Washington today, such as, apparently, certainly Hawai’i natives, believe that business, especially big business answers to no one and routinely runs roughshod over their helpless customers, this is rather the definition of government.

Take for example, General Motors. Within the short span of two decades, it went from the world’s largest corporation to one dependent upon governmental largesse for its very survival. (And General Motors was lucky it had so many unionized employees, or Washington would never have lifted a finger to bail it out). General Motors failed and almost disappeared because its employees stopped listening to their customers. Any time something went wrong, General Motors essentially said “The funeral home made a mistake. The funeral home is lying. We are never wrong.”

So it was that people grew to hate General Motors. They stopped spending their money on GM products. And this is the difference between business and government. If a business doesn’t give people what they want, people won’t give their money to that business, and that business fails. Therefore, the business has a strong incentive to make the people happy.

As far as government is concerned, people don’t give their money to government because they like government, or because they want the product government offers. They give money to government because if they don’t men with guns will come and put them in prison.