The trouble with Treating Customers Fairly

It’s been statistically proven that ‘Treating+Customers+Fairly’ is the most common combination of any three words used in the the UK in the last five years*. Electricity companies don’t do it, banks are regulated on it, and politicians only talk about it to try and get elected – in fact, it seems the only company that people believe does do it is John Lewis (and Chiltern Railways, of course…) But what is ‘fair’, really? Do people actually know what they want from these industries and companies? Or has ‘Treating Customers Fairly’ just become a handy slogan, used by consumer champions and to try to right the perceived wrongs of our society, with headline writers whipping their readership up into a frenzy, giving rise to a cacophony of criticism and complaints which do nothing but slow progress and innovation?

The traditional view of fairness is that it’s about a trade – I pay you a certain amount of money for a product or service, and I expect that product or service to match (or exceed) the perceived value of what I have given you. Therefore fairness is easy to spot – if I don’t think what you have given me is worth what I have paid, then that’s not fair. And I’m going to tell everyone about it, until you change your dastardly underhand ways.


However, Behavioural Economist Dan Ariely has argued that fairness isn’t just about what the customer is being charged. Rather, it’s about the relationship between what the customer considers is the value to them & the cost to the company, and what the customer is willing to pay. This middle step, focussing on the costs associated to produce the product or service, is crucial in understanding the rise of ‘fairness’ as a consumer issue in recent years

Ariely gives a great example of this, demonstrating how much more willing people are to pay when they can see the costs involved and the effort that has gone in, thinking this as a fair trade. Imagine a young locksmith is starting his career. For the first couple of years as he learns his trade, he struggles with some locks, having to spend over an hour on them and eventually having to break them to be replaced with a new ones. Over time, as he improves his skills, he can open most locks within a couple of minutes without the need for any damage or needing to keep you waiting. Yet when it comes to payment, who would you rather give £100 to? The person who you’ve been watching work hard for over an hour, or the one who came in for two minutes, then left again before the kettle was even boiled? The locksmith in question said that people never used to argue about his fee, but now he is better, more skilled, and therefore quicker at his job, people seem less keen to handover the full amount.


Banking is a good test of this theory having always been a fairly secretive business, partly driven by the need for water-tight security. As banking moves to enhanced digital ways of working – online, ATMs, mobile apps – there is a lack of visibility of costs involved and lack of knowledge of how ‘the system’ works. There’s also far less interaction with other humans – something which customers often place a psychological premium on. People no longer see a Debit Card, Online Banking, ATM usage, Branch network, 24 hour call centres, transfers, payments and the trusty cheque book, all provided for free, as fair recompense for what they ‘pay’ (if indeed they pay at all). In fact, as banking gets more efficient, it’s becoming much more difficult for customers to see the costs involved. Is it any wonder that as the drive towards digital and self-service in the banking world increases, there is a correlation with rising dissatisfaction, including a noticeable increase in complaints about unfair charges?

Politics is another area which has come under increased scrutiny in the past decade or so. The expenses scandal laid bare for the British public the money being lavishly spent by our people at the top, with second homes, expensive suits, and the occasional moat for good measure. However, whilst many of these claims were shocking (the moat in particular), the outraged reaction was in part caused by the one-sided view presented. Clearly, the voters didn’t see it as fair that these people, on their above-average salaries, should be given any other kind of subsidies from the taxpayers’ pocket. But what was lacking was an impartial analysis of the ‘costs’ evoked by the politicians in choosing this as their job. Living away from their home and family most days of the year, working 20-hour days with minimal sleep, constantly in the public eye with every word and thought open to examination and ridicule – and all to be a ‘public servant’. This view of a politician’s life goes largely unrecognised, contributing to the lack of perceived ‘fairness’ in the system and leading to the swathe of apathy currently gripping the voting public.


Interestingly, Banking and Politics have one crucial thing in common when discussing ‘fairness’ – they are two of the four things that British people don’t like discussing in public. A vacuum of knowledge exists and is being filled by a host of potential scenarios such as Bankers being sat around in offices planning which dodgy product to sell next, or Politicians sipping champagne having just come back from a three-hour lunch paid for by News International. In reality, the only difference between a person feeling excited, worried, content or angry about something is how their brain chooses to perceive it based on the knowledge available. Therefore, this lack of knowledge and the scenarios being imagined as a result wholly impact on people’s assessment of fairness.

(By the way, Religion and Sex are the other two things if you must know – and I won’t go into the impact that secrecy and a lack of understanding has had in those areas…!)

it’s time for a new approach – ‘Radical Openness’, as Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams call it in their 2012 book of the same title. By allowing people access and information on the inner workings of age-old institutions and industries, customers will be able to make a more informed decisions on the costs involved – and therefore make a better assessment on whether they are being treated fairly. People will also start to feel more knowledgeable about the world around them – meaning less unnecessary worry and concern caused by the great unknowns. And for society, the chances of nasty surprises and global meltdowns are reduced, with the added benefit that more people might want to work in these areas when they have a greater understanding of what is entailed.

That sounds like a pretty fair trade to me…

*and 87.6% of statistics are made up.


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.

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