Real life

The lunacy of customer service in the time of Covid

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

‘Please be aware there is now a Covid surcharge,’ I told the builder boyfriend one morning, as we discussed the bills. ‘I have carried out a risk assessment in accordance with government guidelines and I’m afraid I need to pass on the cost of the personal protection equipment I now need. Please also be aware that, as of this month, you will be required to register to be with me by downloading the app.’

He ignored me, of course. There is no one to whom I can pass on the cost of everyone else passing on the cost of Covid to me.

It started with the dentist. I rang up after getting a reminder that my check-up was due and the receptionist said: ‘Please be aware there is now a £20 Covid surcharge.’

I expressed flabbergastation. ‘It’s nothing to do with us,’ she said, brazen as you like. ‘It’s the law. We have to charge you for the PPE we need.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ I said. ‘You’re saying there is legislation requiring dental practices to impose a £20 charge on patients for the mask the dentist needs to wear, which, let’s face it, she wears anyway?’

‘Well no…’ she said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re using Covid as an excuse for money-making.’ And I told her I would find a dental practice that bought its own face masks.

A few days after that, I realised that the opticians had sent me a three-month supply of the wrong contact lenses — again.


They keep doing this, but the least I can say for them is that each time they mess my prescription up they are quite apologetic and send me the right ones promptly, which is what passes for a fantastic attitude in Britain these days.

This time, I dialled the number of the store in Guildford and it rang for so long it rang out. I rang again a few minutes later, and an hour later, and a day later and it was the same. Not even an answerphone message. After days of ringing to no avail, I realised that they had simply stopped manning the phone.

This is customer service in the time of Covid. It’s just about as bad as Soviet Russia. Never mind the queues, we all know there is nothing that can be done about that and we mustn’t complain. But there is surely no excuse for not bothering to answer the phone.

Actually, I am going to complain about the queues, because it’s not just the fact of queueing, it’s the way they make you queue — the random, nonsensical queueing rules. I get the feeling they are making it up as they go along.

At the farm shop, there is a hand sanitiser table by the entrance, only slightly smaller than Checkpoint Charlie, next to the buckets of tulips and stacks of coal and wood. Villagers stand in a socially distanced line leading up to this table, shivering in the rain, and when we reach the front, once we have scoured our hands with pump-action disinfectant, we must wait to be barked at by a stout little angry man who can only be described as the farm shop Covid enforcer.

Although a notice on the sanitiser table tells you that it is ‘one out one in’, if you dare to enter the shop unilaterally after a customer has left, the farm shop Covid enforcer runs out the door at you, screaming at you to stay back.

‘But I thought it was one out one in?’ you stammer. ‘A lady just left…’

But he is staring at you with eyes that make clear he is ready to do whatever it takes to stop a global pandemic impacting on the sale of Surrey parsnips.

‘NO!’ he shouts. ‘We’re not ready for you yet!’

I was huddled by the sanitiser table next to the buckets of tulips the other day, and had just been barked at by the Covid enforcer for daring to take a step nearer after a customer departed, when a woman joined the queue behind me. As an elderly man left, vegetable box clutched to his chest, the woman looked at me impatiently and said: ‘Aren’t you going to go in?’

‘In there?’ I said, shaking my head in disbelief. ‘Are you kidding?’ The woman smiled smugly: ‘It’s one out one in. Someone’s just left?’

It felt like the last straw. ‘Now look here,’ I drew myself up, ‘it’s not just a simple matter of…’

And at that very moment, the farm shop Covid enforcer stomped out of the shop and barked: ‘Come on then!’

For a split second I saw myself on the news, in CCTV footage replayed of a woman running screaming through a farm shop sweeping her arms across shelves, smashing jars of jam.

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