Oldest Customer Service Complaint Discovered: A Lesson from Ancient Babylon

Author

Shep Hyken, Contributor

April 24, 2015

If you were paying attention in high school history (I wasn’t!) and have a sharp memory, you may recall something about Hammurabi’s Code. Hammurabi (aka Hammurapi) ruled Babylon from 1792-1750 BC and will forever be known in history as having issued one of the first written codes of law.

However, it seems that neither quality assurance specs nor customer service procedures were included in that ancient document – or if they were, they weren’t always followed. I suppose that would make ancient Babylonian merchants quite like many modern business people.

I say this because tucked away in the British Museum is what may be the oldest customer complaint letter yet discovered. It dates to 1750 BC and is from an unsatisfied copper ore customer named Nanni, written to his supplier, Ea-nasir. However, archeologists may one day discover even older correspondence between these two, because it seems like they had been going around and around on this copper ore issue for quite some time.

The letter implies that Nanni had dispatched his personal assistants to Ea-nasir Fine Copper at least once looking for a refund, only to be rebuffed and sent home empty handed – and through a war zone!

“I have sent as messengers, gentlemen like ourselves, to collect the bag with my money (his refund, I believe) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory,” Nanni complained.

If you’ll give me a little creative license, I’d like to put together a short mashup with Nanni’s letter and what passes for customer service in some places even today, to pull this scene into a setting we would probably all recognize:

Nanni walks up to the customer service window and puts the product he was shipped down on the counter.

“I received these copper ingots, but they aren’t at all like the ones the salesman showed me,” Nanni explains calmly.

“Do you have your original receipt or sales order?” the bored customer service representative asks.

“Uh, no.”

“Then take this clay tablet and bone stylus, sit down over there and cuneiform down all the details.”

“Could you just get my rep? It’s Ea-nasir. I think he’ll be able to straighten this out.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ea-nasir is on a business trip visiting clients in Mesopotamia and won’t be back until the beginning of the Month of the Bull.”

“Well, if your supervisor could come down…you see I’ve traveled through a war zone to get here and I’d really like to take care of this quickly.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” the customer service rep says. She then walks to a back room where she stands around for a few minutes. Eventually she returns to the counter.

“The best thing is for you just to fill out the clay tablet. We will review your case and get back to you as soon as the war is over. Next!”

I’ve probably condensed what occurred over a year or more in the Middle East to a one-minute customer service interaction, but what I find fascinating is that the same things that upset customers today were eating at Nanni back in 1750 BC.

The product he received was unlike the product he was shown and promised. In other words, his expectations were not met. Ea-nasir oversold his copper. This continues to happen and it demonstrates that properly portraying your product or service is fundamental to excellent customer service.

Nanni sought resolution to his problem several times. Had Ea-nasir Fine Copper Inc. set things right the first time, the British Museum wouldn’t have this interesting artifact to display. The relationship between this buyer and seller would have been quickly restored.

The letter ends with Nanni saying that from this point forward he would carefully inspect every copper ingot he received and ship back any that didn’t meet his approval. It is clear that their relationship has been poisoned. Trust and confidence have deteriorated to the point that Nanni will certainly have his eyes open for a new supplier.

Understanding that human desires are the same now as they were in Nanni’s day proves the eternal value of investing in customer service excellence for the long-term. For example, if you’re in manufacturing, any new machine you buy will someday be obsolete. However, when you invest in creating an amazing customer experience, the value never depreciates.

Shep Hyken is a customer service and experience expert and New York Times bestselling author. Find more information at www.Hyken.com.

This article was written by Shep Hyken from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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