Customer Service on the Titanic

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James Cameron’s film Titanic, now out in stunning 3D, gives us a glimpse into the customer service practices of the time and raises the question—have customer service practices evolved or devolved over the last one hundred years?

In my book The Squeaky Wheel I discuss the history of complaints in a section titled The Golden Age of Effective Complaining (Chapter 1). One hundred years ago, complaints were used as transactional tools. They were voiced to resolve problems and therefore they were taken seriously both by people who complained and by the recipients of those complaints. In contrast, today, we use complaints primarily as opportunities to vent our frustrations. As a result we tend to elicit defensiveness in the recipients of our complaints far more often than we do solutions and resolutions.

Titanic depicts obvious differences in the customer service afforded to First Class passengers versus that afforded to those in Steerage. First Class passengers were given top notch customer service where the customer was always right and the staff made every possible effort to address any complaint or dissatisfaction they uttered. In short, customers were treated with the utmost respect. When Jack, dressed in ‘First Class’ clothes, approaches the First Class dining room with Molly Brown, a steward opens the door and greets him with a respectful, “Good evening, Sir!”

The conditions in Steerage however were very different. As opposed to managing customers’ complaints and requests, (after all, steerage passengers were paying passengers), staff managed the customers themselves, as if they, not their complaints or requests, were the problem. When Jack returns to the First Class dining room to see Rose the next day, this time in his regular clothes, the same steward stops him with a nasty look, “You’re not supposed to be in here!” The steward could have said, “I’m sorry Sir but I cannot let you in”. Instead he ignores Jack’s requests and says “Come along you!” and escorts him out.

This is a phenomenon we see all too often in hotels today (floating ones a swell). Although we expect to be treated as First Class passengers, we are often treated as though we are in Steerage (for an example, read customer service expert Kate Nasser’s description of a recent encounter with a hotel manager).

James Cameron has an amazing eye for detail and an obvious appreciation of customer service. Indeed, one of the last things Jack says to Rose (jokingly) as he floats in the icy waters of the Atlantic, moments before he dies is, “I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line about all this.”

Do you think Customer Service has evolved? How often do you feel you’re given first class customer service and how often are you made to feel as though you’re in steerage? Feel free to comment.

Copyright 2012 Guy Winch

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2 Comments for Customer Service on the Titanic


Great post. Always make the customer feel they are important regardless of status. That is the essence of true customer service. Afterall, they are the lifeblood of any business.


Dear Dr. Guy Winch, PhD.,
I’ve written in the past and vented my concerns on how poorly customer services personnel is treated; but customer services personnel need to have someone to help be their voice.
Areas that received high level of media attention that’s making a different are many forms of cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer disease, Stroke awareness, bullying and domestic abuse. Customer Services needs a voice to stop the abuse (which is no different then bullying and domestic abuse). Sometimes its not just the caller its supervisor and managers (Employers are not helping the customer service personnel. I feel the only time they will make a change is when a family member is affected or a law suit) that causes the humiliation. You have written several wonderful books and article, but lets start going to the public media to make people aware of etiquette. Blogging about the negativity given to customer service is not enough. Needing to educate and provide etiquette.
I’m asking and even pledging for you to help myself and many many other customer service personnel about stopping the abuse.