Insights On Dealing With Bad Customer Service From 4,000 Years Ago

Featured Image: Clay tablet; letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a dangerous voyage, misdirection, and delays. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Shep Hyken writes in Forbes that the oldest know customer complaint can be found at the British Museum on a Babylonian clay tablet dating back to 1 750 BC. The letter implies that Nanni, the copper merchant, 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!

Liz Lefloor of Anciet Origins comments further that the clay tablet reveals that no matter where (or when) you go, good customer service can be hard find. In fact, the tablet details at length Nanni’s anger at a sour deal, and his dissatisfaction with the quality assurance and service of Ea-nasir. 

The Two Gravest Sins in Customer Service Committed bit Ea-nasir:

When we break down Nanni’s letter, the two greatest sins regarding any customer service transaction are revealed:

Ea-nasir Failed to Under Promise and Over Deliver

“When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!” 

Ea-nasir clearly had no intention of managing Nanni’s expectations. Whether or not Ea-nasir was having a bad day, or did not have the quality of the product promised – he should have spoken honestly and let it be known to Sit-Sin that the better quality copper was not available at this time. 

Ea-nasir Failed to Make Restitution 

“What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas. 

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.”

Clearly, Ea-nasir felt he could take advantage of the situation. Afterall, who bothers to seek their money back when bad service has been transacted, and against a backdrop of difficult circumstances? In today’s world, restitution is often left to the regulatory authorities (if such a framework is put in place e.g. cooling off periods after signing of a contract and payments subsequently made).

Nanni’s Solution Regarding Future Transactions

“Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”

Clearly at the time, either under Mesopotamian law or in contracts written up, the customer could exercise their right to reject bad services or products. In any case, Nanni’s response regarding any future transactions was quite mature and shows that despite his ire, did have a rational head for business.

Let’s hope that the archaeologists in this part of the world will one day find other clay tablets that tell what happened after Nanni’s bad experience and whether Ea-nasir regained his trust!


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