We Appreciate Your Business. Please Stay on the Line.
During this time I was subjected to sales pitches for sundry credit-protection services and told it "only takes a few minutes to enroll." Clearly, this institution believes it's less important to meet your service needs than to get you to spend more. But what could I do? I couldn't hang up. I had to resolve the problem. So that's how I spent the next 31 minutes.
I experienced a similar asymmetry when a credit-card company informed me that the terms and conditions for claiming hotel rewards had changed. For example, the number of miles needed for a free night in a top-category hotel room had gone from 125,000 to 160,000. "If you're not satisfied with these changes you can cancel your account by calling us," the statement said — hardly an attempt at building customer satisfaction or loyalty. Just as before, I was stuck; I didn't want to cancel the agreement and forfeit my accumulated miles.
Customers — maybe even your customers — experience this kind of thing every day. They feel small compared to your bigness. They feel weak in comparison with your power. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Companies in a few industries have adopted policies of transparency and accountability that reduce some of the asymmetry. Airlines are a good example. JetBlue offers rebates under clearly statedcircumstances: If your flight is delayed an hour and a half to an hour and 59 minutes, you get a $25 credit; if you're delayed six hours or more, you get a round-trip ticket.
But airlines did this in response to new government regulations establishing fines for companies that leave customers sitting for hours in planes on the ground. Those regulations themselves were the result of a push by customer-advocacy groups such as FlyersRights. If the airlines had assumed that consumers were weak and insignificant, they were wrong. Consumers got so mad that they figured out how to be powerful.
Your company shouldn't wait for customers to do that. The time to revisit your customer guarantees is now.
Here are a few proactive steps a company can take to reduce the asymmetry that customers despise:
- Make it an ironclad policy to honor original contractual agreements, come what may. If you're a credit-card company or a hotel and you've told customers they need a certain number of miles or points or whatever to get a free room, keep the requirement at that level. If this becomes a burden for the company, make it harder for customers to earn future points. That way you're not punishing people you made a commitment to in the past.
- Don't punish customers by manipulating the rules. Companies that play bait-and-switch not only create dissatisfied customers but generate resentment and end up with lower loyalty rates. For example, phone companies that promised unlimited data plans and then, at contract renewal, changed the mechanism to retain these functions are seen by customers as unreliable partners.
- Explain why an action is being taken, and be trustworthy. If a call center is busy, don't tell customers the hold time is five minutes and then, after four minutes (as higher-priority customers enter the queue), revise that to 10 minutes. If the wait is going to be long, have the system take customers' numbers and call them back — and if you say you're going to call back, do call back.
- Be there for customers when they need you. If you've explicitly or implicitly offered a certain level of service, just provide it. Don't try to nibble away at its corners or mindlessly try to turn each service encounter into a sale. Customers don't enjoy hearing recorded pitches when they're holding for your service reps.
- Don't conceal important information. Don't take the phone number off your web site or hide critical service information deep in a site. FAQs are great, but customers still need to talk to your people. Open the person-to-person channel, and monitor it: Measure the call center's queue length, answering speed, and abandoned-call proportion, as well as customers' rate of zeroing out (hitting "0" repetitively to get an operator).
- Empower your employees at all levels to change processes in customers' favor. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh instills this approach into the company culture, with the desired aim of "wowing" customers.
If you don't take these steps, you're leaving yourself open to customer flight. Customers' memories of the times when they were poorly served tend to be a lot more vivid and longer-lasting than their recall of seamless service experiences. You also leave yourself vulnerable to possible retaliation through social media. Reacting to a social-media disaster is a much more expensive proposition than providing excellent customer service and first-time problem resolution.
In big companies, it's easy for managers to forget that the acquisition of each customer represents a real victory for product development, marketing, and sales. Don't squander that effort by letting customers slip away due to service failures. By fighting the slide to a power-asymmetry culture, you'll bind your customers closer to your company, a very desirable outcome in an environment of decreasing consumer loyalty.