I’ll leave cheery holiday posts to others and ask you this question instead: How do you avoid ending up on your customers’ naughty list?
I ask because there are businesses that routinely put aside goodwill and treat their customers like … well, dirt. And yet, I wonder if, on the inside of those companies, their people realize that customers regard them as Grinches?
Yes, most businesses pursue a customer-oriented course because it results in profits, loyalty, and viral recommendations. And it’s why some – for example, Nordstrom, Starbucks, and many successful sports franchises – do all they can to create personal and respectful relationships with their followers.
And yet, there are others for whom customers seem like inconveniences, or worse, like nothing at all. Companies that rank high in this category have traditionally been in the cable and airline industries. But sadly, more seem to be joining their ranks, and to them, I offer a lump of coal in their holiday stockings.
These Scrooge-like organizations not only forget that customers are people; they fail to understand how much potential peril awaits those who displease the consumer market. Ultimately, those market forces can be more frightening than any Ghost of Christmas Past.
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That’s because when unhappy customers find a more desirable alternative available in sufficient supply, they will abandon whatever preceded it. The swiftness of this change can be the undoing of any business.
For example, in about ten years, according to consultants at McKinsey, we’ll all be able to hail private air taxis for about the same fares as street-level cabs. So, we can predict that companies operating rude or overpriced taxi services today will find their customers flocking to the faster, sleeker, more direct alternative as soon as it’s available.
At that point, it will be too late to launch a “positive customer relations initiative” back at the old taxi barn. But as you may remember from A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge only sees the light after the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his own funeral.
How to Make the Naughty List
What, exactly, qualifies as a bah-humbug-level of bad customer practices in the market today? Here are some examples that come to mind.
1. Treating customers like commodities
This is the category that gets some airlines into trouble. For example, Spirit Airlines, which routinely chalks up negative NPS scores (more detractors than supporters), is infamous for treating their customers like cattle and then, to add further insult, charging stiff fees for things like water. While they’re profitable in the short term because of low airfares, in the long run, reputation matters. Today the company is trading at around a quarter of its peak in 2015.
So, Spirit Airlines earns a lump of coal for treating their customers like herd animals — or possibly worse, as herd animals aren’t charged for water. My humble request: Give customers what they want — to be treated like humans, with dignity and reasonable comfort. You’ll have a lot more of them if you do.
Speaking of airlines — although this is now an old story — my favorite example of customer service gone wrong is told by musician Dave Carroll. If you are not yet among the 20 million people who have listened to his legendary song, United Breaks Guitars, please do so. It’s a four-minute, graduate-level seminar in how an abused customer rises to fame and a rigid company is left grasping for an oxygen mask. Learn from it to avoid similar situations in your company.
2. The old switcheroo
Credit cards that market themselves to low-income consumers are often in this category, where the borrower is surprised to find themselves paying 30-ish percent interest after being lured by no- or low-interest sales pitches. I ran into a similar situation recently with a marketing company called HubSpot. Their salesperson pitched one thing and delivered something else. Then, the company blew off my numerous requests for assistance by pointing to their contract and saying, essentially, “Not our problem. Beat it.” (I later found a trail of similar complaints at the Better Business Bureau.)
The challenge facing organizations that use such practices is that these markets are vast, so one company’s unfriendly behavior is an invitation for competitors to enter the space and take significant market share simply by treating customers better.
So, predatory lenders and marketers, you’ve also earned your lump of coal. My humble request: Sell customers what they want, not what they don’t want. In huge markets, there’s room for both transparency and profit.
3. Politically inappropriate positions
When consumers spend money, they think of it going toward goods and services they’ve chosen. So, it’s not surprising that those same customers react negatively when they learn their money is used to fund political viewpoints they oppose. It’s a situation that creates a public relations nightmare and, potentially, drives down share value.
For example, when rumors circulated that Home Depot’s founder gave $7 million to one presidential candidate, consumers who supported the other candidate moved their business elsewhere. More recently, Publix, the regional grocery chain, found itself struggling to downplay news that the Publix heiress financed the events surrounding the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. It doesn’t matter whether the cause an heir supports is red or blue; the publicity tied to any political controversy will upset too many people to be good for a consumer retail organization. And it’s not just customers who are unhappy; many employees and shareholders are also displeased at the related tumult and dip in share value.
This is the kind of thing that Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s partner, returned from the grave to warn him about. So, it earns its lump of coal, as well as my humble request that heirs respect the consumers who have been the source of their wealth by not using that wealth against them.
The bottom line is that it costs a company more in the long run to maintain bah-humbug behavior than to adopt a respectful, customer-focused approach. Scrooge-ness as a strategy weakens an organization’s position in the market and can shorten its life — but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dickens taught us with his fable, we always have the power to do better. And that’s my hope for all of us in 2022.