5 Scary Customer Management Practices

Brian Cantor

When thinking about critical business priorities, you are in good company if you place the customer experience atop the list. When thinking about models for customer experience strategy and philosophy, you are in good company if you identify organizations like Disney, Apple, the Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom.

But if you follow that transitive progression and suggest that a critical business priority is to adopt a customer experience mindset like that of Zappos, you will find yourself in a far greater state of isolation. For all the talk about committing to customer-centricity, common—and ongoing—business practices reveal a far different reality.

They reveal a reality in which the customer experience takes a backseat to an unattractive hodgepodge of laziness, stubbornness, traditionalism and pride. Rather than transforming their entire operation into a more customer-centric one, they focus almost exclusively on how they can appear a bit more customer-focused without having to make drastic new changes.

The customer experience is unfortunately not a game of having one’s cake and eating it too. It is a game of working hard to earn an even bigger piece of cake. It is a game of recognizing that the distance between the status quo and total customer-centricity is not measured in fluffy PR statements and smiles but in meaningful action and (often significant) transformation. Unless the organization has a 100% customer satisfaction rate and experiences absolutely no churn, complaints or disengagement, it has work to do.

How it handles customers on a daily basis reveals how committed to that work it truly is. And insofar as signs of customer management failure are easily recognizable and irrefutably damaging, it is very easy to separate those organizations who are earning the rewards of an improved customer experience with those who simply want the rewards.

Here are 5 "scary" signs that a brand is not resolute in its commitment to customer-centricity:

1) Can’t is in the brand’s vocabulary

Customer-centric organizations focus not on what they cannot do for customers but instead on what they need to do and how they can go about doing it.

Customers who actively seek support are doing so not for a refresher on what went wrong or an explanation of the corporate "policy" but to confirm that the status quo is not working for them. Something in the process failed, and they are connecting with the brand in order to rectify that failure.

And that is why it is so troubling—and tone-deaf—when organizations respond back with lists of limitations. If the policy or standard operating procedures could resolve every issue, there would be little need for a human customer service team. The value in such a team is demonstrated when it thinks like a customer and finds a resolution that was not readily obvious or accessible to the customer prior to the call. Customer-centric businesses seek these occasionally outside-the-box but always customer-friendly outcomes during each and every interaction.

Attempting to make life easier for contact center agents, I make it a habit of proposing solutions in all of my difficult interactions. While they might seem aggressive and unrealistic in a customer management world raised on saying "no," they are nonetheless practical and attainable. Most importantly, they represent what I, the customer, want—and expect—to happen.

An agent’s—and by extension a brand’s—willingness to consider and work towards my proposed resolution signals the significance of its commitment to the customer.

When the organization outright refuses, it reveals that the company sees customer service as a processed-based function for enforcing corporate policy rather than as a pathway to building lasting customer relationships.

2) The brand needs to be right

When an individual bends the facts to support his viewpoint and stubbornly refuses to concede, he is simply being human. When a brand does it, it is showing a disregard for customer-centricity.

No one ever accused a complaining customer of being wholly rational. Even when their grievances are totally justified and totally supported by logic, the specific framing of their argument will naturally be self-serving and geared towards blaming the organization.

In a debate tournament, few such customer arguments could go more than ten seconds without inspiring vicious rebuttals and cross-examinations. But in a customer service arena, all such arguments are as irrefutable as 2+2=4.

A customer contacts support because he is upset about something and wants the brand to make it right. In order to properly serve the customer, the business must accept the framework because its ability to satisfy the customer—not its ability to win the debate—is what determines the success of the call.

Agents are certainly free to provide context if they feel a customer has been misinformed, but when that context switches to blame, they are getting off track. And when the organization feels that distribution of blame should have some impact on its need to resolve the situation, it has completely failed the customer.

A brand needs to understand its role in causing a problem to avoid creating future iterations of that mistake. But its culpability—or lack thereof—has no immediate implication for the situation: that the customer feels wronged, holds the brand accountable, and seeks resolution. If its stubbornness and argumentative pride are too strong to understand that, it is not customer-centric.

3) The brand breaks promises

Unless a brand promises its customers a flawed experience, any failure in the process represents a broken promise.

But mistakes do happen. Outliers do exist. Lightning, however, does not strike twice.

In order to prove that the customer service failure was a legitimate mistake, rather than a sign of the organization’s disregard for its customers, it must seize customer service interactions as opportunities to impress. And when doing so, it must assure that it meets—or exceeds—any expectations it conveys to customers.

When making that second round of promises, the brand is committing to an extra layer of protection against the mistakes and unforeseen circumstances of the universe. It is declaring that the customer is so important that it will not let anything interfere with the experience.

When something does, it not only exposes the brand’s incompetence but also renders anything it says about customer-centricity hollow.

The rise of social media has furthered the broken promises epidemic by turning customer service into an outbound marketing and reputation management tool. Hoping to avoid a negative surface perception, some brands will quickly respond to all customer complaints with the promise of follow-up or future resolution. But once it makes that public display of customer-centricity—and thus accomplishes the marketing objective—it no longer feels as pressed to honors its promise to the customer. And that is a problem.

4) The brand is okay with losing customers

The idea that any individual brand can satisfy every individual customer is a fantasy. But the idea that organizations should regularly forfeit customers who fit into their target audience and do demand their products is utterly absurd.

Unless an organization is inherently designed to make customers miserable, no cause of frustration is unfixable. A customer might be very upset—even furious—after a customer experience failure, but if the brand truly cares about its customers, it cares enough to go the extra mile in assuring that customer’s situation is resolved and that specific failure becomes a thing of the past.

When organizations mistake a customer’s hostility for an irreversible hatred towards the brand, they are mistakenly applying a lifetime value of $0 to a customer who could be immensely valuable. A customer’s frustration over a specific situation is not a sign that he will no longer consume products within the category—in fact, it is often a sign of the opposite.

Yes, there are scenarios in which it makes business sense to "fire" customers. But insofar as the brand has limitless power to recover from situations—and yes, the power is limitless, as a customer-centric organization is not bound by policies or convention—it should assure it puts a customer’s current state of frustration into context.

And if that customer can bring future value—or, alternatively, if that customer’s frustration will go viral enough to impact other customers’ brand loyalty—he is not worthless and his loyalty should not be dismissed as unsalvageable.

In such cases, it simply does not make sense that organizations will tolerate heated, argumentative phone calls or hang-ups. The goal should be to repair the customer relationship rather than to worsen it.

5) The brand’s touchpoints are not aligned

When organizations declare that they are nixing concepts like "call center" and "digital marketing," it is not because the functions are irrelevant. Rather, it is because they no longer can operate in isolation.

One of the clearest signs of a brand’s customer management failure is its reluctance to truly embrace the concept of multi-channel and multi-touchpoint. Examples include social media representatives refusing to address customer support issues because they are "on the marketing team," customer support agents refusing to address billing complaints because they have no access to "accounting" and employees not concerning themselves with their brand’s social reputation because they are not "marketers."

Every conceivable touchpoint is an opportunity to engage customers, and as such, the employees at every conceivable touchpoint must be empowered to provide what the customer needs.

Insofar as businesses are aiming to satisfy customer demand, then it was customer demand that brought the business into new channels like self-service, mobile and social. If the organization is not prepared to handle those channels in a manner of value to the customer, it is simply not being customer-centric.

Customers are not blessed to receive some form of brand visibility in new channels; they are betrayed when the organization attempts to dictate what matters to them.