Longer opening hours, no quibble returns, satisfaction guaranteed, cancel anytime, 24 hour carelines . . . big brands have become increasingly open and generous in the drive for competitive advantage.
But are these service innovations really good for business, or is business’ obsession with keeping everyone happy creating a customer which is impossible to please?
Having run my own service business there is one thing I can say for sure. Customer service is no longer a simple 9 to 5 job. It is a 24-hour battleground. Consumers are expecting a faster and better service at a lower cost and with the internet at their fingertips they are quick to make their demands and feelings known.
While there is nothing wrong with customers demanding good service, there were more than a few instances where I wondered if customer’s service expectations had got out of control. Even more worrying was the ferocity with which relatively minor complaints were pursued – even before any opportunity had been given to resolve them.
Could it be that consumers have just got too used to having it all their own way?
The List Price As A Starting Point
During the financial crisis, many companies would jump through hoops and even make a loss simply to shift stock and keep cash flowing. Savvy consumers with full wallets were able to make heavy service demands and many businesses had the spare man hours and resources to ensure they didn’t miss a sale.
Yet all this deep discounting may have led to published prices and standard terms becoming a point of negotiation – especially when internet price comparison tells everyone the very bottom price available for any item. Where once we may have been uneasy about asking for a discount, we have become bolder – often asking for the very lowest price but with the service and reassurance we want from our favoured retailer.
Mistaking Incentives For Rights.
Businesses are also responsible. As sales incentives such as no-quibble returns and satisfaction guarantees become more widespread, consumers have started to consider these as rights rather than promotions. Take Sainsbury’s ‘Try Me!’ as an example. It allows you to return any item of food for a full refund – even if you have opened and eaten it all.
Such guarantees are bound to give consumers an unrealistic expectation of their real rights, and make them less careful in checking specific terms when making a purchase. If John Lewis let you return any item, then there is an assumption that other retailers will too.
This is especially difficult for small businesses and bespoke product providers. Often time and expense is incurred in fulfilling an order, yet customers increasingly feel it is their right to return it any time for a full refund.
We are living in a progressively on-demand culture. Technology can now deliver so many things instantly that our tolerance for waiting is reducing. E-mail and IM have made posting an enquiry and complaint much quicker and easier than before, but as a result expectations on response times are reducing from days to hours to minutes.
Just take the post office – previously the very home of waiting. At my town post office a new ‘take a number system’ has made waiting a more managed and less frustrating process. Yet regardless of whether you have been waiting for 30 seconds or 5 minutes, customer service personnel will always start with ‘Sorry for the wait”, as if waiting any time at all is now unacceptable.
Complaining For Gain.
Perhaps the most striking thing I noticed from my own customer service experience is the increasing ferocity with which complaints are being pursued. Not only do most customers place a complaint with full force from the outset (as if delivering a day late was akin to shooting their beloved pet), but the demands for compensation were disproportionately high. In fact in many cases the customers’ aims were not to solve the problem, but to make a gain from the unfortunate failure of the service provider.
One possible cause for this could be that consumers increasingly see businesses and brands as detached entities, rather than collections of real people trying to make a living. As such, an unfair gain from a company is seen as a victimless crime.
A great example of this is the mispriced item. In 2012, Marks and Spencer accidentally priced a £1,099 plasma TV at £199 online. It was clearly a mistake, but purchasers (many of whom learnt of the mistaken discount online) petitioned M&S into fulfilling the orders. Similar instances have happened to Procook with £0 frying pans and American Airlines with $0 tickets.
Even though these are clearly human errors and purchases have not incurred any cost or inconvenience (other than a little disappointment), companies have been forced to fulfil them in fear of damage to brand reputation.
Why Companies Now Fear Their Customers.
Dealing with complaints and problems is no longer a matter between two parties. It is for public consumption. Social media and review sites allow disgruntled customers to not just tarnish a company’s reputation amongst friends and family – but amongst the world at large.
Consumer advocates might see this shift in power as a positive development, but in many cases the damage caused to the company is not in scale with the original failure the company made. What may have been a rare incidence of failure, or the erratic behaviour of a single employee, can result in a review which lasts forever or a tweet seen by millions.
In September 2013, businessman Hasan Syed was fed up with how British Airways were handling the loss of his father’s luggage. So he paid for a promoted tweet targeting New York and UK markets which read ‘Don’t fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous’. The tweet was read thousands of times, retweeted, commented upon and within 6 hours had reached Mashable and other news outlets. By the time BA’s twitter feed opened at 9AM to read and deal with the complaint, the damage had been done.
While Mr Syed’s complaint may have been valid, the question remains whether the damage inflicted upon BA was proportionate to their mistake.
We all may find it hard to be sympathetic towards BA, but the same problem can be life-threatening to smaller businesses. I recently helped a small restaurant owner haunted by a negative review posted online. Soon after opening and despite may positive comments, a blogger had tried the new restaurant and found the fish and chips to be a little ‘soggy’. As the new restaurant had yet to build an online presence, this harshly worded review commanded any Google searches for weeks – probably costing the restaurant thousands in lost business. I have heard very similar stories of hotels and minor tourist attractions crushed by unfair TripAdvisor reviews.
As the power customers can wield over businesses increases, so do their demands. Many businesses will capitulate simply to keep the problem off-line. And if the complaint gets online, a grovelling apology and freebie will quickly follow.
Complaints are not being dealt with based on an their validity, but on the potential damage they can do. Nearly every article I have read on how to handle social media complaints starts with these two pieces of advice ‘Respond Quickly’ and ‘Always Start With An Apology’.
The result is companies choosing to pander quickly to customer demands rather than hold firm and stand up for what’s right.