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Better Change: Beware the Power of an Unhappy Customer
James D. Feldman -- The NOWIST James D. Feldman -- The NOWIST
Chicago, IL
Friday, January 16, 2009

For years, I have discussed the importance of servicing the customer. At hotels they are called guests, at car dealerships they are drivers, at airlines they are passengers. No matter what you call them, they all pay for a product or service and have expectations about the value they receive for their money.

And they have become very demanding about making sure those expectations are met. When they are not, the results can be very much more than just one unhappy customer. Look at what happened with Jet Blue over President's Day weekend. Hundreds of passengers were left stranded. The press had a field day as millions of passengers posted to blogs, emailed, text messaged, and phoned their friends clamoring for Jet Blue's corporate death. The airline is still recovering from the fiasco.

What is to be learned from this type of consumer reaction? The passengers, drivers, guests - whatever you call them - not only are still King, but they are wired in and able to spread their feelings about an organization far and wide with just a few keystrokes. If perception is reality, your customers now have a way of spreading their "reality" quickly and effectively in a way that can affect your future, your bottom line, your entire corporate well being.

Situations like Jet Blue's may get the most coverage, but they don't get the only coverage. More important, the ease with which your customers can use their circle of friends and the Internet to affect the perception of your organization means even the smallest issue can become a major problem.

Recently I stayed at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel near Minneapolis and Circus Circus in Reno. The check-in process at Mystic Lake was mechanical. They were pleasant enough, but they seemed detached, as if they had other things on their mind. I had a confirmed reservation for a non-smoking room, but was informed by the clerk looking at the computer record that they had no record of promising me, nor were they obligated to provide, a non-smoking room.

Now, to me, that was a very interesting response. First I do not smoke, and requesting a non-smoking room is standard with all my reservations. Secondly, I learned that there is NO SMOKING on the property. All the rooms, therefore, are non-smoking. So why tell me I was not promised a non-smoking room. Why create that negative feeling? What creates that sort of attitude in Mystic Lake's employees? It was truly baffling and more than a little annoying.

Circus Circus, on the other hand, was a wonderful surprise. The check-in was handled by Kevin with the multitasking flair of a combination master chef-field officer-maitre d'. While calling the housekeeping department to make sure the room was ready, typing in my credit card information and confirming the location and type of room that I had requested, Kevin provided me with local information, offered a discount coupon booklet and called over the bellman to take my luggage. He then asked if I needed diner reservations, local tours, or anything else.

No matter what else happened at Circus Circus, this first contact was so superb, there was no way I could have left feeling I had had a bad experience. I was that happy.

That is the flip side of making sure the details are right and expectations are met. Whatever benefits there are to not making customers unhappy, making them happy has more, particularly insofar as happy customers come back and spend more. Therefore, the long-term value of every customer, and not just the largest, must be considered. With the cost of acquiring new customers continuing to rise, the repeat business of even the smallest regular customer can be significant over time.

In this sense, customer satisfaction becomes a strategic objective. This requires a commitment to exceeding customer expectations and delivering an experience that makes customers want to use your organization above all others, regardless of competitors' enticements. I call it Customer InsistenceSM.

To create Customer InsistenceSM, management must understand that the customer experience starts with the first contact, be it the person who answers the phone, the clerk who rings up the sale or the parking lot attendant. You must look at it through the customers' eyes and not management's. How do these people interact with your customers? What impression do they leave? Are they truly helpful or merely perfunctory?

Ideally, the more frequently a customer uses your products or services, the better the experience should be. Whether it is a lower rate, a bonus of some sort or just a matter of recognizing the individual as a "VIP" customer, there should be some benefit to frequency and familiarity. In practice, there often is not, and this is another area to pay close attention to. Consider my recent experience with Hartford Toyota.

Recently I decided that I should buy a car to use while I am on the East Coast. Because I am working with the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut, there is an economic advantage to having a car at the Hartford Airport. So I called my senior contact at Toyota, another one of my clients. As the Group VP, he called his regional manager. In the meantime, I called Hartford Toyota and explained that I would fly to Hartford and either lease or purchase a car. The Internet sales manager told me that Toyota had a deal on a Highlander lease at .002% financing. Done! I gave him my arrival information, called the Toyota Group VP and expected everything to go smoothly to close the deal.

Upon arrival at the airport, no one was there to meet me. I called the dealership and waited for over an hour for a pickup. At the dealership, I was turned over to a salesman. He tried to up sell me to another car. I informed him of the call from the Group VP, the fact that I was a vendor, vendors got special deals from Toyota, and I had already come to a deal with the Internet sales manager. Without listening, he turned me over to his finance guy. The finance guy gave me a short look and proceeded to ask me for a huge down payment and a higher lease rate.

It went downhill from there. Rather than bore you with all the details, suffice it to say that the deal fell through, the Toyota Group VP was upset, and to this day no one from the dealership has called to apologize. In addition, I have told everyone I could about the experience. I have written about it. I have used it in my presentations, and I have discouraged others from doing business with Hartford Toyota.

Now let's examine that in the context of an unhappy customer. I have told thousands of people about this via various email lists I participate in, another few thousand by live presentations, and still more through this newsletter. If I had time, I would post to blogs, write Toyota HQ, and use this example on every one of my "what not to do" customer service articles and presentations. On the other hand, I am telling just as many about my Circus Circus experience.

Customers tell others about their experiences. Think about Jet Blue, Mystic Lake and Hartford Toyota. Then think about Circus Circus. Which would you rather emulate?

Your organization should have one overarching goal: Bring the customer back. Make exceeding customer expectations and creating Customer InsistenceSM a strategic objective and you are well on your way to achieving that goal. And here are four Better Changes that will help you succeed:

Better Change: Customers always think they are right. Don't try to change their minds. Try to make them happy. Settle complaints quickly and positively. Give your staff authorization to settle complaints. Making customers wait for a "manager" or other "authorization" before remedying a problem only makes it worse.

Better Change: Understand that most rules should be flexible. Do not ever say "No, that's against the rules" to a customer who is making a reasonable request. There is only one rule that never should be broken: Keep your customers happy and satisfied. Respond to customers as individuals and their needs as the most important in the world. Consider the rules to be guidelines, not laws, and bend them as needed to keep your customers happy.

Better Change: Talk to Your Customers. The only way to make sure your customers are satisfied is to seek them out and ask them. Do not accept general answers, but probe to learn what they like and dislike. It may even be helpful to prepare a survey with specific questions asked during each of these encounters.

Better Change: Stay in touch with your customers. Customer InsistenceSM is about creating relationships with your customers, and that means staying in touch when they are not playing. Use mail, email, even phone calls and personal notes when indicated, for making "touches that matter." Especially when you have had a one-to-one contact with a customer, be it to handle a complaint or receive a compliment, a follow-up letter, phone call or email can go a long way toward cementing your relationship with that customer.
News Media Interview Contact
Name: James Feldman, CSP, PCS, CPT
Title: Professional Speaker
Group: Shift Happens
Dateline: Chicago, IL United States
Direct Phone: 312-527-9111
Cell Phone: 312-909-9700
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