Friday 17 March 2006

Strategies for keeping customers happy…

Sometimes I wonder if some organisations actually enjoy making their customers angry. I have this image in my mind of a department within a public utility that has frequent strategy development retreats in Kasane. In between the obligatory game drives, adultery and drinking sessions extremely well-paid international consultants lead them in workshops with titles like:

“10 new ways of decreasing consumer contentment”
“The customer is always an idiot – how to let him know”
“The blank stare – international best practice”
“How to remind him we’re a monopoly and can do what we like”
“How not to give a damn – and show it!”

This may be ridiculous but which one of us hasn’t been into a store, a restaurant, a bank or a utility company and been met with what seems to be an obvious desire to drive you crazy? Procedures that are deliberately confusing, forms to fill in that miraculously appear when you thought everything was done and my particular favourite: “The computer won’t let me”.

I’m not sure what’s most difficult - buying a house, getting married or setting up a company. They are probably all equally difficult to do. However none of them are quite as infuriating as opening a bank account, particularly if it happens to be a company one. Endless forms, copies of company documents and contracts, Omang and passport details, birth certificates, blood samples and custody of the children all seem to be essential requirements before you give them large quantities of your money that they then bet on horses.

Why must it be so complicated? Why do they need our stress levels sky-high? Is it just for that wonderful moment when you’ve finally done everything they’ve demanded? It can’t be because almost certainly they’ll call you in the next day saying that you forgot to sign Section 3(a) of Form 27. In triplicate. In front of three witnesses. No, those witnesses won’t do, it has to be these witnesses.

Why must it be so difficult?

Well, obviously it doesn’t need to be that bad. It can be done simply. It is possible to make a business run in ways that don’t irritate customers too much. It just doesn’t seem to happen that often.

In all the work we do with organisations we so often encounter rules and procedures like these that do genuinely seem like they were created at the retreat to Kasane I made up earlier. Organisations create rules that go out of their way to confuse, irritate and, at the end of the day, drive customers away. I can, if I try hard, see how this comes about with a monopoly but how on earth does this happen in a bank, a supermarket or a restaurant? Don’t they remember that they have competitors? Don’t they realise that if they really irritate me I’m going elsewhere?

Oh and just because I can see how it happens with a monopoly that doesn’t excuse it. Sooner or later they’ll have competiton, trust me (I hope) and the sooner they start competing against potential competitors the sooner they’ll become competitive and customer-focussed. We often suggest to monopolies that maybe they should just pretend that they have a competitor. Pretend that there’s someone round the corner ready to take their business away from them. Maybe they should establish an internal competitor, like they have an internal auditor. Someone who’s job is just to say how it could be done better, cheaper and friendlier.

We spend a lot of our time with these companies helping them to move from a negative customer handling standpoint to a positive one. Away from one that says “You can’t”, “You won’t” and “You “mustn’t” towards one that says “You can…”, “Of course…” and “Yes”.

Most scary for some organisations is that we try to move them towards a culture where complaints are seen as something to be welcomed, something that actually helps them to improve and allows them to make more money. Nobody likes to be criticised but it’s only really by failing that we learn how to succeed. It’s probably only when a customer says that something isn’t correct that we learn about it. We are all so often so set in our ways that we don’t realise that we’re not actually delivering the best. Only when we tell the restaurant staff that there’s too much chilli or not enough garlic will they realise. The really clever service providers will turn round and the very first thing they say will be “Thank you for telling me”, not “What do you mean?”, not “That’s not true” and certainly not “It’s not my fault, it’s the chef”.

Service is about two-way communication. It’s not just about the supplier telling us how it should work. We as the consumers must start to take the communication back to them, whether it’s good or bad news. However the suppliers must put in place mechanisms to allow us to do this, not to prevent it happening and even encouraging us to do it!

Here’s a free tip for suppliers that will make you look as though you care, even when you don’t give a damn and have better thing to do but you realise that the customer deserves to think you that you care.

As the customer is complaining, make sure your eyes are at the same level as his. Sit down if you have to. That will show that you see him as an equal. Look him in the eyes as he speaks. That will show that you really want to make emotional contact with him. Tilt your head ever so slightly to one side. It shows you you are listening.

Then finally, when he’s got it off his chest, take a deep breath and say the following, or your version of it:
“Look, I’m really sorry that you’re unhappy about this
but before I fix it I want to thank you for telling me.”

Chances are you’ll get away with it.

Then you just have to fix it.

This week’s stars!

  • Tebogo at Hi Fi Corporation for patience and handling customer complaints so well.
  • Tshwenyego and Neo from the bicycle section at Game for going the extra mile to help a customer with a bike that was on promotion but that had a fault. They fixed it and the customer went away extremely happy and inspired to tell us and you all all about it.
  • Tshiamiso from FNB Main Mall for going out of her way to help a customer.

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