Thursday, January 10, 2013

Customer Quicksand


You may have seen the recent article about the musician whose vintage guitar was destroyed by the Delta Airlines baggage handling system.  His attempts to contact Delta about it were simply disregarded.  They vanished into the quicksand of the corporate bog without a trace.  There is nothing like being ignored to enhance customer satisfaction.  Almost as bad is to receive a computer generated response that makes it abundantly clear that your letter, email or phone call was sorted into slot A to be answered by response B.

The story ended well for Mr. Schneider, the musician in question.  He received apologies and compensation from Delta, but only after the event became well publicized on the Internet.  In other words, only after the matter ceased to be just another customer annoyance and became an issue of corporate image damage control.  It should not have to be that way.  Events should not have to escalate to viral status on the Internet before they generate a response that bears the mark of understanding authenticity.

It would not be fair to dump on Delta Airlines alone for the corporate sin of disregard of the individual in favor of aggregate numbers defining performance in the market place, which are likely to skewed by staff to please or appease top management.  It’s a characteristic of most bureaucracies, and an organization does not have to be all that large to behave bureaucratically.  The matter is complicated by the advent of email, which makes it easy to dash off a quick note of complaint about some triviality that one would never send if it required the cost of a first class stamp.  Being flooded with them leads to dumping most into the disregard pile.  Government agencies, congressional offices, corporations, and even church organizations are guilty in equal measure.

The solution is a simple one, or should be.  Assuming that an organization is one of overall integrity, the course of daily business will always generate events that evoke some level of customer dissatisfaction.  The majority of them are predictable, mostly a function of the normal variation that occurs in the life of every system.  To be sure, some systems are sloppier and/or greedier than others, more tolerant of behavior that is likely to generate complaints.  But assuming that a particular organization has higher standards and tighter systems, the lowest level of staff possible should be fully authorized to respond with clear, honest communication and compensation if appropriate, on behalf of the entire organization, and trained and encouraged to do so.  Any event that falls outside the predictable majority should be quickly flagged and immediately attended to by whoever is designated to do so in the like manner.  Outliers demand at least some attention to see whether the “way we do things” needs to be changed.

Will that happen?  Probably not, except for temporary spurts engineered by the PR department, or some outside consultant, because the CEO publicly announced that he/she would see that something like this “will never happen again.”  It's possibly the single dumbest thing that any CEO could say, but often does.  Parenthetically, the second dumbest thing is to treat every event as a unique requiring a unique solution.  That can only end up creating such a tangled mess of standards and procedures that the entire organization grinds to a slow, halting circular dance in which vertical motion is mistaken for forward progress (Churches are especially prone to that).  The third dumbest thing is to be paralyzed by paranoid nitpickers in the legal department.

Will we cease doing these three dumbest things?  Probably not.  Why abandon what we do so well, and for which we are so richly rewarded by the executive compensation system?

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