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Designed Not to Listen

I have written in past blogs about companies that exhibit poor customer service and the need to call these companies out. I have also written that there too many companies that have a customer care department but they do not have a customer oriented culture and hence pay only lip service to the care of their customers. Today I wish to call out an even more insidious creature; it is the company that cares so little for their customers that they are designed not to listen.

Emily Yeltsin wrote a book called “Your call is just not that important to us”. She wrote of bad call center experiences and how they fail to treat customers like they are valued customers. I have studied many of these companies and there are many common factors that drive this behavior. These uncaring companies have bad organizational designs and false incentives that create this environment. By false incentives, I mean that companies’ value perceived efficiency over customer loyalty. This is the mistaken belief that what customers care about most is the lowest price and not real value.

These stories about bad service are not new. Recently I have been observing a new and growing trend that really disturbs me as customer experience professional. These are companies who are so poor at servicing their customer base that they cannot keep up with addressing the evil that they have wrought upon their customers. In this case, they have designed the system such that they give you bad service then make it impossible to complain, assuming that you care enough to want to help them improve through constructive feedback.

Most recently I experienced a personal example with AT&T. that brought this point home. While I have to confess that AT&T has made me a disloyal and disgruntled personal and business customer, they are not the sole offenders here. However AT&T has so disappointed me that my current goal is to eliminate as much business as possible with AT&T, even if that means taking added risk in terms of technology. Since telecom is one of my largest expenditures, this is not an insignificant amount.

Every company, no matter how customer focused they might be, is subject to service failures and everyone has horror stories about companies who actually do really care about customers. When companies do have failures and then do not have the fortitude to listen to customer complaints, it is time to move on. After all, a customer complaint should be viewed as a free gift to the company. The fact that the customer wishes to share the complaint is the customer’s way of saying that they care about the relationship and want it to improve. When they do not care, they just quietly go away.

AT&T is a good case study. They, like many companies, are comprised of various business silos. For example, your land line, wireless technology, internet and TV may all be a part of the AT&T enterprise, but the overall company does not view you as one customer. Each business line treats you as a separate transaction or customer. Even within a line of business, each interaction may be recorded with a different group and not shared with others in the same organization. Similarly, if you can reach a real person to voice your complaint, that information is not shared across the organization. They do not value the total relationship of a customer, they only value unique transactions.

In AT&T’s case trying to find the right customer care group or to find a phone number, email or web site to use for a customer service complaint is nearly impossible. They do provide forms for reporting a problem but these forms are designed to accept only limited input based on the checking of a series of categorization questions. These forms are built for THEIR internal use to route the problem in order to make themselves more efficient. They do not give you the ability to escalate issues, bring things to management’s attention or to deal with abnormal situations that may be cross functional or not previously categorized. For the most part, you will never receive a real response to any of these forms requesting help. For example AT&T’s internet and voice service may come over the same wires to your house or business, but the organizations that service them are divided between voice and data support organizations. These groups seldom share data about customer issues, configurations etc.

AT&T, like many companies, is focused on the internal measures of product lines and not things like lifetime value of a customer. Not one person ever asked me why I was canceling an AT&T service and switching numbers to another vendor or why they were losing my business. They have designed their systems to drive costs out of the operating and service side of their business and do not seem to care about the value of retained customers. They have made it difficult to contact them over non technical problems because they know how many contacts they generate and do not wish to deal with the “noise” of customer gripes, legitimate or not. They have optimized on themselves and not the customer experience. They have been designed NOT to listen to their customers.

When you can contact someone at these companies, they may show empathy but another characteristic of these non-customer focused companies is the lack of empowerment of the front line staff. These are the folks who quote you the “rules” or standard operating procedures or who can only follow a scripted process but do not really help. Ever been transferred 3 times only to have repeated your statements each time? Ever been transferred 3 times only to get to the wrong department? (who, by the way, seem to be incapable of finding a supervisor) When was the last time you were asked by these companies to proactively provide them feedback on their service? These companies are designed not to listen.

When companies are designed not to listen to their customers the negative feedback may actually go viral via the internet. Web sites like UNTIED.COM or DELL HELL or YELP.COM become a danger to the brand value of companies. Not only is dirty laundry aired in public but false accusations may also be a part of the social media. If you do not listen broadly to customers, it will come back to haunt you.

Companies need to rethink how they listen to their customers. It is not about just having happy customer metrics; it is about creating value for customers that will be rewarded by loyal customers. It is not about seeking complaints or complements, it is about how to improve your business, detect trends and getting ahead of problems. Listening to customer will provide valuable input to innovation within your company. Those companies who are designed not to listen to their customers are designing themselves to FAIL.

That is my opinion, what is your?

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