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Book Recommendation: Wired and Dangerous, by Chip Bell and John Patterson

Anyone who has customers and wants to keep them should read this book. First, because your customers are probably not as happy as you think they are, and second, because they can do a lot of damage when they’re unhappy.

They’re not happy

We have an old saying around our house, “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.” Substitute the word customers and you might want to put those words on a poster in your workplace. Customers today are unhappier than they’ve ever been. Here are some highlights from the book:

  • 87% of executives think their companies act on customer feedback; 39% of customers think they do.
  • 50% of employees and executives think their company’s service has recently improved; 25% of customers think it has.
  • In one survey of 200 firms, 80% of executives said their company provided a “superior experience” to their customers; 8% of their customers agreed.

There is obviously a disconnect between what companies think they do versus what their customers think, and which do you think will win in the long run? Of course, this has probably always been true to a certain extent, but the consequences are exponentially higher today.

They can do a lot of damage

There used to be an old saying about newspapers that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The internet gives everyone that capability today. It used to be word of mouth that could hurt you, but “word of mouse” is far more powerful; one study estimated that social media gives people five times the impact over word of mouth. Of course,the upside (for the complainer) is unlimited. One of the most extreme examples occurred when singer Dave Carroll found out that United baggage handlers threw his guitar around and broke it. His saga began with complaints that were ignored in spite of repeated attempts to get restitution or even an apology. A few years ago, his quest would have been a lonely one, but Dave wrote a song, “United Breaks Guitars” and posted the video on YouTube. It’s had over 10 million hits and the cost to United was estimated by The Economist to be 10% of its share value, or $180 million. (Not to mention that people like me keep writing about it, but I’m happy to because I’ve never flown United again after they bumped me from a full-fare business class seat from O’Hare to Shanghai in 2005)

So what can you do about it?

In one sense, this book does not reveal any hidden secrets about customer service that you’ve been missing so far. So much of customer service is about getting the basics right: if you have the right processes in place to treat people fairly, then you can start thinking about “delighting” customers and all that other good stuff. However, as we’ve seen from the statistics quoted above, just about anyone can benefit from the reminders it provides. Here is just a sampling:

“All service begins with the expectation of fairness”. A good portion of the book focuses on the psychology of the unhappy customer. You may remember the article I wrote last month on the importance of fairness—it applies to customer service as well. People will put up with a lot if they know you are trying hard, or that you will show some flexibility to take their circumstances into account and not hide behind policy. Unfairness is seen as a threat, and that makes people respond irrationally.

It’s the system, stupid. I love the following quote from the book: “You can take great people, highly trained and motivated, and put them in a lousy system and the system will win every time.” Anyone who used to fly Delta years ago will know exactly what I mean. You need to minutely examine, align, and if necessary fix all of your processes, incentives, training, corporate vision and values.

You have to know what to measure. It’s not about the service outcome; it’s about the customer experience. Many firms measure service inputs, such as average waiting time. But if everyone is focused on moving customers through the process quickly, they may easily overlook basic human features such as smiling or truly listening. As an example, doctors generally listen to a patient describe their condition for about 18 seconds before they interrupt them.

“A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year.” This saying quoted in the book is a wonderful way to say that you need to look at things from the outside-in—that is, from the customer’s point of view. When was the last time you tried calling in to your own customer service hotline, for example? If you can’t do that, get a trusted friend to do it for you and see how their experience is.

Make it easy for someone to contact you. Some people like to call and speak to a person, others prefer live chat on a web site, or even a visit to an actual office. Don’t make them go on a quest to get access to you in their preferred manner. Remember, if they can’t get you to listen, they might be able to get 10 million friends to know about it!

Learn from your mistakes. Another story in the book is about Comcast and the damage it suffered when a customer posted a video of one of their service technicians asleep on the customer’s couch—he had fallen asleep waiting for his own customer service! Unlike United, Comcast actually absorbed its very expensive lesson and made significant changes that significantly boosted its customer service ratings.

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