Have you ever tried to get your cable fixed by calling Comcast? Or have you ever tried to get advice from the IRS 800 number? Most large organizations become sclerotic. The people hired to field calls may be judged not on whether they help customers, but how quickly they get rid of customers (average time per call). At the very least, they probably aren’t evaluated on whether or not they solve a customer’s problem.
There are a few exceptions. Costco isn’t as return-friendly with every item the way they used to be. Whenever my late grandfather wanted a new computer he’d come up with something wrong with the one he’d purchased at Costco. Back then they were ‘no questions asked.’ Sears was that way, too.
Companies usually start off trying to reduce costs, make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of. Two decades ago Delta became known for “No Waivers, No Favors” the customer was always wrong and got nothing. Greg Brenneman was President and COO of Continental Airlines, and later became CEO of PwC Consulting and then of Burger King. Writing about how he and Gordon Bethune turned around Continental Airlines he offers this anecdote,
We also told our employees we believed in them. They knew how to treat customers right, and we moved quickly to let them do just that.
In the past, any time an employee provided a benefit for a customer that was considered unacceptable, the bankers and lawyers running Continental would write a rule documenting the proper action. Over the years, these rules were accumulated into a book about nine inches thick known as the Thou Shalt Not book.
Employees couldn’t possibly know the entire contents of the book. When in doubt, everyone knew it was advised just to let the customers fend for themselves.
In early 1995, we took the Thou Shalt Not book to a company parking lot. We got a 55-gallon drum, tossed the book inside, and poured gasoline all over it. In front of a crowd of employees, we lit a match to it.
Our message was this: Continental is your company to make great. Go do it—now.
Doing what’s right isn’t the same as doing whatever customers want. But it does mean cutting through the bueraucracy rather than leaving customers yelling at a faceless corporation. A few companies, like T-Mobile, have turned around their brands by trying to offer value and solve problems. This usually involves the Chief Executive spending time with employees, making themselves available, and demonstrating from the top what good is supposed to look like.
Sometimes even companies with long-lasting great reputations fall into the trap of bureaucratic morass. I think this recent Southwest Airlines story perfectly encapsulates why people hate airlines (and Comcast).
- A Southwest Airlines passenger had her bag stolen. It wasn’t at baggage claim when she arrived in Denver, even though Southwest showed it having been on her flight and unloaded.
- Security footage showed the bag being taken.
- The thief was actually apprehended by police.
- The passenger submitted a claim to the airline for her lost bag and it was denied. All she was told for the reason is “a discrepancy.”
After news coverage shamed Southwest they said they’d reconsider the claim, but it shouldn’t take news coverage when there’s video and a police report.
By the way this is why I don’t buying insurance against small events. The insurance issuer usually makes money by not paying claims, so they make the claims process so excruciating that customers give up. The payout needs to be big enough to make the process of getting it worthwhile (‘juice has to be worth the squeeze’).
On the other hand though I’ll fight tooth and nail with credit card insurance coverage over small claims. I didn’t pay extra for the coverage, and there’s something about the thrill of the chase and value in the victory over a bureaucracy designed almost perfectly to sap your soul that makes the effort worthwhile.