How to cultivate strong customer relationships: focus on the “sliding door” moments and ATTUNE

Don and Martha say practice the Golden Rule

In their latest post – “Empathy, Self-Interest and Economics” – Don Peppers and Martha Rogers spell out the importance of the Golden rule.  They point out that at a behavioural level only psychopaths conform to the view of human nature taken by neo-classical economics.  To business leaders they say:

“Companies that want to earn their customers’ trust have to be willing to act in their customers’ interest—sometimes even when the customers’ interest conflicts with their own (at least in the short term). This is why i-Tunes will remind you that you already own a song you are about to purchase, for instance. And it’s why USAA won’t sell you more insurance than you really need, even if you mistakenly ask to do so.”

“The point is that having empathy for others is a critical part of human nature, and if you want your business to succeed, then you have to show empathy for customers, also. That means treating a customer the way you’d want to be treated yourself, if you were that customer.”

Is the UK utility industry listening to Don and Martha?

It doesn’t look like the Tops in utilities industry in the UK are listening to Don and Martha.  Npower has been slapped with a £2m fine by the regulator Ofgem.  Why? According to Marketing Week:

“Ofgem says Npower failed to record all details of the complaints it received and did not put in adequate processes to deal with complaints. It was also accused of not giving dissatisfied customers enough information about the Energy Ombudman’s redress service.”

Now you might be tempted to think that this is a one-off, an aberration.   Well British Gas (the major player) was fined £2.5m back in July.  Why?  Well in the words of Marketing Week:

“Ofgem’s investigation found that British Gas had failed to re-open complaints when the customer reported and unsatisfactory resolution; failed to provide customers with key details about the service provided by the Energy Ombudsman and failed to put in place adequate processes and practices for dealing with complaints from small businesses.”

And Marketing Week goes on to write EDF Energy is also currently under investigation from Ofgem over the way it handles its complaints.”

So where are we at?  Two of the six big players that dominate the gas and electricity market have been fined for mishandling customer complaints and a third player (EDF) is under investigation for the same offence.  What does Npower have to say:

“A small number of processes were not correctly adhered to. Ofgem is now satisfied that all problems have been rectified and we are fully compliant with our obligations to our customers. We have zero tolerance for this type of issue and we’ll continue to work hard to make sure our customers are put first.”

I don’t know about you but to me that sounds like a load of bull: if Npower really did have a zero tolerance for this type of issue then it would have made sure that an effective complaints management process, team, system was in place.   When you lookmore deeply at the industry you see that the structure has been designed to extract profits at the expense of customers: complex pricing, too many confusing tariffs, bills that are difficult to understand……

Making the customer relationship work: what we can learn from John Gottman

I you do operate in a competitive industry then you might be able to learn from the research of John Gottman – he is been studying what makes marriages work (or not) for over 40 years.  In a recent article he sets out the key things that he has learnt:

“What I found was that the number one most important issue that came up to these couples was trust and betrayal. I started to see their conflicts like a fan opening up, and every region of the fan was a different area of trust. Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?”

“.zero-sum game.” You’ve probably all heard of the concept. It’s the idea that in an interaction, there’s a winner and a loser. And by looking at ratings like this, I came to define a “betrayal metric”: It’s the extent to which an interaction is a zero-sum game, where your partner’s gain is your loss.”

“But how do you build trust? What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.

In his article John provides a good illustration of such a sliding door moment when he saw the sadness on his wife’s face.  Here is what he says about that:

“I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, “I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight, I want to read my novel.” But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad.  Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust.”

ATTUNE: how you cultivate trust and build strong relationships

John Gottman’s graduate student has taken their work on trust and broken it down into the idea of being in attuenment and has come up with an acronym (ATTUNE).  If I replace “partner” with “customer” we have:

  • Awareness of your customers’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints – yours and your customer’s;
  • trying to Understanding your customer – to look at the situation through his/her eyes;
  • Non-defensive responses to your customer;
  • and responding with Empathy.

My take on this

How you handle a complaint from a customer is a “sliding door” moment.  It is also a great opportunity to practice ATTUNE as complaints are high emotion events that you can use to build or rupture emotional connection.  Given that is so I continue to be surprised at how few companies do well in the complaints process.  If Npower and British Gas had taken such an approach (call it a customer friendly approach) to the complaints made by their customers then they could have: gotten insights into customer needs; learned where their business practices were failing customers; built a better relationship with customers; and avoided a fine.

How much can you rely on the Voice of the Customer?

VoC Customer Experience Vendors Are Doing Well

A significant component of Customer Experience improvement is getting access to the voice of the customer.  A whole software based industry has sprung up to provide access to that voice; according to The Temkin Group customer experience vendors are doing rather well:  A Good Year for Customer Experience Vendors.

How much can you rely on the Voice of the Customer?

Which brings me to a key question: how much can you rely on what the customer tells you?  My experience suggests that you have to be careful with how you interpret and use the voice of the customer. Allow me to illustrate using personal examples.

During the course of writing this blog I have expressed feelings and then made claims as to what I was going to do in the future.  Did I do what I said I would do?  Lets take a look:

So on this sample of one, you can count on the voice of the customer being an accurate guide to customer behaviour (what the customer will do) only one third of the time.

Why have I continued with Sky?

When I wrote what I wrote, I meant it.  Yet when it came around to terminating the two contracts I had with Sky I found myself doing something bizarre: I terminated the SkyTV contract yet continued with the Sky Broadband.  Why is this bizarre?  Because I had a perfect experience with SkyTV.  My issue, my upset had been with Sky Broadband.  Later I signed up for SkyTV again.

So why have I continued with Sky?  Because I made a poor prediction of the future.  Specifically:

  • I had not taken into account the fact that pleasing my family and keeping them happy is more important than getting back at Sky and so I ended up subscribing to SkyTV;
  • I had not realised that a part of me would not welcome the task and emotional issues (risk of it going wrong) associated with switching my broadband to a new supplier;
  • That Sky would make me an offer that was so financially attractive that it just made good sense to take it up.

Why have I continued with Ascot Chiropractic Clinic?

First, convenience.  I did not switch because it was too inconvenient to visit the Harrsion Clinic: it is out of the way whereas the Ascot Clinic is practically next door.

Second, the hassle involved in switching.  The fact is that my chiropractor had been working with me for over six months and had got to know my body, my condition, really well.  As such I did not want to have to start all over with a new chiropractor.

Why did I terminate the British Gas Homecare Agreement?

Compare to the Clinic and Sky I found it easy to terminate the British Gas Homecare Agreement.  Why?  First, the decision was entirely up to me and so I did not have to convince anyone else.  Second, it was easy to find a new supplier.

What are the lessons to be learned

The voice of the customer will give you access to what specific customer like about you or do not like about you. It will give you insight into which of your touchpoints, processes, products and services are not working for your customers and how they are falling short.  And which are working well and leaving customers delighted.

The voice of the customer is not necessarily a good guide to what specific customers will do in the future.  The fact is that we are really poor at predicting what we will do in the future.  This has been shown time and again through studies.  This is a subject I intend to explore in the future.

The latest 6 secrets of good service

I have often wondered about the folly of companies pursuing the new stuff (Relationship Marketing, CRM, Customer Experience, Social Media….) whilst neglecting to provide good service.  Why?  Because I know that my social circle uses service as the key dimension to choose between one supplier and another.

At the weekend I read my weekly copy of Marketing magazine and came upon a piece that talks to this point.  Marketing teamed up with Lightspeed Research and Promise to undertake quantitative and qualitative research to figure out which brands customers are to recommend and which fail the grade.

The key point that this article makes is this “Brands spending millions on the above-the-line marketing are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to customer satisfaction”.

One of the paragraphs that jumped out to me because I have experienced this as a truth and so have many others is as follows: “The research reveals that even for product-driven companies, consumers comments are almost always focused on service. This means that the more inferior the service a brand offers, the lower the satisfaction score they are likely to get.”

The research found that the top 10 brands customers are likely to recommend in the future are: Virgin Atlantic, BMW, Mercedes, Samsung, Boots, Sainsburys, Eurostar, M+S, Toyota and VW.

The brands that ended up towards the bottom of the recommendation table are from the following sectors: utilities (Npower, British Gas, EDT, E.ON), telecoms (BT, T-Mobile, Talk-Talk) and financial services (Egg, HSBC, Barcalys, Lloyds TSB, NatWest, Virgin Money).  Ryanair was second to last – and that is to be expected.

Here is another paragraph that struck me as worth sharing:  “Promise recommends that all brands – regardless of sector – think of customers as human beings to interact with, rather than as an amorphous mass to be sold to.” That sentence says it all: companies need to balance out their obsession with selling (the direct route to the customer wallet) with good customer service (the indirect route to long term relationships, higher revenues and higher profits).  I still find it amazing that after ten years+ of relationship marketing and CRM that the point needs to be made that customers are human beings and should be treated as such.  I believe I wrote a post on that some weeks ago, here it is:  Blind to the Obvious Part III

Another finding that is worth sharing is that “While many marketers have increased their focus on social media …..word of mouth remains by far the most important channel for peer-to-peer recommendations.  Two-thirds (66%) of consumers make recommendations this way.  In comparison, just 15% of recommendations are made via social networking sites.”

Promise, as a result of qualitative research, has put forward a list of 6 things that brands need to work on to deliver high customer satisfaction:

1. Be customer centred – that is to say look at the situation from the customer point of view and work on the assumption that customers are reasonable human beings.  For example fit service around customers: “know what I said and calling me back when I have got the time.  That would show me I’m really valued”.

2. Have superstar staff – apparently spending millions on TV advertising is not that smart if the brand’s staff don’t know and can’t advice customers on the basics of the product.

3. Delight the customer – exceed the post-purchase expectations: “when my flowers from Interflora arrived at my wife’s doorstep wilted, I phoned them and they sent me £50 vouchers.  It was really good of them.”

4. Keep your promises – “I was on hold with my insurance company and then an automated message tells me it will call me back in 10 minutes – and you know what, they actually did.”

5. Sort out service recovery – my post on The Suites Hotel in Knowsley talks to this very point;

6. Build a relationship – being handed from one agent to another and having to start from the beginning each time is a real hassle for customers: “With BT you can never trace who you have spoken to and which country they’re in. There’s no relationship at all, it’s confusing.”

My take on this:  I continue to be amazed at how the obvious (what we all know) has to be restated again and again in one form or another.  Time and time again the critical importance of good service is highlighted.  Time and time again this insight is ignored by many organisations as if this insight is too painful and has to be repressed.

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