Does Customer Experience Leadership Require Straight Communication And Fair Business Practices?

Are UK Supermarkets Conning Customers?

According to the press, the consumer watchdog Which? has been investigating the UK’s dominant supermarket chains for the last seven years. Based on the ‘findings’  Which? put forth a super-complaint against the supermarkets. A super-compliant is not something that is done lightly. So what is the basis of this super-complaint?

Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves.”

– Richard Lloyd, Which?

How Are The UK’s Supermarkets Conning Customers?

As I understand it, Which? is asserting (based on the evidence it has collected) that the UK’s dominant supermarkets are misleading customers through dishonest communication. Through which mechanisms is this dishonest communication occurring? Through “dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products and baffling sales offers”: the supermarkets are communicating / promoting illusory savings and fooling shoppers into choosing products they might not have bought if they knew the full facts.

What is the purpose of this dishonest-misleading communication and customer facing practices?  As I understand the purpose is to keep existing customers and protect margins by conveying the illusion of a good deal – as opposed to providing a genuinely good deal.  Does Which? have any examples?  According to the Guardian:

Seasonal offers: higher prices only applied out of season, when consumers are less likely to buy the item. It found a Nestle Kit Kat Chunky Collection Giant Egg was advertised at £7.49 for 10 days in January this year at Ocado, then sold on offer at £5 for 51 days.

Was/now pricing: the use of a higher “was” price when the item has been available for longer at the lower price. Acacia honey and ginger hot cross buns at Waitrose were advertised at £1.50 for just 12 days this year before going on offer at “£1.12 was £1.50” for 26 days.

Multi-buys: prices are increased on multi-buy deals so that the saving is less than claimed. Asda increased the price of a Chicago Town Four Cheese Pizza two-pack from £1.50 to £2 last year and then offered a multi-buy deal at two for £3. A single pack went back to £1.50 when the “offer” ended.

Larger pack, better value: the price of individual items in the bigger pack are actually higher. Tesco sold four cans of Green Giant sweetcorn for £2 last year, but six cans were proportionately more expensive in its “special value” pack, priced at £3.56.

Are these crafty (the marketing folks will be saluting themselves for their ingenuity) yet dishonest business practices of any significance?  Given that some 40% of supermarket sales are driven by sales promotions of this kind, it occurs to me that the answer is likely to be yes.  Further, these are the practices that these chains are using to stave off the genuine price-value completion introduced in the supermarket sector by the likes of Aldi, and Lidl.

What Are The Customer Experience Implications?

At one level, it occurs to me that the key customer experience is rather simple: it is relatively easy to fool customers and keep fooling them over years through misleading communication, misleading pricing, and dishonest business practices.  As I look into this, I find myself concluding that most customers, most of the time, are trusting of the folks they do business with.  Why? Because in the absence of this trust, human lives become practically unlivable. The cost of being constantly vigilant is too high – those who can afford not to pay this cost choose not to pay it. These creates the space for businesses (supermarkets, utilities, banks…) to do that which they do do: take advantage of customers to extract ‘bad profits’.

What Is The Cost Of Addiction To These Dishonest Business Practices as Opposed To Focusing On Creating Genuine-Superior Value For Customers?

It occurs to me that the cost is paid over the longer term. Whilst the folks in your organisation are busy congratulating themselves on their ability to dupe your customers, or provide the bare minimum to keep customers,  there is someone out there busy doing the work of coming up with compelling value propositions. Think back to the american automotive industry and the rise/dominance of the Japanese automakers.  Think about Amazon and what it has done to retail.  Think about Apple and the impact it has made.  Think about First Direct ….. I say that the use of misleading communication and dishonest business practices is a form of subsidy to the least competitive players in an industry. From whom is the subsidy extracted? Customers.

Does an Organisation Get To Be And Keep Being A Customer Experience Leader Through Misleading Communication And Dishonest Business Practices?

Is USAA a CX leader because the folks in the business genuinely show up to do the best for their customers or because they have found slick ways of conning customers?  Is Apple a CX leader because the folks in the business create great products that resonate with customers or because it has found a slick way of conning customers – perhaps through advertising and the outward veneer of its products?

I am clear that sustainable CX leadership requires straight communication and fair business practices in the context of going full out to simplify-enrich the lives of the folks impacted by the business: employees, customers, suppliers / partners….

You are welcome to disagree. If you find yourself in disagreement then I invite you to share your perspective by commenting.  I am opening to learning that which I am not present to.

Hall Of Shame: Bitdefender

What Does It Take To Be Given A Position In The Hall Of Shame?

What does it take to be given a position in my Hall Of Shame?  It takes more than averageness, indifference and/or mediocrity.  For those that show up this way, for me, I have created the Hall Of Mediocrity.  And I shall be inducting CapitalOne into the Hall of Mediocrity in a follow up post.

To be accorded a place in my Hall Of Shame, you have to show up as a ‘taker’: one focussed on furthering one’s interest at the expense of the customer without any consideration for ethics or just plain decency.  It occurs to me that a great exemplar of this way of showing up and travelling in the world is Bitdefender, the antivirus firm.

What has Bitdefender done to earn it’s place on the Hall of Shame?

On 20th February I got the latest email informing that my antivirus subscription was due for renewal. Noticing that the renewal date was in the next 10 days, I logged onto my account (via the website) in order to cancel the renewal of the two subscriptions.  Whilst I could see the details of both of my subscriptions, I was not able to cancel the renewal. Why not?  Clearly, to stop me (and other customers) from cancelling renewals easily thus ensuring that some subscriptions would be renewed automatically as some customers would not go to the trouble of calling Customer Services.

Looking around the Internet I managed to find the telephone number and called Bitdefender’s Customer Services team. I provided the details that allowed the call-centre agent (let’s call him Mathus) to log into my account and see my subscriptions. Then I told him about the renewal emails, my failed attempt to cancel renewal online, and asked him to cancel the renewals.  Mathus went into sales mode. I responded by saying that I was not interested in renewing and asked him to cancel the renewals.

Mathus asked me to hold on whilst he cancelled the renewals.  I kept hanging on for at least ten minutes (I was counting them) despite being tempted to hang up. Why? I got that this was a deliberate ploy: keeping customers hanging up long enough and some of them will hang up thus limiting the number of renewals that get cancelled.

When Mathus came back on the line and apologised for taking so long I called him on it. Like a naughty boy who is proud of what he is doing and gets caught cheating, Mathus laughed immediately.  Noticing some humanity present, I asked Mathus to do the decent thing, stop running me around, and just cancel the renewals.

Mathus told me that only the Sales team had the authorisation to cancel the automated renewals. So I asked to be put through to the Sales team. Mathus told me that he couldn’t do that and that he would raise a ticket to ensure that the Sales team would cancel the automated renewals. I asked Mathus to create the ticket there and then. He told me he had done it, so I asked him to email me the ticket number, when I got that email I hung up the phone.

What I wish to convey her is this: if I had been dealing with Amazon, I would have logged on to my account and cancelled my order within 1 to 3 minutes.  With Bitdefender I had spent at least 20 minutes only to get an email with a ticket number.  And that only because I had persisted and insisted.  Was this the end of the story? No.

On the 24th February I got an email from Bitdefender’s Support Team informing that I had an open ticket with them, that they had not heard back from me for a while, and that I should contact them in order for them to resolve my issue.

On the 25th February, I emailed the Bitdefender Support Team with the following message: “Please confirm that you have cancelled the automated renewal of the annual subscription. That is what I rang you about and asked you to do. The agent told me that could not do it as he did not have the rights. He told me that only Sales could do it. And he told me that he would set up a ticket to ensure that the cancellation took place.”

What happened?  Did the folks at Bitdefender cancel my automated renewal?

A few days later I got an email from Bitdefender informing me that my antivirus subscriptions had been renewed.

This automated email was followed, the next day, by an email from Mathus informing me that the automated renewals had been cancelled.

When I got my credit card statement I noticed that I had been billed two sums of £43.96 – double the amount if I had been allowed to cancel the automated renewals and buy the same product, online, from Bitdefender or another antivirus vendor.

 Summing Up

If Bitdefender had played fair and offered to renew the subscription at the market rate of £24 I would have renewed. And as such Bitdefender would have earned £48 (2 x £24) at zero marginal cost.

If Bitdefender had played fair and made it easy for me to cancel the automated renewal of the subscription via my account on the net, they would have not incurred any costs.

Clearly Bitdefender has some kind of CRM system in place. And yet this system has not forged a closer relationship between myself and Bitdefender.  That is the limit of all systems. A tool is merely a tool.  The effect that any tool has in the world is who uses it, how it is used, and most importantly why it is used.

What was once a sound business practice from a rational actor/value maximisation perspective is no longer such a sound practice. The transparency enabled by the internet and social media allows customers like me to point out ‘takers’ as ‘takers’ and thus enable those who do not wish to be taken, to stay well clear of ‘takers’. So unless you have a killer (must have) product and/or deep pockets, it is time to wake up and act decently towards all stakeholders – especially customers.

By acting purely in their selfish interests with no consideration for decency or ethics, Bitdefender have earned themselves this post.  In dealing with CapitalOne (credit card company that I use) I found myself writing this of Bitdefender:

“I am clear that Bitdefender is dishonest, manipulative, organisation intent on doing everything possible to stop it’s customers from exercising their right to cancel the renewal of subscription.”