The Storm of Customer Discontent

Sitting by the window on the top floor of a high-rise Dallas hotel provides an amazing panoramic view.  Weather becomes up close and personal.  I watched a major rain storm crawl across the distant plains to deliver a hard punch to downtown Dallas streets.  It sent pedestrians scurrying for cover.  Cars slowed to a snail’s pace; streets gorged with torrents quickly looked more like a river than a freeway.

Customers are in the crosshairs of a perfect storm.  The hard hitting, long lasting recession has left them anxious about the future and cautious about investing in service that does not have obvious value.  The shift from face-to-face or ear-to-ear service to automated self-service, often without an exit or access to a person for help, has left them frustrated by convenience gone awry.  And, the power of the Internet and social media has provided these anxious, frustrated customers with a tool to deliver a downpour of blame as they flood cyberspace with their caustic critique.

But, like the view of an impending storm from a high floor, customers often provide early warning. They register their discontent before they report their wrath.  Wise organizations monitor tweets and blogs to learn of a looming emotional gale.  They empower frontline service providers to become assertive scouts and whistleblowing sentries eager to share customer intelligence for rapid intervention and recovery. They link complaint trends and themes to inform root cause analysis and correction.

It means leaders must evade their two biggest enemies—their desk and meetings—to gain firsthand intelligence about what matters most to customers.  Want one to one time with Alan Steel, head of New York City’s Jacob Javits Center?  You are likely to hear, “Walk with me,” as he couples your meeting normally held in a secluded office with a “meeting on the move” so he can greet and learn as he meets.  When First Bank and Trust of Lubbock, Texas CEO Barry Orr discovered how much he did not know about his customers while observing a customer focus group, he moved his office from the fourth floor to the bank lobby.  His face to face time with bank customers has multiplied exponentially. His new insights have informed major changes that have improved customer experience.

Listening also means carefully watching your customers in action to learn how they experience your service or product.  How many times have you struggled to open a product or remove the barcode sticker after purchasing and thought to yourself, “I wonder of the product company’s CEO ever tried to do this?”  Tex Bender, author of Don’t Squat with Your Spurs wrote:  “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there.”  Don’t get caught in the service storm!  Really listen to your customers.  They can be your best weather reporter!

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.