Your Service Sucks!

We are in the peak of the season of hyperbole.  Spend a few minutes listening to the scream of the media and you learn, according to some pundit, every politician is a saint, insane or Satan.  Political fact checkers seem to be on the job and busy.  You finally dull the drone of the drivel by changing channels or ignoring the junk.  What do you do with customer complaint magnification?  How do you ferret out certainty from behind the customer’s emotional camouflage?

We were conducting a customer focus group for a large utility.  On the other side of the one-way glass sat the president of the utility–eager to learn suggestions into service improvement.  Toward the end of the allotted interview time, one customer launched into a long tirade chastising the utility on the poor way they had handled communication during a major outage.  Her over-the-top wrath began to warp the mood of other attendees.  As the focus group was ending, the president asked if he could address the focus group, particularly the mad messenger.  The focus group leader consented.  The utility CEO was cordial and authentic in his remarks to the focus group.  He warmly thanked them for their helpful candor.  With zero defensiveness, he asked the irate customer for more specifics on her situation.  It was obvious he was ready to wage war on the company’s service imperfections and/or leader failures.  “Oh, that was fifteen years ago,” the customer said.  “You’re utility is dramatically better today.  I just thought you wanted examples of poor service.”

The CEO left learning two valuable lessons:  service memories can be very long; and, customer histrionics are often pleas requiring much deeper understanding.  But, the opposite of customer sentiments can be true.  Again, we were directing a series of customer focus group sessions for a bank client.  At one session, a customer registered frustration over the bank’s decision to significantly lower their consumer lending interest rate while leaving her rate extremely high.  It was obvious she was tempering her anger in the public forum.  When the session ended a senior bank executive who had observed the session on the other side of a one-way glass asked to speak to the customer as the group was leaving.  When the noticeably interested executive began to seek to learn more about the customer’s details, she broke into sobs.  He quickly learned her financial situation was far graver for her family than she had revealed in the focus group.

Another lesson in always assuming customer communications are like an iceberg—truth lies under the surface.  And, only the customer, under the attentiveness and interest of a great communicator, will reveal their truth.

What are the characteristics of organizations that are great customer communicators?  They involve in the customer intelligence gathering process those people who can make or influence substantive changes based on what is learned.  They create the type of sincere rapport with customers that will cause them to want to be candid.  They convince customers that their input will honestly matter, not be heard and simply filed.  They outline ways customers will be able to determine how the truth provided will be employed.  They show no defensiveness when customers provide feedback that is painful, inaccurate or even unfair.  They listen to learn, not to defend, teach or make a point.  They never make promises to customers they cannot or do not keep.  Remember:  great listening is a contact sport, not a spectator sport.  It takes involvement to get insight.

© 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.