Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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The balance of customers.

Published: 24 Oct 2011

Today I dealt with a problem. A silly problem that was easily avoidable and largely inconsequential. I even wanted to deal with it. A business indiscriminately attacked good customers (us). At the core, the problem really could be my wife’s fault. She wasn’t punctual enough. It’s forgivable, we were busy.

At her gym, her locker was broken into and the credit card we use for all our payments was stolen. Fortunately it was just that and some cash, no important documents. The gym is also paid from this credit card.

She didn’t give the gym the new number until after their batch processing was started. She was then hit with what they were calling a late fee. This was very frustrating, as she called on the due date to give them the new number and find out about alternative ways to pay.

Nope. $20 fee. Ok. But this seems pretty bad to me. She called today to talk to them. The fee stands. No apology, but they were nice about it.

I then call back. I really wanted to engage with a business that had such a customer-unfriendly policy. I wanted to hear their argument and ask about their exceptions.

The first girl I spoke with was very nice. I explained the situation. She said the due date meant they needed the payment the day before. I explained that words mean things. Due date is a universally understood term. I then asked her to explain how I could avoid this if the situation happened again.

“Well, you would need to give us your new card number the day before.”

“So, I need to tell you the new, yet to be requested, card number before my credit card is even stolen?”

“Uhm, no, that’s totally not right. Can I transfer you to someone who can better assist you?”

Yes. Please. Assist me.

This is where I struggle with companies. I understand that bad customers must be dealt with. There must be policies in place that keep abusive customers in check. Costco had wonderful return policies. Now they don’t because people would return TVs every year, getting the new latest and greatest models. Abusive people breed abusive policies.

Back to my story! In talking with the next person I learn the fee is a “return fee”. They charge $20 for any declined credit card. Now, this is a negligible fee (if any) incurred to them. If they’re paying any significant amount (in excess of amounts described in pennies) they are very inefficient.

But I understand the sentiment behind they charge. They want to get paid. They don’t want to have to chase people down to get paid. They provide a service. That is a very fair sentiment.

Instead of coming up with a business policy that suits everyone, it only targets the problem. It doesn’t handle the good customers caught up in it.

Policies should reward the good as much as the bad are punished.

I really believe that good customers are the best marketing dollars you can spend. I learned a lot of this from reading Purple Cow.

Bad customers should, and can, be fired. Or warned. Or attacked.

You don’t want to attack good customers. My wife regularly attends the gym. She evangelizes the gym. She really likes it and the facilities. She is a very good customer.

Because we got caught up in their policy dealing with abusive customers, we were inadvertently attacked. This is a big business folly and one that seems to be easily avoided.

I understand that most companies, even large local gym chains, lack intelligent automation and technology. This is exactly why falling behind the technical curve is a problem. They cannot manage their billing and invoicing in an intelligent fashion that really handles the variables of their business.

The lesson for me…

As I think back on this and the phone call I think I can distill it down into 5 things.

  1. Every representative of a business should be able to identify good customers vs. bad customers.
  2. Representatives must always know the correct terminology to use. Misinformation and miscommunication, especially on the part of the business, are particularly insulting. Training is important.
  3. Never make a customer facing policy without thinking of the common exceptions. Train representatives on the exceptions, not the rules. Apply the rules to the Bad Customers.
  4. Always, always think about what is fair. A customer who thinks something is unfair is volatile.
  5. When dealing with someone unhappy, ask exactly what they want. What will pacify them and what will make them happy.