Well before this summer’s solar eclipse, other shadows had appeared that still linger in the public eye. Casting a pall over the business landscape were events that collectively marked a spectacular descent from customer service to customer scorn.
Public trust and business ethics collided over overbooked flights, car emission devices designed to cheat, fake bank accounts, phony music festivals, and other transgressions in service. At a time when “the customer is always right” seems more like a quaint notion, business communicators can help organizations restore respect in customer experiences.
Fair and Decent
It sounds simple: Service is the delivery of an intangible benefit to others. Stunningly, too many businesses still struggle to grasp this fundamental concept since evidence of a deterioration in service quality abounds.
Referring to customers as faceless “targets” or “audiences” is a typical practice in business planning. With episodic transactions, businesses assume that merely delivering on a promised benefit should result in a sale.
In their book titled, “Service Management,” James Fitzsimmons and Mona Fitzsimmons explain the underlying dynamics that determine a company’s ability to win customers through service excellence. A company must meet minimum requirements, or have the essential attributes known as “qualifiers” that customers need to engage with a business. Examples of service qualifiers are security for banks, safety for rail lines and personalization for professional service firms.
Of all possible qualifiers, there is one that is universal among all businesses: fair and decent treatment of customers.
Your Knees Buckle
If customer dignity is sacred, why are so many companies willing to spurn it?
Consider TV show Seinfeld’s rude soup purveyor, whose spartan rules for placing orders were tolerated by customers because the product was uncommonly tasty. In disbelief, Elaine Benes asks, “Stunned by soup?” “You can’t eat standing up—your knees buckle,” Jerry Seinfeld tells her to justify the proprietor’s rigid demands.
For Seinfeld and his friends, submitting to such intimidation tactics was worth it for some turkey chili soup or crab bisque—as well as to avoid the humiliation of being expelled amid the roar of “No soup for you!”
A superb mulligatawny might have been enough to rationalize bad behavior in Seinfeld’s imaginary world. In real business matters, exceptionalism rarely works as a value proposition for customers to forfeit their dignity.
Fitzsimmons and Fitzsimmons point out that reducing personal interaction to create efficient scale can be a high-risk strategy for businesses. That’s because in this value proposition businesses usually market themselves as cost leaders, or competitors with the lowest cost of operation.
To succeed with a low-cost market position, businesses must persuade customers to accept less personalized service in return for greater convenience or lower prices. Think about self-service settings, such as airport kiosks, supermarket checkouts or online travel sites, where technology steps in as an intermediary.
But what about service encounters that are still based on personal relationships?
In the drive to optimize performance, there are some relationship-based businesses that unapologetically sacrifice customer expectations of convenience, cost savings—and even respect.
Such workplaces can turn into pressure cookers for employees as quarterly earnings, job security or conflict avoidance drives them to make unethical decisions.
Ethical Moorings Lost
Employee stress can manifest as acts of hostility toward customers. Direct and indirect antagonism can as be seen in the mistreatment of passenger Dr. David Dao on an overbooked United Airlines flight and the exploitation of customer identities to meet aggressive sales goals with fake Wells Fargo bank accounts.
Ongoing investigations of Volkswagen reveal that a system-wide conspiracy, from the highest office to R&D labs, was in place to unfairly gain a competitive edge. Not only were customers and regulators duped, unaware employees were also caught up in the scheme. Cars were misrepresented by unwitting sales and marketing staff as clean diesel vehicles to buyers. In turn, customers did not realize they were entering into a bargain that would violate their own personal beliefs about protecting public health and the environment.
According to Deutsche Welle, testimony from Volkswagen engineer James Robert Liang revealed an endemic problem. Liang, who pleaded guilty to multiple charges as one of the U.S. masterminds in the automaker’s global plan to install software built to thwart emissions detection, offered evidence that was described as “an insider’s perspective of a company that had lost its ethical moorings in pursuit of increased market share and corporate profits.”
Biggest Scam of the Year
If Volkswagen had come untethered, then in comparison the Fyre Festival had never been honor-bound at all.
In his 2017 Vanity Fair article, Bryan Burrough wrote it “could be the biggest scam of the year.” Burrough was describing the odyssey of promoter Billy McFarland, the 25-year-old modern P.T. Barnum who lured fellow millennials to the Bahamas for Fyre Festival, what was promoted as a two-weekend affair of musical, artistic and gastronomic indulgence. At prices of $1,500-$12,000 apiece, ticket sales were brisk. Ten thousand were claimed by the event date in April.
McFarland’s masquerade was exposed when the first guests arrived on the island. They expected luxury villas but only found a campsite with FEMA tents, which hours before had been damaged by heavy rains. Fights broke out over shelter and supplies. Immediately, the frenzied exodus off the island began, which evoked images of the fall of Saigon.
As trapped festival goers complained on social media, they were soon met with mockery.
“I’ve always dreamed of building elaborate deathtraps that attract the 1%, but #fyrefestival actually went and did it, kudos,” observed one Twitter follower.
Since then, several Fyre Festival employees have come forward to describe the harrowing months leading up to the catastrophe. A revolving door of production professionals had come and gone, frustrated at McFarland’s indifference when warned about the certain collapse of Fyre Festival, since no location infrastructure was in place mere weeks before the event.
News sources claim McFarland and those who led the development of festival were motivated by fame and money to pay off old debts. The promoter, his concert partners and their advertising agency have since been named in multiple class-action lawsuits.
Questionable motives beget deeply flawed business strategies, which then morph into an ethical dilemma that pits managers, frontline employees and customers against each other.
Even for organizations that pledge to conduct business ethically, business communicators can help improve customer experiences by identifying “ethical markers” to defuse conflict and reinforce desired behavior.
According to research from business professors Charles Schwepker and Michael Hartline, there are three types of ethical friction points employees may experience in service encounters with customers:
- Misrepresentation of brand attributes
- Knowingly promising to deliver a product or service when it is not likely to be available
- Employing bait-and-switch tactics
- Misrepresenting the credentials of the company or its employees
- Exaggerating benefits delivered
- Customer exploitation
- Manipulating conditions surrounding a customer’s decision to buy (e.g., plotting with a third-party to create a false need)
- Performing unnecessary tasks simply to spur sales
- Adding charges for services that were not delivered
- Withholding information about service flaws or gaps (i.e., “sin of omission”)
- Creating service terms and conditions designed to place unfair burdens on the customer
- Lapses in self-control
- Rude demeanor
- Being unresponsive
- Failing to comply with company policies
- Sharing confidential information about customers
Humanity of Business
Business communicators must point out that outputs don’t build customer loyalty—outcomes do. Outcomes measure how customers value the impact of goods and services in making their lives better.
Ethical business practices are anchored in elevating the status of customers as equal partners in the exchange of value. The emotional payoff for customers must be the focus of communication strategies for management training, employee communications and customer experience marketing.
After recent service failures, the reputations of certain business brands may have dimmed—and driven customers to seek alternatives elsewhere. There’s no better time for communicators to illuminate an important competitive advantage: Ethical customer relationships that focus on respect can also reward businesses with loyalty and sales.