Ann Latham, Forbes Contributor

Most of my clients’ companies, whether large or small, want to treat their customers well. They know that they don’t always succeed. They make mistakes. And they aren’t always aware of how they are perceived by customers and prospective customers. However, they try. At least they say they try. They all say they care.

Nonetheless, I am sure most could benefit from shopping their own shop or seeking customer feedback. As part of a recent client project, I interviewed some customers to get that external feedback. While the feedback was mostly positive, there were some wonderful suggestions for improvement that my client was delighted to hear. However, the absolutely most important thing I learned, and that I hope my client took to heart, is that these customers told me they had never been asked for their opinion or advice before! I was the first representative of this company to ask them for feedback.

Despite being very successful and quite well run, this client didn’t know much about what their customers experienced while working with them. They had no idea if they were leaving a door wide open for a competitor to walk through with stronger customer management.

I was thinking about this recently when I, as a customer, encountered several companies that I can’t believe have any interest in treating their customers well. When this happens, my first reaction is always to assume I’ve found one of those badly managed companies that is lucky to be in business at all. I quickly put them in a totally different category from my clients and figure these miserable examples would be irrelevant to both my clients and readers.

But wait! If my clients aren’t asking their customers for feedback, and I don’t often know if they are because my work with them doesn’t always touch that, how do they know how they are perceived? Are they kidding themselves by sending out those automated surveys — you know the kind, the ones that ask for a single rating or multiple-choice items that do not apply, and then never provide space for you to say what you really think? Do they have any idea what it is like to do business with them?

I’ve decided to stop assuming that all my clients and readers are so special! So let me share some recent examples to encourage you to start asking some questions and shopping your own shop.

The Horrendous First Impression

Before moving into our new house, our realtor suggested we call the company currently delivering propane gas to the property to set up an account. We realized we had other options but did as suggested to save time and hassle.

The company responded by emailing me five pages of legal-ease explaining the fifteen ways they protect themselves from horrible customers like us. Customer friendly ways such as locking our tank, charging late payment fees, and requiring a $149.99 early termination fee for breaking this 3-year contract. Three years???? They haven’t said hello yet! They haven’t explained any benefits of working with them or even told us the price of their gas, which is obviously a state secret.

To make matters worse, if that is possible, they then asked for my social security number! Needless to say, we are not doing business with them.

Big Mistake, No Remorse, No Heroics

Then there was the appliance delivery company. GE gave us a window from 3:00 to 7:00 and promised a 30-minute warning. At 7:00, their automated message system assured us the driver was delayed and still on his way — to install three major appliances after 7:30 PM? The message remained in place until we called for the last time at 9:00 PM.

First thing the next morning, I called GE and was promised they would get in touch with the delivery company right away. Two more phone calls and five and a half hours later, I was told that:

  1. The driver “didn’t come in today because he didn’t have a run scheduled” — What? He was still in the middle of the previous day’s run as far as we were concerned!
  2. They could schedule another delivery in five days. No remorse. No compensation. No heroics.

I totally expected heroics and a promise that the driver who never bothered to tell me he wasn’t coming and didn’t plan to show up the next day either would be fired.

OK, so those two may seem so farfetched that you couldn’t possibly be guilty of similar customer torture. I’d agree with you except when I mention these stories, people chime in with so many of their own fiascos that I know you aren’t all innocent!

Let me give you a third example that I hope (and don’t hope) hits closer to home.

The Partial Solution

Instead of letting Comcast install a gateway cable modem that turns my living room into one of their wifi hotspots, I purchased my own cable modem without wifi that I could simply connect to the separate wifi router I already have. (You do know that right? That if you use Comcast equipment, your house is a wifi hotspot for every Xfinity customer? They should pay us rent, not the other way around!!)

Since I wasn’t using Comcast’s equipment, the installation technician didn’t care if my wifi worked or not. He knew exactly where his obligation to help ended. Luckily, I knew enough to keep him on site until I could verify that his obligations were fulfilled.

Then I spent the next 6 hours, a lot of it on the phone, getting the wifi up and running. The Comcast support people were far nicer and more eager to help than in my previous encounters with them. Too bad they knew so little and their cheat sheets were so inadequate. The last one did the most for me by giving me a phone number for Apple that bypassed all the warranty and AppleCare gates meant to keep me away.

When I finally got to the right guy, the problem was solved in two minutes.

The cause of the problem stemmed from the difference between a gateway cable modem that is also a router and one that isn’t. Had the installation technician pointed out that one simple difference, he could have saved 6 hours of my time. He would also have saved an hour or two of time for other Comcast employees. These guys install cable all day long. While I am sympathetic to their having to deal with customer supplied modems they don’t know well, this technician absolutely should have known the basic difference between the only two types of modems he encounters. If he had not been so busy trying to stay on his side of the obligation line, I would have been a far happier customer! And if I had been a customer without technical communications background, I’d probably still be without wifi. Why is that a smart way to treat customers? No wonder everyone wants to be done with cable companies!

Can you relate to any of these examples?

I’m guessing you can as a customer, but how about your business? Do you lead with a terrible first impression? Do you make big mistakes and then respond in a way that shows little care? Do you offer partial solutions that leave customers less than satisfied?

  1. Shop your own shop so you can learn what it is like to be your customer.
  2. Don’t assume you know where you stand with your customers. Ask for feedback. Better yet, have an unbiased third party ask for feedback on your behalf.
  3. Look at the bigger picture from your customer’s perspective and figure out how to offer solutions that leave them satisfied. Yes, you need to be clear about your obligations to avoid getting sucked into customer problems that aren’t yours. But if you understand your customer’s situation and anticipate their problems, you’ll discover there are options beyond giving them costly free value and leaving them high, dry, and unhappy.

Most important of all, don't let your competition get this right before you do!

Ann Latham is an expert on strategic clarity and author of The Clarity Papers. Take The Clarity Quiz and download a free copy of The Clarity Quiz Collection.