Actions speak louder than words

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Dan Morris

So many companies have great slogans for customer service. Shame they don’t actually practice them.

"Customer focus", "Voice of the Customer" and other names for customer interaction improvement have become ingrained into most of our company’s and their discussions. But, how successful has this focus really been?

Unfortunately, the answer on anyone’s success can never come from within their company. It must come from outside – from the customer. But, how often do we really ask them? How often do we really listen? And, frankly, I don’t count "this call may be recorded for quality purposes" as listening or asking.


We have all dealt with companies who, despite the platitudes touting their focus on "customer experience", prove through their actions that those words ring hollow. We see this every day. You will probably recognize in companies you deal with as a customer. So, what is a customer centric business model really all about?

In reality, the answer varies a lot. It may be different for different industries because customer expectations can vary by industry. Some industries are, however, notorious for saying they value you as a customer and then abusing you. A recent example and what caused me to think about this topic was a problem I had with American Airlines. Everyone who travels a lot has more than a few bad experiences with airlines. In a survey of 1,000 travelers 25% reported bad experiences with American Airlines and 21% had bad experiences with United. US Airways was listed as 12%.

While the problems vary, the fact is that most airline workers are nice until you need something or have a problem. Then they often simply don’t care and if you push the issue they get very ugly. Even being a gold, platinum etc. member of their award club or their expensive lounges gets you exactly nowhere – no one cares.

One of the worst industries for customer service?

This problem is not unique to the airline industry – although the industry is notorious as one of the worst for customer interaction. Clearly, we who deal with changing companies have a lot of work ahead of us. The talk of concern for the way the customer is treated is there. That’s a good start. Now we need to really do something about it.

OK, enough complaining – for now

The purpose of this column is to suggest that you may want to consider going beyond words in your move to a focus on voice of the customer or a customer centric operation. I believe that you need to put policies in place that support a fundamental change in approaching interaction. I also think that you need to empower people to make decisions and give them the flexibility to be reasonable and get off the scripts that customer service agents are burdened with. This and similar actions will help you remove the barriers that many companies are building between them and their customers – by simply not thinking from the customer viewpoint.

But, where is your company in its move to improve customer interaction? The test to see what your company’s interaction with customers is really like is simple: Call in and claim to be a customer who has a problem. See what happens. Don’t simply accept an answer that you don’t think is fair. Force the issue and your point of view – you paid for that right by being a customer. Call more than once. Sometimes be reasonable and other times be critical. Then see how you are treated. If it is not how you would like to be treated, why in the world would you think it is good enough for anyone else?

Attitude is the king of customer interaction – on both sides

Customer interaction is really about attitude and the alignment of this attitude through all the levels of company management to the company staff. This is where policy flexibility and empowerment become reality. Using our airline example, it is clear to any traveler that the gate agents, the flight attendants, the pilots, the customer service staff and even the elite member’s program staffs are often less than friendly – especially when you need for them to do something for you. And a word of advice, never ask them to go off script and to make a decision to give you something. Forget it – you usually get the Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine. But it is interesting to watch a demure young woman or man turn into a monster.

Do you ever get the sense that nobody is listening to you?

Airlines, however, do not have the corner on the rudeness market. Rudeness builds in staff as they interact with more and more people who they cannot help because of limiting policy, script, or a lack of authority. Is there any wonder that they wind up fighting with customers? Think about your interactions with companies when you have a problem and how both you and the customer service rep just get madder and madder.

No one wins

Most people hate conflict and avoid real fighting – they just find a friendlier place, with more flexible people to interact with. Who really loses? The customer is mad, has a bad day and finds a different company to give his or her money to. As bad as that is, today’s angry customers tell everyone they know on some social media site.

The company may have had a reason to create the policy or directive that caused them to dig their heals in and not budge – however, most of the time it seems that companies don’t even really listen to your circumstances. Part of the reason is that they cannot do anything to help you anyway – inflexible policy. And, then the company wants us to believe they care about us!!! Yep, that is going to happen.

Everyone has feelings and everyone has a certain expectation of how they should be treated. And, management knows this. That is why the whole voice of the customer move started. But, for some reason, many companies simply cannot get this right.


Words, slogans, and baloney

My Grandfather used to say that "talk is cheap - action is what counts". When you redesign any part of the business, it is critical to go beyond the rhetoric and slogans. It is also important that the company put trusted people in the front line to interact with the customers – and allow them to listen and to go "off script" to make decisions that makes a customer happy.

Another example (I couldn’t resist another story) of hollow words and bad attitudes takes us back to American Airlines. I am using them as my example because all frequent travelers have a never ending list of stories of airline atrocities. They are so bad that they are easy to make fun of. I recently had a problem and asked for a supervisor. The supervisor touted that customer service was important at American then refused to go beyond the script that he had been given. He didn’t even want to hear about why I took my position.

So, I asked to speak to someone who could consider the circumstances. I was told there was no one above this guy and so his decision was final. As I somewhat understand how call centers work, I asked who was the VP of Customer Service. I was given a name. So, I asked for her phone number and was told that they could not give out that information. Ok, so I asked for her email address and was again told that they could not give that out. In desperation I asked for a mailing address so I could send her a letter and was again told that they could not give out that information. So, I asked who else I could talk to and was told that there was no one in all of American Airlines who I could talk to other than the guy I had talked to. So, I asked again about their approach to customer service and was told that they were focused on customer service.

Right, another script! Hollow words! So I went online and found an orientation presentation by the American Airline head of Advantage Member Customer Service on their advantage program and promoting loyalty. You can find anything on the internet! Well, almost anything because I could not find her phone number or email address. And, this woman is the one I wanted to talk to in my quest for escalation. Yes, she is the one who the Advantage program manager would not give contact information for. Talk about hiding in an ivory tower and avoiding the whole customer issue directly. I’d like to ask her how well her approach is working for American. But with some of their policies I can understand her hiding.

The bottom line is this: where is the real concern? If you cannot openly listen to a customer’s circumstances to see if they are valid and their position reasonable, you will have no hope of making them happy. You need to listen and then have the flexibility to be reasonable. Remember, scripts are only useful in limiting people’s ability to make decisions and guiding untrained staff. I suggest you train your staff, pick the ones you trust to talk to your customers and throw away the customer problem interaction scripts.

You probably have picked up on my dislike for scripting and taking away the ability to look at circumstances, reasonably consider complaints and, if possible, make the customer happy. Well that is right. I do hate scripts. They only let an interaction end in one way – regardless of the merits of the problem or complaint.

Employee morale

Part of the problem is fear and resentment in the staff of many companies – including the airlines. It seems that a lot of places subscribe to the employee morale booster of "the beatings will continue until morale improves". I’d give credit for that slogan to the originator if I had any idea who it was. But, the slogan, while funny, actually delivers a much broader and more profound message. There is such animosity over union and other problems in many companies that the employees let it spill out onto one another and the customers. This is a cultural issue and more companies should spend time and energy on fixing these relationship problems. They simply do not help anyone.

For this reason, it is critical that companies include Organization Change Planning and Management when considering their strategy, value propositions, initiatives and changes. Where morale is bad, it is a good idea to focus on improving it as a first step in any customer interaction improvement. People make companies; managers only plan, organize and control. People do the work and represent the company to the customers. When internal morale breaks down, staff become recalcitrant and the way they interact with the customer suffers.

So, think about this when dealing with change. Do you think staff will be nice to customers if you simply threaten them? Do you think they will be happy and friendly if they are afraid for their jobs? If you do, just continue down the airline path. There will always be those who put up with anything to save a couple of dollars. That is until they have an alternative.


Perception is not reality! But, perception is an enemy to every person and company. It may not be right, it may not be based on fact, or it may only be emotional, but it governs activity and how we react. Management may truly care, but if it doesn’t come through in every interaction, the perception will be that the company doesn’t care. Managing the general perception of how the company looks at staff and customers is a large part of any change project. If you want staff to care about customers, they must first believe the company cares about them. This is an often overlooked truth. To validate it just think about how you feel.

In Summary

When you consider any type of change from transformation to simple operations improvement, it is important to go beyond slogans and focus on a cultural change. Anyone interacting with the customer must really want to help them and any dealings must be fair and consider all the factors. Empower people and then put an escalation hierarchy in place that tears down the ivory tower of a great many managers.

The question is – "in this time of growing hyper competition, do you have any choice but to be open to making reasonable decisions when faced with helping customers solve their problems with your company?" From a corporate standpoint the answer to this question may well lead you to growth or extinction. I urge you to think about it. The old adage is still true and probably always will be – "treat your customers the way you would like to be treated". That is all that the "voice of the customer" programs are about.

As always, I am interested in your opinions. And, by the way, does anyone know how to get in touch with the VP of Customer Service at American Airlines?