When Things Go Wrong

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One of my colleagues has been having a painful experience with one of the energy companies. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves a dodgy meter, a comically large gas bill, months of back and forth about who owns the problem, and finally, at long last, a solution.

Before the case was closed though, there was time for one more strange turn:

‘As you are a keen cyclist, I would like to send you something as a resolution for the issue’

Cue much office-based discussion about what the gift could be (and what cycling gift an energy company could give that would impress an ex-professional cyclist and current Zwift master).

As well as enjoying coming up with increasingly ludicrous gift ideas, this tale also made me think about how many customer experience problems are handled nowadays – and how much money organisations are wasting in dealing with these problems.

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As customer experience has become more digital, the assumption in many organisations seems to be that it’s also become more perfect. There’s a clear process, an intelligent IT system, and very little way that it can go wrong.

This presumption of perfection, however, seems to have rendered many companies unable to deal with issues when they occur. People don’t understand the process, can’t fathom how or why an issue has occurred, and seem helpless to find someone who does.

So, customers enter a ‘pit of despair’ which often seems impossible to get out of. As soon as a payment goes missing, a delivery gets lost, or an email goes awry, a deep sense of foreboding occurs knowing that many hours and many chatbots are going to be needed to sort this out.

Interestingly, though, the advent of boom or bust customer service seems to have been accompanied by the rise of the super-solver. Days and weeks can pass with no progress, during which many customers give up hope. But for those with the tenacity to continue, there is often a way out – through the CEO.

It’s interesting how often previously unsolvable problems are suddenly sorted within a matter of hours if the right email is sent to the right email address. And how often that complaint resolution is accompanied by compensation or a gift – say, an energy-company-branded cycling water bottle. Useful for the customer, expensive for the company.

As you’d expect, I write a lot of this kind of complaint. My favourite was with an unnamed British telecoms provider who had offered me a new contract, only to fail to sign me up to that contract. Not a big problem, I thought. But three months and multiple calls later, no one could work out what went wrong.

Cue a letter to the CEO, a resolution within a day, and six months of free Broadband, worth around £300.

In the long run, these situations don’t do too much reputational damage. It’s well documented that solving a complaint well can even increase a customer’s commitment to a company.

But multiplied over many customers and many complaints, that £300 starts to become hugely expensive. It’s money which could be used to stop the issues happening in the first place, but because it sits in a different team’s budget, often isn’t considered when decisions are made about future investments. 

It’s also an approach that is biased toward those who work in business, who know someone who knows someone, who can access the CEO route and understand what kind of letter to write to get the attention required – and, frankly, who have the time to write.

The (many) others who follow the due process that’s been set actually have less chance of having their issue resolved than those that circumnavigate the system

Whilst perfecting the process is an excellent aim to have, it should be accompanied by a reality check that things go wrong, and when they do, they need owning, explaining, and resolving.

It’ll save customers a lot of time, energy, and heartache – and save the company quite a bit of cycling merchandise, too.

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter below, and find me in tweet form @johnjsills, in picture form on Instagram @CX_Stories, or in work mode at The Foundation

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