Are Unknowing Mistakes Driving Away Customers?

by Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.


Loyal customers are hard to come by these days. We all know this. After struggling through years of turmoil and uncertainty, the last thing most leaders would purposely do is take customers for granted. And yet, in many a company, all the fervent efforts to attract and retain them are falling curiously flat. It’s not that they’re storming angrily out the door. It’s that their experience with the company is less of an enthusiastic Wow! and more of a tepid Eh. What are these companies doing wrong?

Companies have great intentions. They want to delight customers; they really do. In fact, they’ll often undertake these big service initiatives — only to see their efforts fizzle quickly or never take root.

Problem is, their great intentions are at odds with their culture. When that’s the case, they’re doomed to make certain predictable mistakes. The mistakes are inevitable — and what’s worse, companies don’t even know they’re making them.

Having worked with Mercedes-Benz USA to positively and radically transform its customer experience and also having authored books on service giants like Zappos and Starbucks, I know just how hard it is for most organizations to keep customers happy for the long haul. Here are five big mistakes an organization may be making without realizing it.

Chasing new customers at the expense of existing ones. In other words, the company is directing too much money toward acquisition and hardly any toward retention. The ratio is lopsided. Consider car dealers that spend huge amounts on commercials that scream at people to come in, promising cruise ship vacations, etc. What they’re not spending it on is employee training to make sure that once these customers are in the door they’ll come back.

I’ve noticed companies that are good acquirers of customers often are not good retainers of customers. The key to business is being great at both and at using those it’s retained to help with its acquisition curve. I see a lot of brands missing the message here. The cost of acquisition is so much higher than the cost of retention, so why not invest more in the cost — in the tools of retention — to maximize that multiplier?

Making customers work too hard. Businesses must now compete in an increasingly Uber-ized society. Uber customers simply pull out their phone, push the app, a car pulls up and takes them where they need to go, they are dropped off, no cash is exchanged, and they are done. As people begin to expect this kind of service, business leaders are being forced to find ways to make their customer’s entire experience as effortless, frictionless, and yet as personal as possible.

There are companies now that will actually gas up the customer’s car at the touch of a button — and they wash its windows and leave a little note on the windshield. The customer can just leave work and go straight home to his or her kids because the car is already gassed up.

A business must never forget how complex life is for customers. From that starting point, the business owner needs to pick apart the company’s deliverable and figure out how to maximize its ease. Customers leave because we don’t think through the degree of effort it requires to do business with us. We don’t provide technology solutions. We don’t simplify every touchpoint. When it’s not almost effortless, customers leave. Wouldn’t you?

Hiring the wrong people out of desperation. When we hire from a place of being frantic and rushed, we end up with low performers. We hire too quickly because we want to fill a shift, and we get employees who handle customer interaction but who lack the emotional intelligence to connect authentically with another human being.

Frequently, we get pressure from our existing teams, who say, “Please, send us a body” — and then, seemingly only hours later, they’re saying, “Please get rid of this body.” Somebody can be standing at the front desk or on the phone, but if they’re a drag on the service we’re trying to provide, it’s worse than having nobody there at all. We need to hire a little more slowly, be a little more cautious than we have in the past.

Not training for authenticity. Companies have to strive, first of all, to hire people who truly do care about customers. But that’s just the beginning. They should also be training employees to connect on a human level. This is not about scripting but about helping employees realize what customers really want and need, and then empowering them to provide it.

While it’s essential to practice disciplined hiring in the search for people with emotional intelligence, those capabilities have to be awakened and reinforced through the training process. Companies need to immerse them in their brand so they really understand what it’s like to be the customer — to “get” unspoken needs. Businesses need to collect and share stories of customer delight. They need to touch the hearts of team members as well as their minds. When companies do this, their employees will genuinely want to serve the customer.

Ending transactions at the money exchange. Too many businesses close the deal and politely say goodbye. The message customers get is, “Okay, we gave you your product or service, you gave us the money, now we’re done.” There is an enormous space here for employees to invite reengagement with the customer at the end of a transaction — to really show appreciation, to show gratitude, to show an eagerness to serve them again.

Godiva does a great job of reengaging the customer. Its employees will put the chocolate in a lovely bag, actually walk around the counter and hand it to a customer, and often they’ll say, “Hey, we’ve got another product coming out that you may enjoy.” If the chocolate has been purchased for a gift or special event, the associate will say, “We’re looking forward to hearing how this was received when you come back in.”

They’re creating an invitation to return, and that’s incredibly powerful. They pull the customer back in for a continuation of the conversation. This is what happens when brands really get it, and where other brands follow a robotic script to say, “Thanks. Have a nice day.” If I’m the customer in the second case, there’s no reason for me to ever shop with that business again; today’s need is fulfilled and the relationship is over.

When customers have the luxury of abundant choices, businesses must constantly look in the mirror to see where they can improve. We all make mistakes from time to time. But if the business’s culture isn’t built on a sincere desire to delight the customer — no, not a desire, an obsession — those mistakes are likely to be unforgiveable ones. And the real tragedy is the business will never even realize it’s making them.

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., CSP, is the author of recently released Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way. An internationally sought-after speaker, organizational consultant and New York Times No. 1 best-selling author, Michelli is a globally recognized thought leader in customer experience design. 

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