Don’t Tell Me It’s Raining

Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money, as manufacturers typically believe. This is incompetence. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.Peter Drucker

Having gotten hooked on the concept that it is possible to engineer a consumer’s experience, I’m becoming more aware of the clues I use to evaluate quality service and I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that any consumer experience that adheres to  old adage: “don’t piss on my boots then try to tell me it’s raining” can claim to be providing minimally functional customer service. Given this relatively low bar, coming across truly horrific customer service is a rare event; yet recently, I’ve had the misfortune to walk away from a pair of consumer experiences with fairly damp footwear.

The first sandal sprinkling came from a small start-up marketing firm looking to expand into my neck of the woods. I like working with young companies, usually they are all teeth, shiny ideas, and enthusiasm. In this case, regrettably, it seemed that the teeth had been turned inward, the shiny ideas tarnished and the enthusiasm replaced by rancor as the failing interpersonal relationship between the company’s principles collapsed overnight. Now, I must commend these folks for letting me know (when it became evident that their personal differences were adversely impacting their working relationship) that they would no longer be able to meet with me. However, I could have done without the acrimony and personal tales of woe that accompanied the statements. It’s not that I’m not interested in “done me wrong” melodramas – I’m always on the look out for the next great country song lyric – but trying to engender sympathy just to poach business from the other is just plain icky (besides, I do family law and have learned the family law lawyer’s manta of “it ain’t my problem”).

Generally, the break up of Billy & Bobby Jo Marketing would have been a minor glitch in my week – serving simply as an amusing anecdote to be told at those post-CLE  happy hours – but this week it was to serve as a bellwether for the Docker drenching that was to come. I use a virtual receptionist service to answer my phones and have come to expect better than average service from them so I was surprised when I received an “Important Information About Your Account” e-mail on the first of the month that had absolutely nothing what so ever to do with the services I had contracted for (something I was thankful for, ’cause some poor schlub was going to see his rates go up). Well, it took all of about 16 minutes for me to find out that I was that poor schlub – 16 minutes being the time it took for  a second “Important Information About Your Account” e-mail to hit my inbox. However, it was not the rate increase that annoyed me (well, my budget could have done without it), it was the apologetic arrogance of it and the curious nature of the apology. There was no “oops, we’re sorry to the e-mail goof”, no that was simple addressed by a curt “ignore the previous e-mail”. No, the apology was for the rate increase. Now, I get that rates go up; I wish they wouldn’t, but hey increases happen. What urks the hell out of me (and makes me check my boots for water drops) is when a rate increase is couched in a weaselly, mealy-mouthed, self-congratulatory apology – first, I don’t believe that the company is sorry about raising their rates, and second, I don’t care that (a) there hasn’t been a rate increase in the last X years or (b) that to maintain their current salary and benefit levels the rate increase is necessary; neither are part of the company’s value to me (I don’t buy history, salary or benefits, I buy value and value is all about the consumer experience). The icing on the cake was the notice that the increase was effective on the 15th of the month; when I pointed out that this was a violation of the company’s own terms and conditions (a rate increase requires 30 days notice – my math skills are unable to subtract 1 from 15 and arrive at 30, but what do I know? if I was good at math I’d be an accountant), the response was an e-mail acknowledging that it was possible, due to the poor wording of the e-mail, I might be confused as to the start date of the rate increase and that the sentence in question was merely my notice that notice of the rate increase was effective on the 15th (so I was getting 45 days notice). I may not be able to subtract 1 from 15 and get 30, but my reading comprehension skills are sufficient to work out the meaning of “all plan changes are effective on the 15th”.

Now, it may be that the big city business community has moved beyond the concept of common courtesy, but if you are going to work in a small town, you’ve got to be willing to own your mistakes and be willing to fix what you can, take the consequences for what you can’t, and sincerely apologize for the mess. Sure, your goof-ups are going to become part of the town’s collective memory and you can expect to hear about the time you did …, but it’s what you did next that will affect your reputation and out here, your reputation is part of the value clients pay for.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me It’s Raining

  1. Bruce, perhaps your distaste for weaselly, mealy-mouthed, self-congratulatory apologies is a sympton of your status as a professional and a business person. Perhaps attorneys, small business owners, executives, contractors, suppliers, and other members of the business class become emotionally immune to setbacks such as rate increases because they are such common occurences in their professional lives. I do believe there is something admirable about the business person who stoically receives such service reductions as one of the costs of doing business, with their only real question being whether the service is still a value to them at the higher price.

    Meanwhile, the status quo that is the 21st century American service economy seems to deem such profuse apologies as necessary and expected by the general public, who are more likely to take a negative service issue personally.

  2. Colin,

    I am not sure that I stoically receive news of cost increases – like everyone, I do tend to grumble a bit when the bad news arrives, but such things are inevitable and such is the way of business. Rate increases provide a moment for me to review the value of the service and I am always free to look into alternatives when my ROI falls below acceptable levels. However, I do find insincere apologies (regardless of how profuse) to be insulting. As a mediator & collaborative lawyer, I see apology as a tool; a true apology has the power to reduce conflict, build understanding, and be a truly transformative event. Problem is that the insincere tripe that was being served along with a rather unpalatable rate increase bordered on the insulting and demeaned the value of the apology.

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