Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

So can you or can’t you?

The inside-outside disconnect strikes again! Over the July 4th holiday, I was at my mother’s house reading the Chicago Sun-Times. Jumping off the page in a consumer complaint column called “The Fixer” was a classic story of how organizations send absurdly mixed signals to employees and customers.

Are you being clear with your customers?
Are you being clear with your customers?

The woman with the complaint explained that her aunt borrowed her car and drove out on the Indiana toll road. Her aunt didn’t know there was an I-PASS transponder in the car, so she paid the $3.50 toll in the cash lane. The woman found out later that they also had deducted her I-PASS account for the toll, so it was paid twice.

You can probably guess what happened when she called customer service to get her account credited for the double payment. “We can’t do that,” she was told. As the woman explained in her letter, the issue wasn’t the money – but the principle that made her mad. The tollway system is quick to catch violators through monitoring equipment and late fees, she said, “but they won’t credit a customer when credit is due.”

To top it off, the customer rep compounded the woman’s upset by citing other examples of when they WON’T credit customer accounts. Clearly, the rep’s main objective was to defend her position, not to address the customer’s concerns.

Here’s where the story gets juicy – and oh so classic.
The columnist contacted the Illinois Tollway spokesperson about the complaint. After that call, the Illinois people contacted their Indiana counterparts, and guess what? They were able to put the money back into the woman’s account. All of a sudden, the “can’t” turned to a “can,” which raises a bunch of curious questions:

  • Did the customer rep get in trouble for not giving the woman the credit she wanted? Did that person’s boss get called on the carpet for the rep’s action?
  • Now that the decision was overturned, are reps supposed to say “yes” or “no” the next time a customer asks for credit?
  • If a customer wants to talk with someone responsive, should they call the public relations department instead of customer service? Or do they have to call “The Fixer” to get satisfaction?
  • Is Illinois going to change its no-credit policy (assuming they have one), or was this a one-off response to a potentially embarrassing public relations problem?
  • How often do the customer service manager and the public relations people confer to make sure they’re on the same page?

And the list goes on …

What can customers expect from your company?
Setting aside potentially good reasons for not issuing the credit (e.g., Did she have a receipt to prove her aunt paid the toll?) – it’s HOW complaints are handled that matters as much the resolution. The International Customer Satisfaction Association has identified the following expectations that customers have for product/service performance and how their complaints are handled:

  • Reliability
  • Prompt attention
  • Solutions
  • Information
  • Value
  • Consistency
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Courtesy and friendliness
  • Honesty and trustworthiness

Beyond meeting those expectations, here’s a quick and memorable set of guidelines for taking the “HEAT” out of customer complaints:

  • Hear the customer out
  • Empathize with the person’s situation and feelings
  • Apologize if appropriate
  • Take responsibility for corrective action

To make any kind of customer communication work well, though, it has to start with the internal and the external folks being in synch with one another. Otherwise, it leaves everyone confused about what to do and what to expect – inside and out.

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