10 Ways to Respect Your Customers

When I was at Lands’ End, “Fortune” magazine ran an article on us called “Getting Customers to Love You.” The big revelation about why we were loved was that we could be counted on. We established peace of mind with our guarantee. We trained our telephone reps to not only know the products inside and out but also to care why customers were buying them.

We inspected products once and sometimes twice when they came through our doors. Our graveyard-shift operators were some of the busiest in the business because of the calls they’d receive in the middle of the night from insomniacs who, though they certainly wanted to buy a turtleneck, were also on the line to hear the friendly voice on the other end. And when you called in your order, it was usually on its way to you within 24 hours.

Customers loved us because we respected them and their time. And we made sure that we translated that respect to actions they could see and feel.

It’s the unusual organization that’s set up to let people think and act collectively on behalf of customers. We’re stuck in our silos making independent decisions, taking isolated actions for the purpose of executing our discipline, achieving good numbers, and earning good reviews.

But the customer experience doesn’t happen neatly down each individual silo. The customer experiences a company horizontally, across the silos. This is the breeding ground for the lack of respect customers feel and the discontent they have with us. The typical silo structure bumps the customer disjointedly along to deliver the outcome of its experience. The customer becomes the grand guinea pig, experiencing each variation of an organization’s ability, or inability, to work together. And it’s the rare guinea pig who feels respected.

It’s easy to show how companies disrespect their customers. But how can your company show its respect for your customers? Here are 10 ways:

Eliminate the customer obstacle course. Figuring out whom to talk to and how and when to get service has become overcomplicated, conflicting, and just plain out of whack—a real obstacle course. We have forced customers to try to figure out our organization charts in order to do business with us. Instead of seamlessly executing a customer interaction, we deliver discontinuity wherever there are organizational breaks. Perhaps sales sells the product, but operations is not given the specifics of what the customer needs, so what is delivered is a little off. Who, does the customer call? Sales? Operations? Customer service? It is in these hand-offs that customer failures occur. So simplify the roadmap for customers. Make it clear for them how they can do business with you in a way that’s actually beneficial to them.

Stop customer hot potato. He who speaks to the customer first should “own” the customer. Nothing sends a signal of disrespect faster than an impatient person on the other end of the line trying to pass a customer off to “someone who can better help you with your problem.” Yeah, right.

Give customers a choice. Do not bind your customer into the fake choice of letting him “opt out” of something. Let him know up front that he can decide to get e-mails, offers, or whatever else from you, but give him the choice. You may initially build a bigger mailing list by binding customers in with the opt-out policy, but I don’t think it’s something your mom would teach you about respect.

De-silo your Website. Our websites are often cobbled together from parts created separately by each company division. The terminology is different from area to area, as are the menu structures and the navigation. What’s accessible online is frequently inconsistent, as is the contact information provided. Even appearance may vary. Depending on what link is clicked, customers feel as if they’re entering entirely different companies. Figure out collectively what the message is, what the vitals are that you need from customers, and how you will serve them via your Website, and work to deliver an on-purpose brand experience.

Consolidate phone numbers. Even in this advanced age of telephony, companies still have a labyrinth of numbers that customers need to navigate to talk to someone. These grew out of the separate operations deciding on their own that they needed a number to “serve” their customers. Get people together to narrow down this list, and then let customers know about it. There’s no big red button to push to make this happen. It requires the gnarly hard work of collaborating and collective decision-making – but get it done already!

Fix (really) the top 10 issues bugging customers. We’ve created a kind of hysterical customer feedback muscle in the marketplace by oversurveying our customers and asking (ever so thoughtfully), “How can we improve?” Customers have told us what to do…but we haven’t moved on the information. You can probably recite the biggest issues right now. Do something about them. Customers read the lack of action as lack of caring and certainly lack of respect.

Help the frontline to listen. The frontline has been programmed to get a certain output. Sometimes this means closing the call within a time frame. Often it includes some kind of upsell or cross-sell goal. It may be to meet with a quota of customers in a certain time period. Because we’ve programmed the frontline, there’s a predetermined flow of the conversation that makes it one-sided to the company’s advantage. Let the folks on the frontline be human. Give them the skills for listening and understanding so that they can deliver to the customer based on the customer’s needs. It is not a myth that if you can solve a customer problem successfully you have built a more profitable customer.

Deliver what you promise. There is a growing case of corporate memory loss that annoys and aggravates customers every day. A customer calls in a product return and is promised a mailing label that never arrives. An appointment is made for home repair, and the repairman shows up without the right parts. A promise is made for exceptional extended warranty service, yet the process is sloppy and unwieldy. The customer has to strong-arm his way through the corporate maze just to get basic things accomplished. He’s exhausted from the wrestling match, he’s annoyed, and he’s telling everyone he knows. And, oh, by the way, when he gets the chance he’s walking.

When you make a mistake, right the wrong. If you’ve got egg on your face, for whatever the reason, admit it. Then right the wrong. There’s nothing more grossly frustrating to customers than a company that does something wrong then is either clueless about what it did or won’t admit that it faltered.

Work to believe. Very few shreds of respect remain, if any, after we’ve put customers through the third degree that many experience when they encounter a glitch in our products and services and actually need to return a product, put in a claim, or use the warranty service. As tempting as it is to debate customers to uphold a policy to the letter of the law, suspend the cynicism, and work to believe your customers. Most are going to honestly relay what is happening to them with your product and service. We’ve programmed our frontline to be cynical of customers through the creation of policies that protect the corporation from the lack of judgment of the minority. Work to eliminate the question of doubt about your customers’ integrity. It will do wonders for the attitude and actions that your frontline brings to their interactions with customers.

Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBliss

This article was originally published in 2006 and is frequently published