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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 13-Nov-06


Monday 13-November-06

Talking to customers

Customers are generally people you want to keep happy. I have worked in customer service and marketing and know that customer satisfaction and delight are critical for business. And I also know how easy it is to offend, even if it is unintentional. Here is a recent story and a conversation to ponder...

I found that the rail company on whose trains I travel into London each day are replacing the current relatively modern stock with older carriages that, in my experience, are more cramped and noisier. So I decided to write to the chief executive. It's often more effective to bypass customer service who can do nothing about decisions such as changing rolling stock. I carefully crafted my letter as below, annotating each paragraph with comment in a table.

Read the conversation. Put yourself in my place, then in the place of the CEO. How would you feel in each place?

I travel first class each day on Soutwest Trains between Martins Heron and Waterloo and have been pleased that your service has steadily improved over the past couple of years, with more on-time arrivals, better Desiro trains and better ticket checks (although this needs improvement on the return journey). Start by building priority (first class passenger, who perhaps has power outside of being just another passenger). Add praise to make him feel good before moving on to the complaint.
I have heard a nasty rumour and I hope you will be able to allay my fears that it might be true. Hint at problem. Frame him as able to solve it.
The rumour is that the improved Desiro trains on our route will be replaced by the old Junipers. Already I fear this is true as I travel on yet another packed Juniper. The core point of the message. Evidence of problem 'as I write'.
The Desiros are more comfortable, much quieter and seem more reliable than the Junipers, and I (and many other travellers with whom I have spoken) have been delighted with this improvement. They also have better tables which, as I work on the train, is a very important attribute for me. More praise for current solution, creating contrast with the subject of the complaint.
The thought of a return to the creaky, cranky old Junipers is, quite simply, appalling. Hammer home the point.
Could you please restore my faith in Southwest Trains by confirming that Desiro trains will continue to be the main stock on the Waterloo to Reading route. End with direct request for action.

And, good for him, the CEO replied very quickly. It was a Friday evening and perhaps he was just finishing up at work. Here's his response:

It is not a nasty rumour. We do indeed intend to replace Desiros with class 458 units on the Reading line. This is part of a major rolling stock reallocation to make best use of the stock we have and to provide 20% more seats across the outer suburban and main line services. 458's actually have more seats than a Desiro, one of the reasons for doing this, but I entirely accept that passengers probably prefer Desiros to 458's. We are however making a number of modifications to the 458's to make them more customer friendly. The reason we are making these changes is to respond to the growth we are experiencing and we are doing our best within the constraints we have to provide as many people as we can with a seat. Factual overall (good) and some rationale for the change, which starts to get me accepting what will be done. I don't, however, really care about 'outer suburban and main line' stock. I just want to keep my comfortable train.

He starts to lose me when he says '...passengers probably prefer' -- He has now demoted me to a faceless 'passenger' and changed my complaint to 'probably prefer'. I now feel that I am unimportant to him.

I am sorry to not tell you what you want to hear and I dont expect all our customers to like what we are doing, but I can assure you we have looked at all the options and we believe this is the best way forward for all our passengers. So now I am generalised to one of 'all passengers'. I am now becoming more irritated and in this context 'I can assure you' comes across as pompous.

And so I replied...

Whilst I appreciate the business reasons for your change, the effect is of giving someone a Christmas present and then taking it away in January. To do this to what I hope is valued premium customers has never, in my many years in business, been considered as good business practice. Imagine if your IT department took away your computer and gave your one that was ten years old. The effect is similar. Start with some agreement, though the 'whilst' signals disapproval. Use of metaphors of Christmas present and computer paint an emotive picture. The computer example particularly personalises it for him.
I am a relatively tolerant person. I suspect that when understanding of this change spreads, you will have created significant customer dissatisfaction. Frame myself as one of the nicer passengers. Highlight pain to come from less nice people (implied good-guy/bad-guy effect).
If you are going to modify the Junipers, could I ask at least that you provide better space at the first class tables. The Desiros reduce the unpleasant foot overlap of the Junipers and also give space for four people with computers. End with constructive comment, emphasising that I am reasonable and trying to help.

And he replied thus (again, all within a relatively short time on Friday evening).

Thanks for the helpful point about the tables. We will have a look at this. I know you may not think it but I really do value customer feedback when it it is helpful. I entirely accept that we dont know all the answers. Nice to know they will 'have a look' though it sounds suspicious. He also commits the error of  overt mind-reading when he says 'I know you may not think it' -- how does he know this? He has cast me as a doubting Thomas with very little evidence to support his assumptions. And most annoying of all, the 'when it is helpful' comment is entirely unnecessary and rather insulting -- it comes across as meaning 'most of your comments were unhelpful (and rather irritating)'.

From such a limited conversation we form an image of the person at the other end. This chap comes across as a relatively hard business-oriented person who finds 'passengers' (not customers) something of a nuisance. What he seems to be missing is that as CEO, he represents the entire company brand. When he speaks, it is the company speaking. He represents everyone in the company and I will take his thoughts and attitude as being representative of every employee.

It is also possible that he is actually a rather nice person but who does not write that well. The problem is that all I have to form an impression of him is what he has written, probably without time for reflection on how it might be interpreted.

When customers complain, they are in an emotional state and will see negativity when perhaps it is not intended. Your response should be very careful. Never hit 'send' when you are feeling cross. Try putting on their head and reading the text. Beware of little riders that justify your position but which may actually serve to annoy.

Coda: a slight whoopsie. I whinged about his manner to some friends -- and accidentally included him on the distribution. Ah well, I hope he heard some home truths, and not just a grumbling passenger. He did have the grace to reply and apologise, so maybe he is not that bad.

Talking to customers

Absolutely agree! I have travelled from Earley to Waterloo for 2 years (standard class) - the Desiros were far better. The Junipers have problems with heating in winter and air conditioning in summer.
They are also less reliable. I am keeping a spreadsheet of all delays attributable to Juniper faults, and will send it to SWT after a year.

-- Greg Stevens

This is very interesting. I like how the person can identify all the small signals from the CEO. The more I do these kind of assignments, the more I am thinking about making communication my minor. I have always questioned what a comm degree could do for me, now I\'m starting to see the big picture.

-- Jonathan B.

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