Stop Treating Consumers Like Liabilities, Start Treating Them Like People

Consumerist Offers Tips on How to Hold on to Unhappy Customers and Win New Ones; First: Stop Being Such a Jerk

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Chris Morran
Chris Morran

At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the belief that "the customer is always right" turned itself inside out, transforming into "the customer is a potential liability."

Businesses that once prided themselves on their human assets have put up levees and bulwarks to keep consumers from conversing with a human being. The measure of a job well done, for those on the business end of the phone, isn't whether or not they help the customer, but how quickly they get the customer off the phone.

We know. At least 100 complaints roll into our inboxes each day. That's more than 36,000 consumers who are pissed off enough at a company to write to us each year. But there are opportunities for businesses to retain, and even gain, customers, if they can behave like humans. Here are six ways to better satisfy customers.

View social media as a conversation with customers, one in which the customers do most of the talking
Too many companies still think of the internet as a uni-directional medium to be used to promote new products and put out PR fires. The number of companies monitoring the complaints posted on Consumerist has soared in recent years, and often, within minutes of a story posting, we'll get an email or phone call from someone with a job title like "social-media-outreach bigwig" asking to be put in touch with the customer involved to resolve the problem.

While this is nice, it doesn't resolve the issues that caused the problem.

A prime example of this is Comcast, the reigning champ of Consumerist's Worst Company in America tournament. The Comcast social-media team is a quality bunch of people who seem genuinely interested in resolving problems. But for all their hard work, the same complaints continue to roll in every day. Comcast can't expect to earn consumer trust when it invests so much time and energy band-aiding wounds rather than taking the strong medicine that's required.

On a slightly more hopeful note, Best Buy recently launched its IdeaX online suggestion box in an attempt to crowd-source solutions to customer service issues. It's too early to see if Best Buy will actually heed any of the advice it's getting, but it's a step.

Try some humility
"Cold" and "heartless" are the words most frequently attached to large corporations. So when one demonstrates even a scintilla of humility, consumers notice.

It's been a year since Domino's Pizza launched its campaign of public self-flagellation, admitting that its previous recipes were lackluster.

Domino's could have opted for the less-risky route of advertising its "new and improved" recipe, but the decision to come out and prostrate itself on national TV has paid off financially and in terms of the company's public image.

Give a little, gain a lot
The idea of a loss leader shouldn't be relegated to the ledger books. Companies willing to occasionally take a tiny loss can reap benefits in the long run.

One example from a Consumerist reader: Dan bought an LG dishwasher at Home Depot. When the washer went bust almost immediately, the manufacturer told him he must have done something to void the warranty, so it wouldn't replace or repair the appliance.

But after only one brief, professionally worded email to Home Depot's CEO, his local Depot contacted him, offering to replace the dishwasher with any comparable model of any brand, free of charge.

The experience impressed Dan so much that he now says he won't shop anywhere else for his appliances. But he'll likely never again purchase an LG product.

Reward creative problem-solving
If companies want to regain customers' trust, a good way to start is by trusting employees to make reasonable decisions. "There's nothing I can do" and "My hands are tied" were two of the most-referenced customer-service clich├ęs, according to Consumerist readers. But what we've been told by numerous tipsters over the years is that there is something they can do -- it would just put their job at risk.

Last summer, a CVS store in New Jersey made it onto Consumerist because an employee refused to sell a $21 inhaler to a woman who only had $20. She was suffering an asthma attack. This wasn't a manager or someone who had a vested interest in that missing dollar; this was just someone who was likely terrified of breaking the rules and losing his or her job. Had that employee been empowered to make the occasional exception, CVS could have gained a thankful customer for life instead of the PR headache that ensued.

Always say you're sorry
Want to know why so many Netflix customers speak glowingly of the video service? Because it shows respect to the people who keep it in business. Receive a broken disc in the mail? There's no blame game, just a replacement disc. Netflix streaming goes down for a few hours? The company automatically distributes refunds for downtime.

A three-hour outage equates to only a few pennies' worth of a Netflix subscriber's monthly fee. But by stepping up and apologizing for a situation most companies would have downplayed, Netflix earns a pile of brownie points.

The golden rule
What all of this boils down to is that most basic of concepts, which keep us (well, most of us) from robbing and murdering each other: Treat others as you wish to be treated. There are billions to be made just from being nicer -- or at least not being a jerk.

Chris Morran is senior editor at
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