Leaders, THE Threat to Superior Customer Experience

A recent CBS Sunday Morning Show featured behind the scenes details of derogatory names companies have for their customers.

Leaders, THE Threat to Superior Customer Experience Image licensed from Istock.

Some Wall Street firms refer to their investors as “muppets”.

Hillbillies - Infrequent Travellers

Airlines nickname their infrequent passengers “hillbillies or Clampetts” referring to the old TV show The Beverly Hillbillies.

They dub very frequent customers as “Platinum Trash”.

Credit card companies nail the tag “deadbeats” to their customers who pay their balance in full every month.

As a customer service/experience pro, I listened with some outrage, sadness, and then wonderment.

The leaders of these companies don’t get it  Even if they don’t use these words themselves, they have not done enough to establish a positive culture of valuing the customer.

THE Threat to Superior Customer Experience

Corporate Narcissism

Loving Everything But the Customer

Misapplied Thinking That Fuels This Threat

  • Freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not justify hating the customers. If you cannot respect customers, then perhaps it’s best not to build your livelihood on serving them.

  • Bluntness relieves stress. There are days when individual workers may find working with customers frustrating. They may blow off some steam privately and offline to relieve the stress.

    Yet the leadership is there to correct that course to ensure it doesn’t become a culture of disrespecting the customers. Leadership is there to teach and remind everyone what it feels like to be a customer and what the customer means to the business.

  • Treat the employees well and they will treat customers well. Not necessarily. If leadership and employees treat each other well and collectively disrespect the customers, it will not produce superior customer experience. You cannot hide loathing.

I travel a great deal and can always spot flight attendants and hotel staff who think positively about the customers and those who don’t.

I’m not psychic. It’s in every gesture and word they say. It’s in their proactive help or their indifferent delay.

When company leaders tolerate thinking that degrades customers – even behind the scenes — they are agreeing to it. From thinking comes attitudes and daily behavior with long term strategy not far behind.

How Sad
Picture flight attendants thinking, “I wonder how many platinum trash I will grovel around today?” Can you imagine flight crews dreading the boarding process with so many hillbillies?

Will these crews come across as personable and caring or resentful, impatient, and patronizing?

Do the employees of credit card companies know the value of a customer who pays their balance in full every month? It would be much more valuable to have each employee know that than to foster or tolerate corporate disgust of customers. If there is no business value, why keep them as customers?

As for Wall Street, the world has witnessed the outcome of runaway disregard for customers and their money. From the epithet of investors as “muppets”, we can see the thinking that produced the second greatest economic crisis in modern history.

Good News
There are many companies who have established a customer valued culture that inspires the thoughts and the actions of all employees.

There are airlines now helping the customers as they traverse airport concourses as well as on the flights. They are using kool technology, like Ipads, yet realize that the care comes from the heart.

As other airlines redesign planes to have more economy plus seats with extra leg room in coach class and fully reclining seats in business first, hopefully they will redesign the culture to value everyone who buys and flies. Why improve anything for people you view as trash?

As companies like Ritz-Carlton, Nordstroms, and Zappos, and outstanding hospitals like St. Jude’s Childrens’ Hospital and magnet nursing centers continue to shine their customer care for all to see, we can encourage leaders in other companies to see the true benefit of a customer valued culture.

Call to Action
CEOs and their leadership teams of confused corporations would do well to look at how companies have embraced customer value.

Delivering superior customer service experience doesn’t come from fancy technology, or marketing, or metrics, or branding. It starts at the heart of how a company thinks about customers and brings that thinking to life in its strategy, policies, and interactions.

Thoughts breed actions and many companies ask customers for feedback on their actions. What are your customers saying about your thoughts and culture? That’s worth exploring.

I am honored and thrilled to be working with many companies and professional practices that want to move beyond surveys and go all the way to a customer valued culture.

April is customer loyalty month. Let’s get started!

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Post: Simply Great Choices for Super Customer Experience

Special thanks to CXJourney on Twitter for sending me the URL link for the airline story.

©2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please first email info@katenasser.com for terms of use. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on customer service & experience, employee engagement, teamwork, and leading change. Kate turns interaction obstacles into business success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

22 Responses to “Leaders, THE Threat to Superior Customer Experience”

  1. Melissa Kovacevic says:

    Great post, Kate! What I find sad in all of this is that some of these “Our Customers are Idiots” companies have leadership presenting at conference sessions and keynote addresses about Customer Experience and building Loyalty. Some of the worst service I’ve received has been from of these so-called industry shining example companies. There continues to be so much talk and not enough walk from some…an unwillingness to spend the time and money to really create the right experience internally and externally but more often, it is the negative attitude of the Leaders that trickles down to the front line. Thanks for sharing your insight in this post.

    • I totally agree Melissa, I think Customer Service should have a running list of BAD ACTOR companies and speakers from those companies should be passed up in favor of other companies who REALLY are proving their customer experience mantra through their actions, each and every time.

      Too often a senior title with a heavyweight company name will earn these individuals speaking spots but is the message really worth listening to? If they really believed it, wouldn’t their organization rally around their preaching?

      I might sound harsh, but when all you have online is complaint after complaint from customers, you’re the last person I want to hear give a keynote on why customer experience matters and how to create great experiences.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Ah Melissa — can you imagine companies like this actually using that as a marketing slogan: “Our Customers Are Idiots”. Horrifying.

      Hmm, maybe that’s the way for all to learn from these lessons. Picture what you call the customer on a ticker in NY Times Square before you decide to use the word. 🙂

      Many thanks,

  2. Yiannis says:

    Great article Kate 🙂

    I’m still surprised today to find organisations that say they are ‘customer focussed’ when in fact it is all words and no action. The real customer experience leaders are the ones that listen, respond and act to their customers and put them at the heart of their businesses.

  3. Hi Kate. Super post! This is why I love being in the business we’re in, where we get to help those companies who want to improve the customer experience culture of their business and become true models in their industry. I also agree with Melissa. Some of the so called industry leaders making keynotes and guesting on webinars are actually those with the worst service. In all successful cases I’ve seen with clients, the message driving the culture and change must come from the CEO/President/Owner and must be unwavering. And they don’t merely talk it to death – they LIVE it, setting an example for all employees. Your post just magnifies how much work there is left to do! Thanks for sharing this.

    Bill Leinweber
    Landmark Experience

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Dear Bill,
      Celebrity/notoriety doesn’t equal greatness. The proof is always in the doing and the results.

      Love your insight here.
      Many thanks,

  4. Spot on, Kate.
    So many so-called leaders out there have no qualms about spending millions every year on branding, marketing and technology, and they seem to think that a customer-centric culture can just burst forth like rays of sunshine out of the clouds from a one-time seminar, or off-the-shelf standardized training program for their front-line. Then they stand around scratching their proverbial heads at the end of the fiscal year when they look at their NPS scores or other customer loyalty metrics and wonder why the needle hasn’t moved much.

    There is a particular set of skills, methods, techniques, and even more important, attitudes and behaviors that need to be learned, then coached, coached, coached on the job. It may take a week or two of consistent coaching before the new skills work their way into the customer interactions on a regular basis, and it takes follow-up and the right kind of performance management system to keep it going.

    And the front-line employees are not the only ones who need it. Supervisors and managers need to learn and know the skills well enough to be able to coach them to the front-line on a regular basis and keep it all alive. They also need to be on board (supportive) at a high level, which takes the right kind of leadership skills. Without that, no improvement effort can be effective for more than a short period of time. I would submit that any meaningful performance improvement initiative for customer service/customer experience will die a certain death eventually without the support of leadership, from the C-suite on down. That support starts right where you said it does – at the heart of how a company thinks about its own customers.

    Scott Heitland
    Pretium Solutions (@PretiumPress)

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Scott,
      So very true and your imagery of leaders scratching their heads in wonderment when things don’t improve is both a chuckle and (sigh) a cry.

      We as professionals will continue to show, teach, guide, coach, and encourage leaders to see how to make the best come to life.

      Many thanks for your perspective. I hope you will share your thoughts on any post of interest here at Smart SenseAbilities(tm).

      Best wishes,

  5. Another thought provoking post Kate!
    Unfortunately I can relate to your comments only too well. I remember being horrified to hear senior managers in one organisation with whom I worked, referring to customers as “punters”. Not to their face of course, but as you state, the danger is that the outward behaviour usually reveals the (presumed) hidden, inner beliefs.
    If senior managers behave in this way, it prompts similar behaviour from junior managers, who echo the behaviour of their superiors in order to gain favour and promotion. I think in the latter case, these learned behaviours can usually be changed through coaching and support; for established, senior managers, the challenge may be greater. The issue can I believe, be very deep rooted, not only showing disrespect for customers, but often indicating a lack of respect for people.
    I am also of the belief that it is this mindset that often encourages the growth of silos within organisations; where derogatory references are made (unchallenged) regarding teams working in different parts of the business.
    It is this deep-rooted behaviour that I believe presents one of the greatest challenges for the leaders of the organisations who desire to deliver the ultimate customer experience of the future. The supporting behaviour has to start at the top!
    Great post Kate. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you John. To hear your addition of another instance of this disdain brings us all to the reality that it may take quite some time for companies to return to an ethical partnership with their customers.

      Regards and thanks for your addition to this discussion.

  6. I’ve mentioned this before in my corporate interaction with other management and also in my postings about customer focus. Just like economics has a law of diminishing returns, customer focus faces the same challenge.

    For each additional acquired customer, organizations not continually ground on customer focus, will sense less value from that additional acquired customer.

    You eventually reach mega corporation size where the experience of the individual customer no longer is a factor in your operations and decisions because the perceived value of the individual customer to the organization is perceived as insignificant.

  7. Kate,
    I was about set to write that I am not so sure about this post, as people in a service business, in a service economy should know better. I believe the story you tell, maybe I simply did not want to believe that employees who are treated well, would simply ‘pay it forward’ to the customers. As I finished reading your post, I stepped away from my computer. I came back and saw a friend reference the following article: http://t.co/DsoDFfxr

    “Goldman Sachs Group Inc has begun scanning internal emails for the term “muppet” and other evidence that employees referred to clients in derogatory ways, Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein told partners in a conference call this week, according to people familiar with the call.

    The company-wide email review comes after an executive director named Greg Smith resigned last week in a scathing op-ed column in the New York Times in which he said he saw five Goldman managing directors refer to clients as “muppets,” at times over internal email.

    In the United States, “muppet” brings to mind lovable puppets such as Kermit the Frog, but in Britain “muppet” is slang for a stupid person.”

    Well, I was wrong, this can and does happen and it is unfortunate. Worse, these are people who have advanced degrees and are REALLY well paid. *sigh*

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Mitch,
      A company wide email review is a start. Yet it smells a little of looking for instances to prove or disprove the charge. Leaders — great leaders — know without the search.

      Many thanks for your contribution here!

  8. Annette Franz Gleneick says:

    Great post, Kate. Great comments, too. What does this say about people? It’s one thing to blame the culture, but people drive that culture. What happened to common sense, respect, and courtesy?

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Annette,
      It’s a question that many people are asking today — what has happened to common sense, respect, and courtesy? It does still exist in many people. Yet in others it has been replaced, in my opinion, by selfish greed.

      Thanks for weighing in on this one. I was compelled to write this post and I am glad it has touched you and others.

  9. Susan Mazza says:

    Outstanding post Kate! It’s all about relationships. As you say thoughts breed actions and you can’t hide loathing. You can’t build a mutually satisfying relationship with someone you don’t value. I refer to that as the used car salesman mentality – somehow you leave feeling like you need to take a shower so you can wash off that icky feeling you are left with from the encounter.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      You are a master at analogies and this one’s a winner — icky feeling like you need to take a shower. Fabulous.
      Many thanks,

  10. Great post Kate. As Annette says, it’s people after all. But that’s controllable by 1 – having a corporate philosophy, policies and processes centered on respecting and serving the customer and 2 – hiring the right people. As I always say you can’t teach staff empathy, it comes with the person. Lots of it comes down to HR.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you David. As you say it starts from the top. When the vision is a positive target and you hire the right people — the magic of customer experience happens!

  11. Great post, Kate!
    What’s really scary is that the “muppets” and other examples you mention are the ones that are leaked or disclosed so they get out. It makes you wonder how many more companies have this mentality that we don’t know about? Or how many companies have CSRs that think this way because of the one-two combo of a non-customer centric culture and because management treats them in kind?
    It’s a leadership and culture issue pure and simple and so your call to action and responsibility is right on point–it’s the CEOs that need to take note and communicate a different message to their employees as well as to their customers.

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