On the Right Side of Wrong

by Jean Marie Johnson

You know it and I know it. It's not a judgment, but it is a fact: customers don't always do the right thing. They eat a full breakfast before having their cholesterol test, stand in the line marked RETURNS ONLY when they want to buy something, and press all of the wrong buttons on the IVR. And that's just for starters.

You know because you've done these things, too: you are that customer, and so am I. No matter that the doctor's instruction sheet clearly read "No solid food after midnight," or that the store's signage couldn't have been more blatant. No matter that the almost-human-sounding voice on the automated line clearly stated: "PRESS FIVE for all other options." We still do the wrong thing.

Stirring the Pot
On the receiving end of a customer's "wrong" behavior, the service representative may be all too quick to tell us about it:

  • "What did you do that for?"
  • "No, you have to stand over there."
  • "What you were supposed to do is..."
  • "That's not right.  You need to do this."
  •  "I need to correct you on that..."
  • "That's not how it works."
Add a little "tone" to these words and we've got another issue on our hands. It's no longer about what we did "wrong;" it's now about feeling like we're being called out for doing so. We feel wronged. And that means that both we and the service representative may have an entirely new issue on our hands: each other. But we really don't have to end up there; it's far from inevitable. It begins with understanding what's behind all of this.

Three Reasons Why Customers Don't Do the "Right" Thing

Most of the time, most customers are trying, yes trying to do the right thing. They, like us, have their heads and their hands full of instructions, warnings, and  directions that tell them what to do and what not to do. They don't welcome being confused or making mistakes any more than you do. They want to get on with it, whatever "it" is: getting the cholesterol screening, paying for an item, or having a question answered on an 800 number line. In that sense, we all want the same thing: a solution, a resolution, closure.

So, why don't they get it right?

1.  They Don't Know

From a company's perspective, communicating a change in a policy or process should initiate a corresponding change in customer behavior. That's a reasonable expectation. But just because it makes sense doesn't mean that it is on a customer's radar, no matter how effectively you've communicated.

Think about how often you've driven past the same billboard but still don't have a clue what it says. Or consider how many catchy TV commercial jingles ring in your ears and yet you can't identify what "brilliant" company or product they represent. And, haven't you stood in front of the circular file tearing up what look like solicitations from companies you do business with without really knowing what's inside? Case in point:

  • "I never received a notice saying that Fifi is due for her rabies shot. I went to have her license renewed and found out that her shots are out of date. You know, I really count on you guys to let me know."
  • "Of course, that makes perfect sense. Mrs. Cooper, are you still at 400 Blossom Road?"
  • "Yes."
  •  "Well, I show that we have mailed three notices to your home indicating that vaccination updates would only be available on-line, effective January 1, 2012. Do you know if you received those?"
  • "Whoops...must've missed them. Anyway, when can I bring her in?"
  • "Well, I do have a number of openings this week..."

Is the company "right"? Yes, technically-speaking. They communicated with the customer, sending no fewer than three alerts. And yet, in spite of all of that, the customer didn't do the right thing.

We know that the representative could have made a point of making Fifi's owner "wrong," simply because she needed to be "right." She might have said:

  • "Mrs. Cooper, if you had looked at the notifications we sent you, you would have realized that you need to check your online pet profile to keep your animal's vaccinations current."
But emphasizing what a customer could have, should have or was supposed to do will only put that customer on the defensive. Instead, she "rightfully" chose to move on and to help her toward a resolution.

2.  They Don't Know How

Most reputable organizations attempt to make the customer experience easy, efficient and satisfying. That is true whether interactions are face-to-face, over the phone, or online. Face-to-face interactions allow for real time verbal and visual communication, as in:

  • "Do I sign on page one and then initial the rest of the pages, or do you need my signature on every page?"
  • "Just sign here at the bottom, then initial this box. Thanks!"

The immediacy of the interaction generally helps to eliminate or at least minimize mistakes. Over the telephone, however, the representative may have to be more descriptive to help the customer "do it right":

  • "Mr. Smith, do you see the line in the lower right hand corner on the first page? Please sign there. Then go to the very last page. You'll see a box at the upper left where we just need your initials. Do you see that, Mr. Smith?"

In a Virtual World

But interactions where there is little or no human interface rely on two factors that determine whether or not the customer "knows how" to complete the transaction:

  • the ease, efficiency and accuracy of the website and software that support the transaction, and
  • the customer's skill and ability in using that software effectively.
Have you ever placed an online order and then overlooked the one keystroke that reads "SEND," "SUBMIT," "BUY NOW" or "I AGREE"? It happens all of the time. We assume that we've completed the transaction because we think that we have satisfied all of the prompts. We thought we knew what to do, but we really didn't know how to "do it right."

3. They Don't Buy-In

And sometimes, customers like you and me don't "do things right" because we simply don't agree with a policy, a specific detail, or a new requirement. We don't buy in. Who hasn't thought to themselves "I'm not doing that; that's stupid." Or, "What are they thinking?"

By way of example, consider automated voice response systems. Some customers acknowledge that while they don't replace human connection with a real, live person, they have a place in the service mix.


Lack of Buy-In Creates Resistance
But other customers simply won't go there willingly; they resist. They may express their lack of buy-in by repeatedly pressing "0" to speak with a representative or by simply hanging up and going online. Some lose their cool, leave a scathing tweet or online post. And others, as you know all too well, simply let you, the service representative, have it.

We have a unique type of challenge on our hands when a customer doesn't do the right thing based on a lack of buy-in:

  • It isn't a matter of awareness...so you can't simply educate or inform him.
  • Nor is it a matter of ability...so you can't just walk him through a series of procedural steps.
Not buying in is essentially a form of resistance, of pushing back. It is how we humans register a protest against the things that we don't control and don't agree with.

The irony is this: you and the customer have something very poignant and very real in common: the issue itself is out of your control.


Ineffective Responses: Don't Go There
If you forget that you have a choice, you may respond in one of two ways that won't help the situation. You might:

  • "Make the customer wrong" by pointing out the obvious:
  • "I didn't design the system, Sir."

Or you might use some other statement-of-the-obvious, tinged with sarcasm. In that case, you set the stage for emotional escalation, or, at the very least, utter deadlock.

Or, you might:

  • "Make your organization wrong" by saying something like:
  • "I don't know why the people in corporate did that."
Now you've pitted yourself against your company and your colleagues; you've diminished everyone, including yourself. A response that has to make someone wrong simply doesn't work.

Four Steps for Working With, Not Against "I Don't Buy That"

Your customers have opinions about how you conduct business. Whether or not you see things as they do isn't the point. But here's something to consider: you know what it's like to feel strongly about something, and you also know what it feels like to have to change. Think about your own reaction when you call a company you are used to doing business with and hear "our menu options have changed."  Sigh...

Remember that any change in how you do business usually means a corresponding change in what a customer is required to do, provide, press or say.

This awareness is the source of your common ground, and it is key to working with, not against your customer when she doesn't buy in, when she resists. Instead of pushing back, which may be your first reaction, think in terms of "going with." Going with a customer is a discipline that you can master. And, as with all disciplines, it takes practice. Here are a few steps which take their inspiration from a number of personal leadership traditions:

  1. Accept, don't judge: Remember that the customer's response is not about you. You don't need to evaluate it as valid or invalid; you only need to listen, to really listen, that is. "Why did you have to fix something that wasn't broken? It was so easy the way it was. I mean, you used to send those cute little cards in the mail, then I'd know when to call for Fifi's  appointment."

  2. Identify their point of view: As you listen, pay attention to whether her lack of buy-in is based on how she thinks, how she feels, or both. Your "job" is to be able to "get it" from her point of view.

  3. Reflect what you hear and understand: "Fifi's been with us for a long time, Mrs. Cooper, and you were used to the pet cards, I understand; they really worked for you."

  4. Take the next "right" step: Mrs. Cooper, I want to make this as easy for you as possible. I'd be happy to help you get used to the online check-in, or, we can pre-schedule Fifi's shots now, over the phone....

Mrs. Cooper may go along with you, but she may never completely buy into the new process and the changes she has to make as a result. If she really wants to understand the thinking behind the change, explain the "why" behind it. If she tells you, once again, that she liked those cute little pet cards that she put on her refrigerator, empathize with her. Whatever you do, don't make her wrong, and help her to move to the next step.

Creating a great experience for your customer and for yourself begins with accepting that human beings don't always "do the right thing." Whether that's because they don't know, don't know how, or don't buy in, you can always stay on the right side of wrong by the choices you make.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.