What Crisis Are We Talking About?

Issue 82

The human mind is very quick to grasp onto novel events and distort its reality around these but when it comes to businesses, crises affect customers every bit as much as they do the businesses they buy from, but they are often seen as "external" to the organisation, as David Cliff explores here...

It sometimes feels like Covid has been such a context marker in people’s lives that there is little awareness of what went on before it. People talk about the “new normal” but the reality is there are old norms that are all too easily forgotten. This is linked to a tendency in many companies to neglect the value of ‘organisational memory’. This is no less true of the field of customer service.

Covid, the war in the Ukraine and a recognition of our over dependency on globalised supply chains have led to shortages, increased costs, and process discontinuities in multiple business arenas. For example, some cars are now being manufactured with missing key parts due to supply chain difficulties and will need to be retrofitted with those parts as they become available, before going for sale. Systems created to facilitate immediacy, convenience, low inventory and maximising profitability are great when times are good but can ultimately manifest itself in poor supply and poor customer service when they are less so. On this latter point many organisations frequently resort to using world events and supply difficulties as reasons for poor service delivery or problems of supply, rarely intellectually engaging with other factors within their gift to influence that could make a huge difference to their organisation’s delivery. Current so called “crises” now often given rise to companies neglecting their customer service with the toxic mind-set that external factors alone are to blame and “you are lucky to get it anyway in these times”. Consumers are not stupid, and whilst often loyal, this has real limits. They recognise the world has changed and might initially offer some latitude, but novel challenges of supply and demand won’t wash for long. They will always find those that “can” if you “can’t” and get wise to the fact that once plausible reasons for why you can’t deliver are something they no longer buy into.

It is interesting to see that the Institute of Customer Service recently announced that customer complaints have reached record levels. 17.3% of customers are now complaining about poor services, that is approaching 1 in 5 transactions.

Equally, many customers are becoming increasingly angry over waiting longer for call centre and other customer facing responses. Research suggests that even quite reasonable people can become aggressive, distressed and use expletives when complaint processes are depersonalised, automated or in some way neglect to observe the buyer’s individuality as a human being.

Some things don’t change. Customers are individuals, supply and labour issues need to be the purview of good management and leadership to deliver and evolving business models need to place themselves closer to the customer at times of challenge rather than further away. For example, almost universally and ever more frequently used recorded messages saying something like: “we are dealing with an unusual high level of calls at the moment” can be appreciated at peak times but wears thin as a 24/7 experience.

All the novel geopolitical, economic, and epidemiological events of recent times may sell consultancies and seminars, but they are only part of the ongoing challenges that leaders and managers must face day to day. Instead of the symbolic “wringing of hands” and coming out with platitudes about the unique circumstances we are experiencing, some companies would do better by undertaking some decent horizon scanning, developing solution focused planning and recognising that loyalty is truly a twoway process wherein customers need support in the context of their longitudinal relationship with the organisation, not just today’s crises.

A real exemplar of failure to do this is around pricing in the current inflationary pressures. Sure, costs have risen significantly. Some organisations try very hard not to transmit costs to the customer except as a very last resort but for some it is a first and preferred strategy, especially when external factors such as a cost-of-living crisis make inflationary pressures the perceived norm wherein additional costs can be ‘squirreled’ in.

The mind-set of being in partnership with one’s customer cannot be underestimated here – are they part of the process or simply prospects to exploit? Every business needs to examine where its values truly lie in this respect.

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