ON May 11, West Japan Railways apologised for an “inexcusable mistake”. Can you guess what the ‘mistake’ was? No, there was no harm done to the passengers or any of its trains. They apologised because a train departed 25 seconds earlier than the scheduled departure time.
Given the level of empathy some local companies show towards their customers, I fell from my chair after reading this. Our ministers or company leaders rarely apologise after fatal accidents, let alone for late or early departures. It’s actually quite depressing how we as customers of public companies are belittled, possibly because of monopolistic abuse and no political focus.
Many prominent political leaders of the recent ruling party took to social media recently, and claimed that, even though these are the hottest days of the summer, there were no power outages. I live in Lahore, and, given what I go through, this sure sounded like a broadcast from Mars.
As it happened, a few days back the electricity went off after iftar. Panic ensued as the backups started failing. We thought things may change in the next minute. But they didn’t.
Why do our public companies irk customers so easily?
In the neighbourhood, adults could still manage. But it was particularly hard for the children, given the sweltering heat. Around sehri, still in the dark without electricity and after hours had passed, I called the customer support helpline of the local power company. I was given two very surprising insights. First, they didn’t know our area was without power. Second, after a brief wait, the customer support person said he couldn’t give any estimate of when the problem would be fixed.
How surprising that both political leaders and the line departments of companies are oblivious to customers’ problems. Happy customers are a fundamental tenet of business. Why is customer loyalty and satisfaction not a priority for public-sector companies? Why do our public companies irk customers so easily?
Customer happiness isn’t a priority when it’s considered a drain on a company’s resources. In the absence of operational excellence, the burden on customer support increases. However, since most public companies are already experiencing hefty losses, coupled with the fact that customers cannot switch (due to monopolies), companies consider customer support an unjustified expense. They aren’t willing to set aside resources that a customer support department deserves, even at the expense of infuriating the customers.
Moreover, when customer support admits a lack of knowledge about the problem and shows its inability to track the issue, a disconnect between customer support and the responsible operational departments becomes apparent. Many companies now leverage technology to fix this disconnect and give customers real-time data about the status of their issues as opposed to customers repeatedly asking about the status of the problem. With the help of technology, internal data and statistical techniques, companies can find internal pain points and fix them even before customers discover them.
Another reason for lack of focus on customer satisfaction is the absence of employee incentives tied to customer loyalty. Suboptimal customer support likely means that employees’ incentives aren’t tied to customer satisfaction. Therefore, making customers happy isn’t a priority.
Further, companies can’t get what they don’t measure. They don’t measure customer loyalty; therefore, they don’t get it in return. In modern business, companies religiously track customer happiness and loyalty (eg through techniques like Net Promoter Score). A downward trend in customer happiness data is cause for worry.
Complex business processes, with little thought paid to great customer experience, can also aggravate customers’ annoyance. When processes that matter most to customers aren’t identified and simplified then customers are irked. Designing and executing simple business processes around segmented customers (by needs and dissatisfaction) is neglected and results in discontented customers.
Research suggests that when companies respond to disgruntled customers in a helpful way, the customers’ loyalty and willingness to use their services more increases. Not only do happy customers spend more money, they also spread positive stories about the company in question. It is thus in companies’ interest to prioritise customer satisfaction.
Lastly, the focus of public companies should be to keep maximum uptime of their services for every customer. Absence of both maximum service uptime and lack of customer empathy, however, should worry both political parties and citizens. Their decisions and policies haven’t resulted in trickle-down customer benefits, and service delivery claims look like broadcasts from Mars. Hopefully, those in charge will bring in reforms to measure customer happiness, induct the right people, simplify business processes, employ incentives and technology and generally make customer satisfaction a priority.
The writer works in the technology sector.
Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2018