Why Pleasing Your Customer Isn’t Always a Good Thing

It Could Be Bad for Your Business

We always want to push the limits of customer service, but sometimes it can be the worst thing for your business.

In 2008 I quit soccer and took up bicycling on my 24 year-old Cannondale that had been top-of-the-line in 1989. In 2009, after a year of riding a lot, I knew I wanted to take it seriously. I had some experienced biking friends who tried to convince me to buy a metal frame, because carbon was too fragile and flimsy. But carbon was the new thing, all the rage, lighter, faster, etc. None of the industry marketing mentioned durability differences (they still don’t), so I forged ahead to buy carbon.

In fairness to the manufacturers, they are all responding to their professional customers and other very serious customers who relentlessly push for lighter and faster bikes. But in trying to please them, the manufacturers are jeopardizing their reputations among a growing population of those serious bikers, and the much larger general population like me, who are looking for the “best” bikes. They don’t disclose that today’s bikes are not meant to stand up under even normal amateur conditions like my old Cannondale would. See the difference below:

Repair History of the 24 year-old, top-of-the-line aluminum Cannondale w/ Dura-Ace components-90k+ miles:
• Regular tune ups. All original components, wheels and frame still functioning very well.

Repair History of the four year-old Specialized Tarmac SL2 Pro w/ Dura-Ace components – 4.5k miles per year – 14k total miles:
• Complete frame replaced at 9k miles – Bottom Bracket separated from carbon frame (extremely dangerous)
• Seven defective wheels – cracked rims at spoke holes – very dangerous
• Both front chain rings replaced at 3k miles – defective – too thin/light; recall
• Head tube defective at app. 1k miles – full manufacturer recall – too thin/light – had fallen apart on some riders – very dangerous
• Bottom Bracket (BB30) rebuilt five times.
• Front derailleur replaced – snapped while being tuned up
• Seat post bracket defective at 5k miles – too thin/light – replaced w/ heavier one.
• Front brake lever replaced at 8k miles – internal mechanism messed up
• Entire crankset declared “too old” and in need of replacement at 12k miles
• Back derailleur hanger snapped on new frame at 12 months old (4.5k miles) – destroyed back derailleur and back wheel
• Back derailleur replaced at 14k miles
• Loud clicking and grinding noises on every turn of the crankset (people could hear me coming for 20-30 yards) – never resolved.

How Slow Am I?
This all cost me a few thousand dollars beyond the price of the bike, endless time in the shop, and some dangerous crashes that fortunately I walked away from. I’m obviously a very slow learner. I assumed that the more expensive the bike is, the better it would last, as well as perform. The bike industry is turning out bikes that are extremely high performers, but with no durability at all. But they’re not telling anybody that. And that’s the problem.

There isn’t a thing wrong with building a bike that stretches the limits of design. They want to please us by pushing those design limits. The problem is they haven’t been up front in telling us we’re buying race cars where many major components will need to be replaced regularly, and that a carbon bike is more dangerous than previous designs. You’re just supposed to be geeky enough to know that the most expensive bikes on the market will need the most maintenance. They don’t want to displease us with reality. It’s not just Specialized. Anyone selling carbon frames is marketing them the same way – all virtue and no warning.

The local bike shop has given up. They won’t repair the bike anymore. They feel I’m too demanding. I finally get it. If they or the manufacturers had told me up front that the most expensive bikes are now the least durable or reliable, they would actually be right to say I am too demanding. Armed with that information, I could have made the decision to buy speed but not safety or reliability, or stick with a metal bike. With that information, I would have known what I’m buying – caveat emptor would be on me. And I might still like Specialized.

Full Disclosure – Tell the Whole Story – Not Just the Fun Part
The lesson here for all of us? Sometimes pleasing your customers comes at the cost of losing your customers. If you want to please them so badly that you won’t disclose the downside of a new product, you set them up for false expectations. Only after a miserable experience did I figure it out for myself. I’ll stick to metal bikes except when I want to go 8 seconds faster over a mile, which isn’t very often.

Be up front and clear with your customers about both the upsides and potential liabilities of everything you sell them. You and your customer will both be a lot happier, and you will make a lot more money.

My 24 year-old aluminum bike still rocks. The high-end custom steel one I’m about to buy will cost me 10-15 minutes or so over 100 miles, but it will be inherited by my kids. How cool is that?

Hey, United, People Are More Important Than Stuff

That goes for the rest of us, too.

I was flying back from Ireland yesterday and United forced us once again to listen to Jeff Smisek sell his $500 million fleet upgrades and new website forms before the safety video. What the video didn’t say was more important than what it said, to your business and to mine.

The conspicuous and flagrant foul being committed against the customer in this video is that United has no plans to spend any of the $500 million on their people or their customers, just their stuff. They are hoping fancy cup holders and more website forms will cover for core customer service issues that have reached epic proportions. There are two very serious lesson in this approach for all of us who own businesses:

1) People buy great marketing once. New seat cushions and website forms will maybe get some people to buy one more flight, but if nothing has changed at the airport or on the airplane, it will be a wasted $500 million.
2) People, both employees and customers, are more important than stuff. United is quite confident they aren’t.

Epically Bad Customer Service
Since March, United has struggled with customer complaints at a level never seen before in the airline industry. United now accounts for more than half of all of the complaints filed by passengers against the entire airline industry, a staggering statistic. And yet Smisek wants us to be impressed with his new stuff.

In July, for example, just 64 percent of his flights operated on time, and United ran dead last among major carriers in baggage handling. New TVs on the planes won’t fix that. To no surprise, it’s hurt their bottom line – passenger traffic on United fell about 2 percent in the quarter that ended yesterday.

Jon Taylor, a frequent flier and chairman of the University of St. Thomas political science department, said he’s noticed “a marked decrease in customer service and employee motivation”. Smisek’s response? Buy new airplane seats and create some more blind communication website forms.

Do the Hard Thing – Fix Your People Problems
Dealing with people is hard. United has a lot of problems in that area, both internally and externally. After an epically bad experience with them in February, their Director of Baggage Services offered a cash settlement. I asked if I could instead do a seminar with his people in Houston on customer service. He agreed and was talking with my Chief Relationship Officer about dates, then ran it up the flag pole and a month later it was reversed out.

The “VP of Customer Experience” didn’t help, either. I love the ironic title – he gets paid for just ensuring we all have a customer experience. He should get paid a lot – we’re all having a lot of customer experiences.

What’s the lesson for us?
1) Don’t hide behind your stuff, your cool product, your snazzy website, your pretty mailer or your presentation skills. Fix your people problems. Create a culture that attracts the right people, then figure out how you all can create the best customer service for your clients.

2) Stop sinking all your money into clever marketing. Instead deliver a better product with the best customer experience. If you do, people will seek you out again and again to do business with them. It’s not your stuff they love – with almost no exceptions, they can get comparable stuff (or airline tickets) somewhere else. What they want is for human beings to treat them like human beings.

Jack Stelzer, a Houston-based independent airline consultant recently commented about United, “In the long term if they continue to abuse the customer, the customer will go away.”

Your Real Assets Aren’t Stuff
Don’t fool yourself. The only real assets you have is your culture, the people it attracts or repels, and the customers who love you. The rest of it is just noise and distraction. Don’t put out a noise and distraction video about your great stuff like Smisek did. Put one out about your great people and how they treat their customers.

Then go do it. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. And it will ensure you will have a great business for a long time to come.