The Customer Service Disaster Domino Theory

In examining airplane crashes, investigators often discover that it’s not one thing that causes the disaster. It’s a chain of interrelated things that go wrong: A mechanical failure or weather event can elicit the wrong reaction from the pilot, which worsens the initial problem and starts a sequence of events that can end very badly.

The same is true of customer service meltdowns. Often, they are not failures of CRM exclusively — they result from weaknesses throughout the organization that trigger a chain of events that can lead to a disaster.

However, as with airplane crises, there are often ways to break the chain of events to avert a crash. If those means to salvage the situation are spotted — and if employees are empowered to take steps to avert the problem — the customer relationship can be kept on course.

Coming Unglued

Let me pick on one large retailer, just because its example so perfectly illustrates this. Recently, Target sent out a mailer to customers who had registered for their baby showers at the store. The mailer was an attractive piece with a card glued to the header that offered 10 percent on anything in the registry that the expecting mother had not received at her shower.

One mother took the store up on this and went in with some items in mind: a car seat, a baby towel and some socks. She collected the merchandise and took the items to the checkout stand.

However, the seeds of a customer service disaster had been sown long before. When the mother-to-be reached the register, the clerk asked for her printout of her registry. She was flummoxed — nowhere on the mailer did it say that the registry printout was needed. Yes it did, countered the clerk — who took the mailer, peeled the glued-on card from it, turned it over, rubbed away the glue, and pointed out the requirement in the card’s fine print.

This is a failure of the marketing department. If you’re going to make an offer and then require your customers to take some action to redeem it, you need to make it crystal clear what that action is. You don’t put it in fine print, and then hide it under a layer of rubber cement on the back of something. You make it legible and obvious — both for the sake of the customer and the people at checkout.

Making It More Complicated

Back to the chain of disastrous events: The mother-to-be was startled, but she then asked a sensible question: Can you look up my registry on your terminal? After all, she’d used Target’s system to sign up for the gifts, and it would make sense that the registry would be accessible, right? Wrong.

This is a failure to share customer data through the entire organization. In this case, it’s Target showing a lack of confidence in its checkout staff. I’m sure the thinking is that the checkout terminals need to be kept simple so the employees don’t get confused — but if you’re going to make customer data part of the discount process, you need to connect the dots and make the data available where it’s needed to satisfy the customer.

The mother-to-be pulled out her smartphone — she had the registry on her phone’s browser, since she looked up the items she wanted to buy before coming into the store. However, that was not good enough, said the clerk — a printed list was required.

This is a failure of policy; requiring the clerk to collect a printed version of the registry kept her from being able to react to a real-life situation, and one that’s becoming more common as smartphones replace shopping lists. It also prevented the clerk from looking at the phone and giving the discount — actions that could have stopped the unfolding disaster.

Instead, the manager ambled over to get involved. You might think that at this stage, the manager could have simply authorized the discounts and ended the problem. You would be wrong. Instead, he steered the mother-to-be to a kiosk to print out her registry.

This is a failure of leadership. Either the manager failed to grasp his opportunity to fix the situation by authorizing the discount, or Target doesn’t empower its managers to take steps that vary from procedure. If you won’t do this, it requires everything you do leading up to this point to be planned perfectly, which rarely happens.

Spurning the Sale

So the mother-to-be went to the kiosk and tried to access her registry. At this point, the kiosk froze up — and so did the store’s second kiosk. After several minutes of trying and retrying, the manager was able to pull up the registry — but when he tried to print it, the store’s printer didn’t work.

This is a failure of technology at a basic level. It tells customers that you really don’t have a great idea of what you’re doing.

By this point, the mother-to-be was done. She’d tried to use an offer sent by Target to build loyalty and to upsell her, and she’d been run through a sequence of petty inconveniences and incompetencies that prevented her from being able to use it. Once Target had her in the store, it did everything it could to prevent her from claiming her discount. The mother-to-be left her merchandise at the counter and went to another retailer.

Don’t forget that this is Target — the company that famously discovered how to use technology and customer data to discover things like the pregnancies of its female customers. Just applying analytics effectively to drive customers to you is not enough. Your customer relationship efforts will be utterly wasted if you then allow failed processes, disempowered employees and mismanaged technologies to dictate your side of the relationship.

The lesson here is this: If you see a customer disaster starting to unfold, step in and stop it. Allow employees to vary from the established processes when they perceive that something is going badly wrong. Then give them a mechanism to report what they’ve seen so you can change your processes to avert similar disasters in the future. Make your employees your business’ “black boxes,” so to speak.

Customer service mishaps happen — and as with airplane crashes, you can learn to read the signals and make adjustments before you crash and burn. Whether you do that is up to you.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz is a speaker, writer and consultant on topics surrounding buyer-seller relationships. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

1 Comment

  • An example of a customer service disaster, just look below this article. Instead of encouraging people to spread the news, there is a link to a copyright agency which charges for every possible use of this opinion piece, even in schools.

    That might make sense for large reports, but is ridiculous for a short opinion piece. By applying the same system to both types of article, this alienates readers of ecommercetimes, and reduces recomendations to puchase from them.

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