Create brand advocates.. not enemies!
By Adil Wali , 7th Apr 2010

This past weekend was full of unpleasant customer service surprises for both my wife and myself.  While my initial reaction was anger and frustration, I have since calmed down and thought about what I could take away from the experience.  The short answer is: quite a lot of learning.

What I saw in both of my weekend experiences was an alarming disconnect between what the founders set out to do and what the company was actually doing.  I think that’s what scared me so much.  I don’t ever want to look back and realize that I’ve created a monster!  As the company I work for grows, I want to be 100% sure that we scale our experience in a way that is consistent with who we aim to be from a character standpoint.

The demon mullet-man of Parkside Cafe

OK, so let’s recount the stories.  My first experience was at a small restaurant at Stinson Beeach called Parkside Cafe.  My group of 8 people walked into the restaurant and asked for seating.  They told us the wait woundn’t be long, so we all sort of stood in the doorway.  I then asked the host where the restroom was, and he looked me up and down and then said that the nearest one was out on the beach.  That means that I had to go outside of the restaurant and walk about 120 yards to find a public bathroom spot out on the beach.  So my friend (who also needed to use the bathroom) and I went searching for it.  We eventually found the bathroom, used it, and walked all the way back to the restaurant in the cold San Francisco beach wind.

We got inside, sat back down at the table, and eventually began to warm-up.  By the time we had ordered, another two folks who were in our group decided that they needed to use the restroom.  So we explained to them how you have to walk out onto the beach behind the restaurant.  On their way through the restaurant, they ended up finding a bathroom INSIDE THE RESTAURANT.   They came back and explained the situation, and I can still vividly remember the hot anger shooting down my spine.  I was absolutely furious.

Why would the host send me and my friend out into the cold wind to walk 120 yards to use the bathroom when there was one right there in the restaraunt?   Of course, as soon as I found out, all sorts of things were flying through my head.  Was it personal?  Did this person simply not like us?  Was it racial?  Was I being discriminated against?  What the hell was going on here?  Either way, I needed an explanation.

Now here’s the critical piece.  Let’s zoom out and meta-talk about this situation.  You have an angry customer who just had an inexplicable experience.  This is bound to happen in any organization anywhere in the world.  The key question is, how are you going to deal with it? How are you going to resolve the situation, rebuild customer trust, and move forward in a way that makes the customer happy?

And here is where they dropped the ball completely.  As soon as the server brought me my appetizer, I asked to speak with the manager.  That’s when a weird look hit her face and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry.. there is no manager here right now.”  WTF?  There is no manager in the restaurant?  On a Saturday night.. for DINNER?  I said, “Ok, who is the ranking person in the restaurant right now?”  Her response: “Uhh… I don’t know.. I don’t think anyone.”  Ok — at this, fury is now what I’d characterize as rage.  You mean to tell me that you don’t have a manger in the restaurant, and you don’t even have a sense of who can be relied on to solve this problem?  You mean to tell me that your restaurant is built on a zero-empowerment culture?   AWESOME.

So then, the host (who had a mullet btw.. which makes the story that much better), came over to the table and said “who has a problem here?”  Wow.. this guy must have been trained in customer service.  I said, “me.”  I then asked why he sent me and my friend 120 yards away to find a bathroom when there was one in the store.  “Oh, well, bathrooms are for seated customers only.”  What the hell does that mean?   We were waiting to be seated.. are you telling me that I wasn’t a seated customer?  Why is that distinction even relevant?  Then he says my favorite thing of all: “You had to tell me you were a seated customer.  You can’t just walk up and ask where the bathroom is, or I’ll send you to the beach.”

Ok, Mullet-Man.  Let me get this straight.  I need to know the secret f&#king password to ask you where the bathroom is, without having ever been to this restaurant before in my life?  Are you listening to the pure stupid that is drooling out of your mouth right now?   Also, this begs the second question — why did you even come over to my table to talk to me? You didn’t apologize.. you weren’t empowered to do anything.. and you basically just told me that it’s MY FAULT for not knowing the secret bathroom password.  Way to go.

So, I figured that when our food would come out, they would do something (albeit small) to compensate us for the terrible experience.  That’s when I saw an extra order of sweet potato fries.  (Sweet, free fries.. that at least helps).  Later on, I found those fries in the check and ended up paying for them, even though I didn’t order them.

I left this restaurant feeling truly sad for the founder/owner.  As someone who has started companies before, the idea that you could create such a terrible experience for one of your paying customers without ever even knowing it is truly terrifying.  Whoever runs that place will never even know what happened to me.  Whenever the manager chooses to show up to work, no one is going to tell them that there was a pissed off customer that they did absolutely nothing to help.  They’ll never even know there was a problem.

PODS being the sleep thief in the night

So, about as soon as I got to bed on Saturday night, I found my wife’s phone ringing.  It was about 5am, still dark outside, on Sunday morning.  I pick up the phone, and I realize that it’s a PODS recorded message.  Deja Vu.  They called at 5am yesterday too.  I had forgotten about it because I was awake that morning already, and I silenced the phone to prevent my wife from waking up.  The second morning, however, was when I started to realize the ludicrousness of what was taking place.

Get this: PODs set an auto-caller to call us every 15 minutes, beginning at 5am, until we woke up and answered!  Are you serious?!  So when we picked up the phone, the recorded message tells us that the credit card on file is no longer working and that it must be replaced.  OK, I probably could fix that sometime after 5am.  So I checked my email to understand more about why they called me at 5am.  They had just emailed a day ago with this message about the card being expired.

So, I’m thinking to myself:  Here I am, a paying customer who has paid on time for the last year and half, paying thousands of dollars into your service.  And your excellent customer experience is as follows:  Send an email.  Wait 24 hours.  Harass via phone beginning at 5am, and calling every 15 minutes until user wakes up furious.  User may have guests in town for holiday weekend.  Proceed not to care, and act like a collection agency.  Call back next morning at 5am.

So, my wife, naturally furious.. calls them back to solve the problem and to understand why they are treating us like total garbage.  After talking with customer service, we find out that there was actually NO PROBLEM WITH OUR CREDIT CARD AT ALL.  They just had to re-run it and everything was fine.  Did you not think of doing that before you called us at 5am and seven different times thereafter on Easter Sunday?   And when we complained.. saying that we expected to be treated better.. all they could do was put us on the line with a platinum customer service represantive?  First of all, what does that even mean?  Second of all, what are you going to do for us?

Again, let’s meta talk.  You just massively screwed up.  You treated a paying customer like dirt for no apparent reason.  This customer is angry and it won’t take much to ease the anger.  Step 1 — try apologizing.  Step 2 — do something to make them feel like they are worth something and that you appreciate their business.  I don’t know, give them a month free.. send them a gift…we’re not talking about breaking open the piggy bank.  Just don’t do NOTHING. That’s the easiest way to create a brand enemy.

And that’s exactly what PODS did.  The customer service rep repeated (over and over) that there was nothing they could do.  They were sorry that their automated system called us nearly ten times beginning at 5am.  The best they could do was to ensure it didn’t call again (by charging us!!)  Of course, it did end up calling 2 more times after that.

Why is it so damned important not to suck at this?

So, I’ve had time to reflect on this, and I realized just how important it is to learn from these two awful experiences.  The first question people ask (and most times, they just jump to the answer) is: are these people just terribly inept or actually flat-out evil?  I mean, let’s think about it.  When the owner of that restaurant started it.. was she thinking.. “hey, I want to ruin peoples’ saturday nights for living?”   I am going to guess not.

Do the extremely-well-compensated executives at PODS sit in a room around a whiteboard thinking of the dumbest possible ways to proceed forward strategically?   Or do they just sit around and guess at ways to make remarkably pissed off customers?  I mean, what else is someone left to conclude?

But that’s just the thing.  It can’t really be that way.  I mean, these are probably MBA-carrying experienced executives that are known for being hotshots at what they do.  By most normal measures, they are probably considered to be great leaders.  After all, someone on that leadership team must actually OWN the division of customer service.  They CAME UP with this ‘phoneblasting strategy’ to recover payments from delinquint accounts.  They presented it to a team that nodded their heads and said, ‘yep, we gotta do this.’

And that’s the part of all this that keeps me up at night.  What I have come to realize is that all this stuff is really ‘user experience’ in the end.  The way you treat the customer at every touch point comes together in aggregate to create their experience with your brand.  If you don’t wholistically approach your strategy for each touch point.. you can never consistently deliver a quality experience.  And much like with Web UI, the secret to user experience lays in the details and in the corner cases.  You have to actually foresee what the user is going to feel like.  And when in doubt, you have to actually test the experience.  Or at the very least, ask the user to guess at how they will feel.

These two experiences make me think twice about how we scale our business.  After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Intentions are not good enough.  We need to build an organization where people are empowered to do the right thing.  Where people WANT to do the right thing.  It’s not about the customer always being right.  The customer is often times wrong.  Instead, its about treating them with respect making sure they understand they are valued.   And when you screw up, fix it.  Turn them into a brand advocate .. not a brand enemy.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.