Are Consumers New Rule Setters?

So in my many journeys in the work place I have experienced different levels of this new retail landscape. Something that seems to be really prevalent is consumers are setting new rules. What I mean by this is that consumers aren’t following the rules that are in place by a business or service. They are circumventing the system with threats and bad attitudes, following an unwritten rule of the internet in real life, if I bitch loud enough I get my way.

When did this happen? Why did this happen? Is it hurting us and disconnecting us from one another? The short answer to the last question is: yes. But lets touch on the first few questions first.

When did this happen:
Plenty of sites and articles probably have answered this with some sense of certainty that I cannot provide to you. All I know is that when I was growing up in the 1990’s this attitude did exist but it was a lot less prevalent, vocal, often even violent. I remember seeing angry people in the return line at Target but I don’t remember seeing people go off on employees as much as I do now. What I will say though is that people often don’t abuse these new systems of getting their way as often in large businesses as they do small, in person at least.

The internet birthed another way to air complaints about companies. Though it seemed that people started to realize that in larger business you could never reach a high enough person in real life to truly get your way.  So, they turned to twitter, yelp, and blogging. If you scream loud enough and enough people hear you sometimes you get a response/ your “way”.  With small companies it is much easier to get up the ladder in person, people are starting to learn from their experience online and are utilizing it in real life.

Why did this happen:

Now I don’t think it’s because we are bad at customer service in general. I don’t think this whining to get your way attitude comes from a lack of good customer service to start. I have witnessed and been in plenty of situations where people just start of angry and belligerent  for no good reason. I think its because we have created a system of marketing that now relies on customer word of mouth, support and loyalty.

We are running on a social system now, where a lot of perception relies on what is said about your business online and in person. Before companies could control the message a lot easier and now it truly has a life of its own.  We are learning from what is happening online and for better or for worse we are adapting to the new rules. In this generation more then ever the customer is always  ALWAYS right. I have witnessed business owners in a tizzy about a comment on Yelp that was totally false, and they give away free goods just to right a foreseen wrong. Apologizing and tripping over themselves, they end up training their customers in a way that they will regret.

People are learning with companies and small businesses are caving to the pressure and are abusing it. I have told some companies that often it is better to apologize and try to speak the person over the phone or in person then giving things away right off the bat. But for a lot of companies this is their solution and it is really a sloppy band-aid for a bigger problem.

What is the harm? Is this hurting us?

Short answer is yes, it most certainly is.  Though that answer doesn’t really address the issue and solve any problems. We are creating this social wall between the customer and the employee/business. People are not often not treating one another like people based on where they sit in the consumer relationship. We are creating a relationship of hatred and malice by assuming that the relationship must now exist in this manner. Now it is not entirely the consumers fault, the businesses are playing into this attitude as well.

By putting the band-aid on and using an ‘easy’ way out they are creating more problems for themselves further down the line. Just because it is easy to process a couple returns due to complaints when you are a “FINAL SALE” store doesn’t mean that is the best solution. By creating this stigma of, ‘well its better then a bad review’ you are creating a rule for your store. Not only do your employees get confused by what the rules are, it also ‘teaches’ your consumer that rules are hazy. This is not an easy way to run a store or company, in fact it is the hardest way to run one. You are constantly changing your opinion and creating different rules for each situation. It’s tiring and trying to run a store this way.

Here is a great example of this situation which two different results in the same store:

A customer comes in and purchases an item. The store has a policy of all items are final sale. A few weeks later he realizes that not all of the items (being glasses) match and he places a call. He is told that he cannot return them.

A customer comes in and complains that the items she has purchased will not work in her decor. The color is not right. The owner is called and he says to process the return as to not cause further conflict in the store.

By changing policy depending on situation and mood, this creates a difficult situation. The most harm you are doing is not necessarily caving to customers complaints. It is changing policy, this is confusing to your staff and it is creating a “training” opportunity for the consumer.

Well… what can we do?:

There are a few things you can do to handle these situations better:

  • Be firm with your policies. I know this is hard, everyone has different situations. Dealing with angry consumers and having some yell at you makes you want to figure out a way to make it stop. In all seriousness though being firm with policies you have set is better for business. People witnessing you deal with a difficult person while remaining firm and calm whilst still remaining apologetic creates a standard. I have had customers compliment me for standing my ground.
  • Apologize within reason. If someone did not understand a policy you have, say you are sorry for a lack of accurate communication. Never say it is the fault of other staff unless they have been let go for incompetence. Saying “I am sorry that Joe treated you that way” while Joe is still employed there means that person is never shopping with Joe again. It also looks like you are quick to blame and finding fault; that is not good. This is another instance of being firm coming in handy. Don’t throw around names, don’t blame your staff, apologize for inconvenience and lack of communication at most.
  • Do not reward bad behavior. If someone complains online about your company or service then by all means contact them and asses the problem. DO NOT jump the gun and give away discounts and service without further investigating the issue. I myself have complained about getting a very scratched and thus unusable DVD from Redbox. I tweeted them and included a picture. They apologized, asked where I got it, what system I could not use it on and THEN refunded me. If someone complains about your lighting, your prices, your WiFi, or your music. Things that don’t impact your sales on a regular basis, or things that really aren’t something your should apologize for. Then contact those people privately and instead of being apologetic for the problem say: “I am sorry for any issues you have had with my business and I appreciate your candor, do you think changing the music will improve the store?”  Do not air your dirty laundry. Do not apologize to the public for something you cannot change and say “let me give you a discount”.
  • These days people can always find something to complain about, even if it literally is their fault. If someone doesn’t like that your music is too pop and none of your other customers have voiced concern then DO NOT WORRY ABOUT IT. I have witnessed many small business owners try to make EVERYONE happy. You can’t, pure and simple, you can’t make everyone happy. If you tried to do that it would be exhausting. I have seen owners try to accomplish this task and they wear themselves out.

Put simply: Be firm with your policies. Do not apologize for things you cannot change. Do not apologize for actions of your staff if the were within policy. Do not publicly apologize for a situation you know you need to gather more information about. Do not publicly reward complaints with coupons or treats.

It is hard now a days to deal with these instances, I know. But think of this when you are the consumer side of things. Would you want to be treated the way you are treating the person on the other side of the counter?

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2 thoughts on “Are Consumers New Rule Setters?

  1. Bottom line, as a customer, if service is truly horrendous or if a product is truly horrendous, the last thing that I am seeking is “more” of their product with discounts. The way that I voice my opinion about horrible service and horrible products (which I rarely encounter), is I stay away from that store, and I do not buy their products.

    It doesn’t matter how inconvenient it is for me, I will stop all buying from bad companies and from bad service companies. Fortunately, in all my years of buying, I have come across only one bad company/bad service , bad product, and that was a guy selling sunglasses (that were not the sunglasses that were advertised).

    Most products, most services are generally, pretty good, and worth coming back to.

    1. I agree with this, and that is how I handle receiving bad service as well. Which is why I think that its not about necessarily bad service and a bad product its about getting something for free by being difficult. I think we are creating a culture that relies on “Purple Cows”, free goods and services not by the good and loyal customer base but by the difficult one.

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