Ethics, PR, and dissing your customers: Chris MacDonald

You never know who’s listening

 
(Photo: Blend Images/John Lund/Getty)
(Photo: Blend Images/John Lund/Getty)

The recent experience of a friend of mine with a chain store (names and trademarks omitted to protect the innocent) provides a cautionary tale at the intersection of ethics and customer service. It began when he e-mailed the chain, of which he’s a regular patron, with a suggestion: would they please improve the selection of one product line at the location nearest his home?

I’m sure it’s the kind of suggestion that lots of companies get these days. After all, they’ve got websites with “contact us” pages featuring phone numbers, e-mail addresses and stock photos of smiling operators waiting to take your input.

What happened next, however, is perhaps not an everyday thing. Following his friendly suggestion, my pal was accidentally CC’d on an internal e-mail regarding his query. The gist of that employee-to-employee e-mail was that my friend should be told to go to a different store (farther from his house, but with a broader selection of goods). The two employees also speculated that he had “too much time on his hands.”

Excuse me?

Resisting the urge to post this story on Twitter, my friend settled for sharing this story with a handful of acquaintances on Facebook. He also forwarded the offending e-mail to the company’s CEO, and its head of communications, and gently suggested that “if staff want to complain about customers, they probably shouldn’t CC them.”

Within just a few hours he received an apology. It also included assurance that such disrespect for customers was not consistent with the company’s customer service policy, and that the offending employee had been advised of this fact in no uncertain terms. Finally, it included a gift certificate, along with an invitation to a VIP tour of one of the chain’s stores in order to discuss its offerings with a knowledgeable member of their staff, and a promise to revisit the product offerings as per my friend’s original suggestion.

To his credit, my friend now considers the matter closed, and has asked me not to publicize the name of the company involved.

But it’s worth reflecting for a moment on just what went on here, and why. The author of the offending e-mail was rude, to be sure—rude in a way that was supposed to be kept behind the scenes, but rude nonetheless. Whether such rudeness amounts to an unethical lack of respect is a question that is probably best answered in terms of frequency. We all have grumpy days; but a pattern of rudeness amounts to a display of disrespect that is inconsistent with the ethical demands of customer service. We don’t know whether the employee in question was merely having a bad day. But I’m pretty sure that the company in question came within a hair’s breadth of having a very bad day from a public relations point of view—it only narrowly avoided a minor social media disaster. Had my friend decided instead just to post his experience on Twitter, the story might well have gone viral.

This reminds me of an anecdote I recently heard related by an executive at Disney, about the customer-service orientation of the Disney employees responsible for picking up trash and emptying trash bins at the company’s amusement parks and resorts. The Disney executive said that, for years, those employees had been told that their job was to keep the place clean. The result: all those tourists leaving pop cans and popcorn boxes all over the place were inevitably viewed as pains in the neck, as obstacles these workers faced in trying to get the job done. The result was poor morale, and occasionally surly interactions with paying customers. At some point, someone had the bright idea of changing these employees’ mission: no longer would their mission be to “keep the place clean.” Instead, their mission would be to make customers’ experience at Disney a positive one. Sure, that would mostly consist of keeping the place clean, but that would just be a means, not an end in itself. The result, or so the story goes, was a big improvement in morale.

The lesson: there’s no need to see customers as a burden if it is made clear that customers are why you’re there in the first place.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.


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