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Revenge – a business concept

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Psychologically, the strongest drive we have as human beings is self-preservation. And that is closely followed by revenge!

One application of this is how customers react when they feel they have been treated poorly. Understanding this concept can determine the success or failure of your business.

For more than 25 years I have been running customer service workshops and during those workshops I ask people to relate their poor customer service experiences and I ask them how they react after they have had such an experience.

The result I expected initially was that they won’t do business with that person or retail store or professional again. But what happens in reality is SO much more that that. Customers who have been treated badly will take revenge and some will go to great lengths to do so, often inconveniencing themselves to make a point to punish the business that has treated them badly.

Let me give you a few examples.

One lady in regional Australia said she was humiliated by a car salesman when trying to buy a new car (not an unusual occurrence as my research shows that about 90 per cent of women in Australia have been humiliated while trying to buy a car). She wanted that brand of car but refused to buy it from that dealer so she drove over 100 kilometres to the nearest town that had the same brand of car and bought it there so the original dealer wouldn’t make the sale. And, of course, she told everybody in her hometown of the poor experience she had.

A young man used to buy his lunch from the same place every day. It was close to his place of work and the food was good. One day he was treated rudely by the person serving him and complained to the boss. The boss told him he was “just another customer” and he could like it or lump it. Since then, he has walked close to a kilometre to another sandwich bar every day rather than going back to the first place. And told everybody at his work not to go there.

My personal favourite story was told to me by an Australian who used to live in America. He said one of the value added services of his bank, which was located in a shopping mall was “we validate parking with a transaction” so he cashed a cheque one day while he was in the shopping centre to save him a $25 parking fee. The teller said to him, “I am sorry sir but that is not a transaction so we can’t validate your parking”.

The customer said, “That’s ridiculous. I have stood in the queue for ten minutes and now you tell me you won’t validate my parking. What do you define as a transaction?” The teller said, “You must make a deposit or a withdrawal from one of your accounts”. The customer was furious and this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

At this point I should mention that the customer is a multi-millionaire with several business accounts as well as personal accounts with the bank and he also had a little time on his hands. He said “Good. I want you to close every account I have at this bank and deposit the money in the bank across the road.” It took about half an hour and a few phone calls but the teller did what was asked and closed all accounts.

“Now”, said the customer, “can you validate my parking?” and the teller replied “Certainly, by closing your accounts you qualify for validated parking”. And the customer never did business with that bank again.

The internet has certainly made it easier for customers to take revenge through bad word of mouth on Facebook or negative reviews on <> but let me tell you the most powerful case of commercial revenge instigated by a single customer.

It happened to UNITED AIRLINES.

A rock band was travelling on a U.S. domestic flight and one of the band members saw one of the baggage handlers throwing his guitar case around (the guitar case was distinctively marked and coloured so he knew it was his) and he saw him drop it on the tarmac. When he arrived at his destination, his guitar came out broken (not surprisingly). He complained to UNITED customer service staff and they told him that there was no way it was their fault and virtually called him a liar to his face.

The band member’s response was to make up a song called UNITED BREAKS GUITARS and post it on YouTube. It told of his experience with humour and melody and was effectively a three-minute advertisement to all people to never do business with UNITED based on the way he was treated.

The video went viral!

The band member was invited onto the Jay Leno show and several other talk shows where he told the story again and UNITED’s share price went down on the stock exchange.

Eventually, UNITED admitted liability and compensated the band member.

Too late!

If you go to <> and search UNITED BREAKS GUITARS you will see that video has had more than 11 million views and every one of them is an advertisement against UNITED.

One complaining customer can take a lot of revenge!

What is the lesson for businesspeople from this?

Obviously, it is to look after your customers and not disappoint them but it is so much more than that. You MUST have the skills to deal with a complaining customer without crushing them in the process. Or they will take revenge.

Here’s how to do it.

People want three things when they complain.

Firstly, they want to whinge. Don’t interrupt them. Let them whinge. Secondly, they want acknowledgement of their inconvenience. When they have been waiting four hours for furniture to be delivered and the truckie hasn’t turned up and they are angry, they want someone at the end of the phone to say “I am sorry for the inconvenience you have been caused and I appreciate your frustration”. But that almost never happens.

What you usually get after waiting on the phone for 45 minutes is someone covering their arse and saying something like “It’s not our fault. We tried to contact the truck driver but his mobile is off for some reason”. The customer doesn’t care who is at fault, they are just angry and want some empathy and a solution. Please be aware. “I’m sorry” is not an admission of legal liability, it is an empathy statement.

Thirdly, they want to know what you can do, not what you can’t do.

I was working with a lighting company in Queensland and they had a policy that if the delivery didn’t arrive on time and the customer complained they would airfreight the lights to the customer straight away.

Not only was this not always what the customer needed, it was incredibly expensive. In most cases the air-freighting costs took away all the profit on the job. I taught the sales and customer service people to let them whinge; acknowledge their inconvenience; and then ask “what can we do to put it right?”

Guess what?

In more than 80 per cent of cases, the company did not have to airfreight the lights. The customers were angry and just wanted to be listened to. When they were listened to and had their inconvenience acknowledged, they didn’t need to have the lights air-freighted the next day (in most cases the deadlines weren’t that tight). A large number of customers, after they were pacified effectively just said “please make sure it doesn’t happen again”. My client asked them “Is it OK if we put it on the next road train rather than air-freighting the lights to you?”

In over 80 per cent of the cases the customer said “That’s fine” and my client saved the profit on the job. One thing my client did though was to have a bottle of wine and a note of apology with the lights that came the next day and in almost all cases, the relationship was enhanced rather than damaged by the incident.

You might think this is common sense but let me tell you from my consumer experience and the workshop participants who have told me poor customer service stories (and good ones too, but the bad outweighs the good about 25:1), this is happening all too rarely in the marketplace – and it is causing customers to take revenge.

A small amount of prevention (giving your staff the skills and empowerment to deal with these situations) is better than a large amount of cure (compensating the customer after they talk about you on a television show).

I hope you have learned lessons from this article and it wasn’t a waste of your time but if you did consider it a waste of your time and you choose to phone or email me to complain, I promise to listen and to treat you with respect. I don’t want to end up on Jay Leno!

Martin Grunstein is contactable on 0414933249 or

Published: Monday, June 25, 2012

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