All customer service failures have one cause: broken promises

broken promisesAll brands and businesses make promises. They promise low prices, fast service, or no hassles. Sometimes they fail to deliver on those promises.

Customer service failure is about broken promises. When people get upset, it’s not because products or services are objectively bad. They get upset because of broken promises.

Parents who buy their kids a $3.99 balsa-wood toy glider don’t get upset when it breaks after 20 minutes. Nobody promised it would last. The kids get upset, but that’s because they thought they toy would last  — they inferred a promise from their parents.

Think about the last time you got really mad at a product or a company. I’m betting it was a broken promise that got you upset (and probably upset enough to change brands). For example:

  • When the cable guy doesn’t show up within the 3-hour window.
  • When AT&T promises you unlimited data, but then throttles the speed down to nothing if you pass 5 GB in a month.
  • When a restaurant meal costs $150 per person but the waiter isn’t attentive to your needs.
  • When the top-of-the-line Maytag washing machine can’t get fixed after three repair visits.

It’s not about the product. It’s about the promises.

Here’s an example that’s on my mind right now.

I own a Nissan LEAF. It was more expensive than most small cars, but it’s fully electric. Nissan promised me a car that would be cheap to run, quiet, and zippy. And it sure  is. I love my LEAF — my wife and I fight over who gets to use it.

My Nissan dealer, Colonial Nissan of Medford, Massachusetts, promised me last week that it would cost $24.99 to do the required 3-year service, and it would take half an hour. When I arrived with the car yesterday, the service person revealed that it would take two-and-a-half hours and cost $300. Harry Frankfurt defines bullshit as saying something when you don’t care if it’s true or not. The original estimate was bullshit.

I was pissed. But why? This car is cheaper to maintain than any other car I have ever owned. It has no oil. I has no exhaust and no muffler to rust out. It has no transmission to maintain. The $300 cost for a full year’s maintenance was pretty cheap. Objectively, I was doing great.

But I had trusted the dealer’s estimates. They broke a promise, and inconvenienced me.

nissan surveyThey appear to care about service (or at least about begging for a 10 on the service survey from Nissan, based on the sign at the service desk). So where did they fail?

Was it the customer service guy at the desk? No, he was nice and professional, even though I was upset.

Was it the people who serviced the car? No,  they did their job quickly and efficiently.

It was the guy who answered the phone in service last week. He made the wrong promise. (The service manager, who was very apologetic, told me had only been on the job for two months.)

Think about the people in your organization who make promises. It may be marketing or advertising folks. It may be people that answer the phone. Whoever it is, if those people are spewing bullshit, you’ve got a problem. Your next customer service crisis, inflamed by social media, is coming soon, and it’s got nothing to do with the people creating your products or delivering your services. It’s the people making the promises you have to watch out for.

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  1. Funny though – airline customer service is probably the worst one in any industry and yet there is no such thing as airline promises, right? I mean the expectations are so low. They don’t promise anything, we don’t expect anything, and still service is non-existent. So in this case (and industry) it’s not about broken promises.

    1. But there’s an implied promise. When you hand over your money the airline is promising to take you and your luggage from point x to point y, departing at time s and arriving at time t. And they are promising to take care of you and your luggage during the trip. If they miss any of x, y, s or t they’ve broken their promise. If they give you food poisoning they’ve broken their promise. If they damage your luggage they’ve broken their promise.

      1. well technically they don’t promise anything in a contractual frame – on the contrary: delays, luggage loss, time loss, even loss of life or loss of basic human necessities (air/food/bathrooms – thinking tarmac sitting incidents for example) they are not held responsible for – you sign off on this when you buy a ticket (it’s in the very small print) – so even though there might be an expectation of a promise from customers – it is naive at best. Airlines get away with murder.

  2. I agree completely with Steve. Many of the broken promises are implied promises. When you buy a car, there is no explicit promise that the ignition won’t fail at a critical moment, but it’s certainly what you expect. Same for airlines or any other product or service. We expect a certain minimum level of function from anything called an airline, or a consumer product, or a piece of electronics, or a bank. If they fail to provide that minimal level of functionality, they have broken an implied promise.

    1. I get it – and you’re right – but that’s the view from the consumer side – on the corporate side, mismanagement of expectations has no standing in court – there is NO way to me made whole by an airline who breaks every fundamental tenet of the perceived “promise” – unless you consider a $25 voucher “whole” 🙂

        1. Yes for sure – except when the brand is a monopoly – in which case it doesn’t have to care. Case in point: “United broke my guitar” – expensive? You bet! Did they care or change anything subsequently? Of course not.

          1. In this day and age, all monopolies are temporary due to technology disruption. Ask your cable company. (I’m about to dump mine.) And there are plenty of people who will now avoid United whenever possible, partly due to what Dave Carroll revealed about their brand. There are people who just don’t care about customer service, admittedly. But most companies do.

          2. From your mouth to God’s ears! 🙂 I can’t wait to see airlines being disrupted but I’m not holding my breath. Yet I’ll be the first in line for air-Uber 🙂 I don’t know that “most” companies care but I would buy that “many” do indeed.

  3. I had an experience a while ago when I was installing new flooring in my house. I have a mid-century ranch with asbestos tiles. The salesperson told me the tiles would not be a problem, so I went ahead and moved my furniture and ripped out all my carpeting to prepare for the install.

    The installers arrived and said they simply couldn’t do the install with the asbestos tiles in place. They really wanted to help but they would be violating the company’s insurance policies if they went further. Meanwhile, I was stuck with no carpeting and all of my furniture moved into another room (in my already cramped house).

    I was absolutely furious, but the company did the one thing they could to keep me as a valued customer – they paid for an asbestos abatement company to completely clear the room of asbestos, and then completed the job. This cost them THOUSANDS of dollars, just to rectify one broken (or impossible to keep) promise of a salesperson just looking to close a deal for about $800.

    I suppose I should reward such an act of exemplary customer service by naming the company – it’s Empire Today, and I would use them again in a heartbeat. I’d just be careful about believing what their salespeople promise.