Should All Customers Be Treated Equally?

Equality
Photo cred: saxarocks

I had an poor experience with a printing service recently.  After speaking to their customer service, I was still very unhappy.

Nutshell: They said there was nothing that they could do, and if I wanted to cancel my order, I’d have to pay a cancellation fee.

Being very frustrated, I tweeted a complaint about my poor experience with the company (not something I’m necessarily proud of, but that’s for another post).

After doing so, I was contacted on twitter by someone who asked me to email them.

So I did… and they went above and beyond to provide the best possible customer service they realistically could.  They were very respectful, explained the situation, and offered to waive the cancellation fee.  They even offered a discount on my next order.

Now how could you go from not being able to do anything, and even punishing me with a fee, to giving me everything I asked for and more?!

Many “experts” advise companies to approach every community differently based on their needs.  I’m going to go ahead and say that when it comes to customer service, treat every community and customer equally, regardless of their influence.

What do you make of this?  Should companies provide better service for some communities over others?

Take it further…if a customer is a brand evangelist of yours, should you provide them with more benefits?  I’ve always thought it a good idea to take care of your most loyal customers, but is it worth the risk of alienating your average customer?

29 thoughts on “Should All Customers Be Treated Equally?

  1. I’m with you that we should treat everybody equally when it comes to customer service. It’s a bad practice to reward those who rant about it in a viral platform like Twitter just because the rant is visible to public and is able generate bad word of mouth quickly & widely. People learn from previous experiences. Next time they might choose to take every complaints public.

    However, I have a different opinion when it comes to supporting brand evangelists. Brand evangelist is someone who is more than just a normal customer. And by properly involve them in product development or marketing campaign, both the company & the evangelist can get more from each other.

    1. Well said. I think it’s safe for companies to go ahead that every customer service experience could go viral on a social platform, even if that’s not where it started.

      On the evangelist end, I’ve always thought the same thing. Forcing myself to think about it more though, I started to think if it’s always smart? How should it be approached so that your “average” customer doesn’t feel like they’re getting shafted?

      1. I guess when “average” customer starting to feel like they are not getting what an evangelist is getting, that’s when they starting to become or wanting to become an evangelist themselves? Say for example, if someone approach me and ask for beta testing a feature, I would only reject their request if they have a bad record on the site or if the position is filled.

  2. This is a pivotal topic because it gets to the heart of company profitability. I don’t believe companies can afford to treat all customers equally due to the opportunity cost. Consider your current customer database. Based on customer value, the vast majority of company growth comes from the top 20% of your database. Pandering to loss-leaders and commodity-driven customers is a critical flaw in many marketing plans. By all means, everybody should be “respected,” otherwise a company’s brand could be taken down by self-described vigilantes. But equal respect is not the same as treating all customers the same. More at http://bit.ly/N1HPE

    1. So happy you brought up Opportunity costs.

      It brings it back to the business level…and so it seems it becomes yet again, a battle of business concepts vs social concepts.

      Do you focus on optimizing the customer experience based on immediate costs or on long-term relationships?

      To touch on your point of respect…can a customer not feel disrespected for being treated unequally?

      Looking at my example: If I had that first customer service experience, where I was going to be charged a cancellation fee, and I found out that another customer, with the same issue, got everything they wanted and they were offered a discount…I’d feel pretty damn disrespected.

      In a business world where every customer has a greater voice, they listen to each other, and share their experiences, I think you have to accept the additional costs and provide every customer with the same great customer experience.

      Thanks for really making me think this through a bit further. Interested to hear your response.

  3. David great question that you bring up here. In terms of profitability, of course some customers are more “valuable” than others, but I agree with you that you can’t be playing favorites. The fact is that the customer has really given you the ultimate compliment by buying your product, so the least they can expect in return is excellent customer service. Someone who is an infrequent customer will never become a frequent customer if they see you giving them poor customer service.

    Really what I’m getting at is your existing customers are extremely valuable and, although a lot of marketers focus too much on getting *new* customers, retaining the existing ones and finding ways to make them buy more often or larger quantities is probably just as important (I’d say even more important).

    1. Well said. Actually have a post on that topic waiting in the drafts on when you should focus on customer acquisition vs customer retainment. It’s an important issue for any company. Retainment can be just as, if not more powerful than customer acquisition…if done well.

  4. There is another side also. A customer who brings a company a large percentage of their business could be offended that they are not getting better treatment than an average customer. Unless you are able to offer the very highest level of customer service to everyone, preference has to be given to whoever is bringing in the most money.

    1. Yea, it’s sort of like if you had unlimited resources, you’d want to give everyone exemplary customer service, but reality is there are limited resources, so you have to prioritize.

    2. Great point. You might also think about the face that every customer could potentially become a great customer…so to offer a customer worst service simply because they it’s their first purchase could be equally detrimental.

      1. Prospective big clients are certainly important, but many companies in the service industry are at a point where if one or two of their biggest clients were to withdraw their business, the company would not be able to support itself. Its certainly not an ideal situation to be in but it is a reality that many small businesses face. It just doesn’t seem responsible to NOT give the accounts that are literally supporting your business preference over customers who could possibly turn into such an account (very small chance realistically)

  5. Thanks, David. Opportunity costs are directly connected to long-term relationships. As with the above example, companies must act swiftly to resolve concerns, hopefully “before” they find their way to the social megasphere. When I speak of playing favorites, I’m referring to determining the influencers that matter most. When a company is everything to everybody, not only will the company implode, but the company’s advocates or “most valuable customers” will be highly underserved, i.e. cheapest vs. highest quality.

    The notion of “converting” customers into loyal customers defeats the whole process of growing the right customer segment–a common symptom of an “inward-out” organization. The danger with the “no client left behind” approach is there’s no clear-cut process for filtering your database, defining your brand, and improving your value offering, since all would wear the same number of stars on their foreheads. Conflicting customer opinions would deadlock development. Innate loyalty in customers comes through only when companies do their jobs right; an “outward-in” approach.

    When you craft a message that speaks to your best advocates, that message will sift out your profitable clients from your commodity-driven loss leaders, who will find better incentives elsewhere, i.e. price over brand value. This has nothing to do with the flawed customer service policies with your printer experience.

    In the end, I think we’re getting at the same idea. Policies created by listening to the groundswell will prevent experiences like your printing services example. Treat every community and customer equally, but hand-pick your “customer advisory board.”

  6. This is definitely a topic that is sometimes avoided because people do not want to speak the truth. With the use of CRM databases, companies have the ability to track and decide who gets priority when it comes to service. In fact, it can even allow some companies to “fire” their customers if they feel that are costing too much to service.

    It is much less expensive to keep business then to get new business. This is the reason why existing customers may get preference over new customers, especially if precious resources such as time and money are scarce.

    Most, if not all, social media monitoring tools use some sort of influence metrics to show the reach that an individual or publication has. It makes more sense for a company to satisfy the more influential person than the person that does not have the same reach. Is it right? Probably not. But in a world of scarce resources and opportunity costs, you have to pick your battles in order to win the war.

    1. Great points Miguel. That’s the thing though. From a purely business metrics standpoint, it makes sense to provide different levels of service to different customers based on different costs.

      With the growth of social communities as a business platform however, these concepts started to change. Sure it might cost more to provide a consistent customer service experience across the board…but if you’re able to tie that back to increased revenues then you have to take that into account. It’s not just about reducing costs, but rather maximizing the revenue to cost ratio.

  7. Hi, i’m a small guy, small biz retailer, sell antiques.
    so you’ll get a SMALL world view here.

    We tracked our $1 customers over time, many have become $1000 customers/year. It’s called loyalty, and providing good service.
    Mom & Pop store had that many years ago. We’ve learned that EVERY customer is our ONLY customer.

    Behind all the corp culture there needs to be one guiding thought: in the moment of disattisfaction there exist only TWO parties, the customer and the staff attending to them. The customer does not care about your corp culture, aims, goals, or costs, they care about this one transaction.

    In the past you could easilly “sift” your clients into silos. With the increase in vocal opportunity for every JOE now…. this is dangerous. That unhappy customer used to be able to take away another 20. Today, it’s more like 200.

    IF you are local – this can be a biz killer since you add the neighbourhood to the city to the world audience now. You can’t hide online either, to sell just online, as the same occurs there, even more.

    So short point: your customer is in front of you now — THAT one is your most important customer, — focus.

    There is no better customer experience than an unhappy customer being directed to the BOSS and having their issues resolved immediately. — NONE.
    (it’s not possible physically, but the customer should always be made to feel like that is the relationship right NOW).

    Make that your primary method online, as well as offline, and you’ll stay in business.

    And in case you’re wondering, the BIG world view (like the selective customer treatments mentioned above) does work too — but it also takes the risk of BIG holes to fall into.

    1. Vince, thanks for sharing your experience. I like how you put it all in perspective.

      For small businesses that live and die based on how their immediate community views them, there is no question that customer service for all customers should be a major priority.

  8. I think your question should be answered for two dfferent situations:
    1) When customers have a problem with the product/service as in your case (Then the answer is yes, the companies don’t have choice)
    2) When companies determine their attitudes to customers (Then the answer is no, because firms have to focus on profitable customers to succeed)

  9. Not sure, but I think a major point has been missed.

    Companies have variouos tiers of customers and service levels. There can be no issue with that.
    But if a Tier1 customer bought an item or service at Tier 1 level, they should be treated like ALL customes within same tier. That’s what they would expect.

    Some issues may come up where their demands force you to treat them at an upper Tier2 or 3 to keep em happy… but that IS a biz choice you make, and quite legit if you don’t.

    It’s the preferenctial service within a tier that leads to real customer objections. like at the return counter — “you took back that coat for that guy… why not mine? “: — THAT is a guaranteed inflamed customer. (maybe customer complaint issues SHOULD be done in complete privacy 🙂 but you can’t keep em there without a non-disclosure.)

    I look often at the special offers newspapers give to people as new signups– you get 50% off subscription for 20 weeks if you sign up now. Umm.. the old trusted customer thinks… “new customer is important, i’m dogmeat.”

    My dad — he takes the bait, and then promptly cancels evey 20 weeks. Their sales buy usually call up within a week to offer it to him again and takes the merry go round again. A new model of customer retention perhaps.?

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