We have all had them - inexplicably bad customer service experiences. They happen all day long across this great country of ours. Of course, this need not be the case. With focus on shifting the company culture which enables (or worse, encourages) poor service delivery, a company can rid itself of unforgivable customer service experiences for good.                     

Let's use a particularly bad experience from my recent past as a means of illustrating the point.

To set the stage, I had been a long-time customer of a publicly traded propane delivery business headquartered in New Jersey with over 650 locations throughout the United States. I use their product to fuel a simple fireplace insert that I use when entertaining. I am not a frequent buyer, and their pricing strategy takes advantage of that fact - with me paying over $5/gallon on my most recent fill-ups. Nonetheless, I have stayed with the company out of convenience. However, due to the following experience, I will no longer remain. 

Here is how this company treats its customers:

  • I called for a fill-up in early-November (I wanted to run the insert for a Thanksgiving event);
  • I mentioned that I had smelled gas near the tank and asked that they send someone who could do an inspection prior to the fill.
  • A driver came. Told me he didn't see a leak. But, tied off the tank to be sure and would someone out who was better qualified to inspect the tank. He broke the door where the tank is stored upon his departure. (After Thanksgiving)
  • Weeks went by and I called wondering when a qualified person was going to come to inspect the tank. A new appointment was scheduled (December).
  • The day of the appointment, I got a call telling me that the appointment was cancelled. I rearranged my scheduled to be at home that day. Frustrated, no appointment was made and I asked the office's customer service rep to come and take the tank out (early-January).
  • Weeks went by and the tank was still installed. I submitted a note via their local office's website, reminding them to remove the tank. (mid-January)
  • I received a call from the local office, asking when I'd like to schedule the inspection (as if I had not already requested the tank be removed). I told the office representative that I was waiting for them to remove the tank due to poor service experience that began in November. To her credit, the rep convinced me to give them one more chance. We scheduled someone to come and inspect the tank, make any repair and fill the tank (late-January).
  • The techs arrived and inspected the tank. They reported that the gage was leaking and removed it (along with the tank). I was told that they didn't have the parts (or a spare tank) with them. They said that someone would give me a call to schedule a new install (Mid-February).
  • The new tank was to be scheduled to be installed on February 28.  Again, I had arranged to be home to greet the team. Mid-morning, I received a call from the company to inform me that they would not be coming (again). I told them I'd like to be reimbursed for the fuel that they took when they removed the tank.
  • In April, after more calls and a letter to their CEO, I received a check reimbursing me for the fuel that was in the tank when they removed it.

Clearly, this experience is exactly what a business should never do to a customer and it all has to do with the company's culture.

Undoubtedly, the culture at this propane company is one where operating procedures and standards are lax, trust is low, morale is poor, service delivery is about doing as little as possible and the customer is considered a necessary inconvenience.

Of course, this whole situation can be avoided in the future in a very simple and straightforward way:

The leadership team must create a culture that keeps its promises.

If the company culture promoted reliability and trustworthiness, the company would've sent a qualified person on the first visit (and, hopefully, one that would not have snapped my door off its hinges), the office reps would have called to schedule follow-up appointments (so, I didn't need to chase them down after each visit), and the appointments that were scheduled with me would have been kept. In fact, I would not have had to write a letter to the CEO to get reimbursed for what they took when they haphazardly removed my tank.

There is a lesson here for all of us, of course. Your culture determines what becomes acceptable behavior within your business. If you, as a leader, tolerate a culture that abuses its customer, you will fail. On the other hand, if you commit to crafting a culture that is dependable and trustworthy, you will succeed. It's really that simple.