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The Irate Email To Your CEO, Your Customer’s Not-So-Secret Weapon

By Sander Biehn | Oct 30, 2014

Last week at a social media conference, an expert was bragging over lunch about how he always gets what he wants from big companies when he is having difficulties. He has a formula. First, he tweets and posts about the poor service he is getting. Next, he goes right to the top with his complaint. He smugly noted that he knows how to figure out CEO email addresses using online tools. His favorite thing to tell a CEO is that he will not stop flaming the company on social channels until he gets his way.

After explaining how he got satisfaction with a cable company using this method, I threw a wet blanket on the whole affair. I asked him, from the point of view of the cable company, how could providing this kind of superior customer service scale? How can extortion on Twitter and notes to the CEO be a pathway to providing superior customer service for all customers? If everyone started emailing the CEO, could the CEO keep up with the demand and fix everyone’s problems? The expert looked at me blankly. He intended this back door customer service to be kept a secret for his use at his discretion. This wasn’t a method of getting normal customer service. That stuff stinks. This was an expert’s way to get better customer service, reserved only for a savvy social media pontiff.

Munching on my turkey sandwich, I thought back to a situation that happened to me a couple of years ago on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. One of my customers was asking for an expedited installation on a product that was severely underfunded. I had been warned I could not honor any expedite requests for service installation on this product. Despite the business pickle my customer was going to be in, I had to tell her no.

She must have known the social media expert because she sent a note to my CEO berating my abilities as an account manager and demanding satisfaction. She promised to flame us at her next CIO roundtable meeting to boot. To my horror, my CEO responded and was able to get the expedite the client wanted. Over the four day weekend, I wondered if I would still have a job after Monday. I spent the next week in reviews with my management discussing the situation. Of course, I had done nothing wrong, but it didn’t feel that way.

Having been on both sides of the executive end run got me wondering why it has to come down to a note to the CEO to get the right thing done for a customer. I mean, really, shouldn’t employees be more empowered than ever in this age of information to make good decisions and delight clients?

I believe it underscores some of the organizational deficiencies and pre-information age legacies that still exist in companies of all sizes. The issue is that customer service representative and many account executives are not being asked to use their heads when dealing with clients. In the search for consistency and control, reps have been told how to respond and have been given strict boundaries on what they can and cannot do. The restrictive edicts have left them to act as little more than a clearinghouse for telling customers ‘no’ instead of being able to make rational decisions based on access to work schedules and common sense.

But what if these reps were given more leeway? What if reps were told to make problems right and were given access to the resources to expedite and even compensate upset clients? How would a change like this affect the organization? Would the company go out of business due to the additional expense of making customers happy? Or would the company grow from the positive impact of superior service?

I think it is time to do an experiment. I think it is time to equip client facing personnel with the tools to handle difficult customer problems, knowing that the company will back their decisions. Certainly, middle management will need to take a break from preparing spreadsheets and audit these decisions; which reps are making the best decisions around resource allocation and corporate profit and loss with an eye to keeping customers happy? Reps that made good business decisions would be compensated and promoted. Reps making bad decisions would be coached and possibly let go. This type of system benefits everyone and the business gets so much more out of the reps at no additional cost. Empowerment drives engagement. Reps who are empowered to make decisions will often make the right decisions for an employer. Disempowered reps do just the opposite.

But until we give empowerment a try, I suppose we are stuck with the irate message to the CEO. Maybe it will take a ground swell of irate emails to get this kind of program started? Or maybe it is just too late. Let’s face it, by the time a customer sends an irate email to your chief, you are not likely to win them back as a brand advocate anyway.


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