When I was at Lands' End, Fortune magazine wrote an article on us titled "Getting Customers to Love You." The big revelation was this: Lands' End was loved because it was dependable; it could be counted on.

Lands' End established peace of mind with its guarantee. We trained our telephone reps to not only know the products backwards and forwards but also care why customers were buying them. Our graveyard shift operators were some of the busiest in the business because of the calls they'd receive in the middle of the night from insomniacs who, sure, would buy a turtleneck—but were also on the line to hear the friendly voice on the other end. We had quality standards that customers could count on, because we flew quality assurance experts to the plants every 30, 60, and 90 days throughout the production cycle to ensure they were on course. Products were inspected once (and sometimes twice) when they came through our doors. And when you called in your order, it was on its way to you usually within 24 hours. Customers loved us because we respected them and their time. And we made sure that we translated that respect to actions they could see and feel.

In the time that's gone by since then, I've experienced a multitude of cultures, some close to that of Lands' End. But most, unfortunately, are far removed from that respect we were able to weave into our operation and business decisions.

It's the unusual organization that's set up to let people think and act collectively on behalf of customers. We're stuck in our silos making independent decisions, taking isolated actions for the purpose of executing our discipline, achieving good numbers and earning a good review.

Of course, the customer experience doesn't happen neatly down each individual silo. The customer experiences a company horizontally—across the silos. This fact creates the breeding ground for the lack of respect customers feel and the discontent they have with us. The typical silo structure bumps the customer disjointedly along to deliver the outcome of its experience. It's only when the silos clang and clash into one another that the total experience comes together.

And then the customer becomes the grand guinea pig, experiencing each variation of an organization's ability, or inability, to work together. Not much customer respect or love results.

Looking for Love

So what I'm going to give you here is not 10 tactics on how to execute a great loyalty program, or tips on how to cook up some special offer or whiz-bang thing to give customers so they love you. What follows is a list of hard work and actions that must be done to show customers you respect them.

Do these for a while, and then you can move on to the "L" word. By taking care of these universally challenging experiences, you'll be well on your way to delivering and earning customer respect and maybe (someday) love.

  1. Eliminate the customer obstacle course. If you ask customers, they'd say that the obstacle course for figuring out who to talk to and how and when to get service is too complicated, conflicting and just plain out of whack. We have forced customers to try to figure out our organizational charts in order to do business with us. Instead of seamlessly executing a customer interaction of, let's say placing their first order from start to finish, we deliver discontinuity in the experience where the organizational breaks exist. Sales sells the product, but Operations is not given the specifics of what the customer needs so what is delivered is a little off. Who does the customer call? Sales? Operations? Customer service? It is in these hand-offs that customer failures occur, in this customer Bermuda Triangle that we've created. Simplify the road map for customers. Make it clear for them how they can do business with you in a way that's actually beneficial to them.

  2. Stop the customer hot potato. He who speaks to the customer first should "own" the customer. There's nothing worse for sending a signal of disrespect faster than an impatient person on the other end of the line trying to pass a customer off to "someone who can better help you with your problem." Yeah, right.

  3. Give customers a choice. Do not bind your customer into the fake choice of letting them "opt out" of something. Let them know up front that they can decide to get emails, offers, or whatever from you and give them the choice. You may initially build a bigger mailing list by binding customers in with the opt-out policy, but I don't think it's something that your mom would teach you about respect.

  4. De-silo your Web site. Our Web sites are often cobbled-together parts created separately by each company division. The terminology is different from area to area, as are the menu structures and logic for getting around the site. What's accessible online is frequently inconsistent, as is the contact information provided. Even appearance may vary as strong silos create their own "look," which extends into their section of the Web site. Depending on what link is clicked, customers feel like they're entering entirely different companies. Figure out collectively what the message is, what the vitals are that you need from customers, and how you will serve them via your site, and work to deliver an on-purpose brand experience. Otherwise, you'll continue to deliver the defaulted brand experience that's the amalgamation of the site your customers are traversing right now.

  5. Consolidate phone numbers. Even in this advanced age of telephony, companies still have a labyrinth of numbers that customers need to navigate to talk to someone. All of these grew out of the separate operations deciding on their own that they needed a number to "serve" their customers. Get people together to skinny-down this list, and then let customers know about it. There's no big red button to push to make this happen. It requires the gnarly hard work of collaborating and collective decision making–but get it done already! Customers are fed up.

  6. Fix the top 10 issues bugging customers (really). We have created a kind of hysterical customer feedback muscle in the marketplace by over-surveying our customers and asking (ever so thoughtfully), "How can we improve?" Customers have told us what to do and we haven't moved on the information. You can probably recite the biggest issues right now. Do something about it. Customers read the lack of action as lack of caring and certainly lack of respect. We all over-brain what the customer effort should be. Start by checking off these top 10 things from your corporate wide to-do list.

  7. Help the front line to listen. The front line has been programmed to get a certain output. Sometimes this means closing the call within a timeframe, often it includes some kind of up-sell or cross-sell goal. It may be to meet with a quota of customers in a certain time period. Because we've programmed the front line, there's a predetermined flow of the conversation that makes it one-sided, to the company's advantage. Yet, this is what we've done. We've robotized our front line to the customer all over the world. Let them be human, give them the skills for listening and understanding and help the front line deliver to the customer based on their needs. Talk about respect. It is not a myth that if you can solve a customer problem successfully you have built a more profitable customer. Crunch those numbers–maybe it will help you to make your case for the resources, investment, and commitment required.

  8. Deliver what you promise. There is a growing case of corporate memory loss that annoys and aggravates customers every day. A customer calls in a product return and is promised a mailing label that never arrives. An appointment is made for home repair and the workman shows up without the right parts. A promise is made for exceptional extended warranty service, yet the process is sloppy and unwieldy. The customer has to strong-arm his/her way through the corporate maze just to get basic things accomplished. They're exhausted from the wrestling match, they're annoyed, and they're telling everyone they know. And, oh, by the way, when they get the chance—they're walking.

  9. When you make a mistake, right the wrong. If you've got egg on your face, for whatever the reason, admit it. Then right the wrong. There's nothing more grossly frustrating to customers than a company that does something wrong then is either clueless about what it did or won't admit that it faltered.

  10. Work to believe. Very little shreds of respect remain, if any, after we've put customers through the third degree that many experience when they encounter a glitch in our products and services and actually need to return a product, put in a claim, or use the warranty service. As tempting as it is to debate customers to uphold a policy to the letter of the law, suspend the cynicism and work to believe your customers. Most are going to honestly relay what is happening to them with your product and service. And because of all the "ifs, ands, and buts" in our policies, we've conditioned customers to come in with their dukes up when they have a problem. With good reason: We've programmed our front line to be cynical of customers through the creation of policies that protect the corporation from the lack of judgment of the minority. Work to eliminate the question of doubt about your customers' integrity. It will do wonders for the attitude and actions that your front line brings to their interactions with customers.

Customers Defect When the Silos Don't Connect

The outcome of our inability to work together is the "gift" we give our customers. We force our customers into navigating our organizational charts just to get what they need from us. The end result of their experience is usually not planned. It's the defaulted experience that comes from the customer's receiving the individually planned and executed tactics and actions of each separate area of our companies.

These come together in a seemingly dimwitted chain of events that has the customer thinking, "Do they talk to each other?" "What are they thinking?" and "Why do I have to take this anymore?"

Customers vote with their feet and decide whether they will stay or leave based on their perception of how much we value them and how we treat them. And more are leaving every day just because of our inability to do the basic blocking and tackling of delivering our products and services to them.

So, getting customers to love you has got to start with showing them the respect they deserve by making it painless and eventually a joy to do business with you.

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image of Jeanne Bliss
Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS (www.customerbliss.com), a consulting and coaching company, and the author of Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action.