Thursday, May 14, 2009
With some background in the consumer products industries, I've learned how important customer relationship management is. I've also learned how valuable it is to get feedback from customers, and now I often go the extra mile to let companies know when there is a problem they need to fix. Today I tried to go the extra mile to help a company improve something. I gave them several chances to retain me as a customer. But they left me feeling abandoned and irritated. Now I'm a customer who may never come back. Going through the experience and observing my reactions and emotions was an interesting experience, one that I think helps me better appreciate a different customer relationship issue: meeting the needs and addressing the concerns of members of the Church, some of whom can quickly become ex-members.
So today at the O'Hare Airport, Terminal 3 (near the beginning of the G wing and I think H also), I had an interesting experience that quickly cost a major frozen yogurt chain one of their once loyal customers. I had a small cup of frozen yogurt, a mix of the two flavors of the day, "old fashioned" vanilla and chocolate. Yawn--but as a loyal fan, I was willing to settle for that. As I ate my yogurt, I noticed how disappointing the flavor was. What was it? How could they make both be so disappointing? Then came the aftertaste--yuck, a larger than expected dose of artificial chemicals, the taste of unsuccessful artificially sweetened product. I went over and looked at the signage: it said non-fat, but there was no indication that either yogurt was sugar-free. I asked the woman there and she explained that yes, it was sugar free. Doesn't that need to be listed? Whether the law demands it or not, consumers certainly should be told when the product is sugar-free because many of us want to know--some because that's a plus, and others like me who wish to avoid high doses of artificial sweeteners, if only because they taste bad. I was really unhappy about that and tried explaining to her why they need to let consumers know. I explained three times before I seemed to get an acknowledgment: she said she'd pass the suggestion on to her boss. Oh well.
There's no way the chain would do this nationwide, I thought. They need to know and fix this. With a few minutes before my flight, I went to their website, wanting to let them know that they've got a labeling problem in Illinois. The website provided no phone number, but did have a "contact us" page with a form a user could fill out to register a complaint. I spent a couple minutes filling it out and typing up the story, and then hit submit. A new page came up indicating that there was a SQL error and that a field was invalid: "You have an error in your SQL syntax; check the manual that corresponds to your MySQL server version for the right syntax to use near 'Hare Field - Terminal 3-Concourse K-4, Chicago'." Drats - I should have listened to that prompting to bring along some MySQL manuals for this trip. Tried other choices, still got errors. Impossible to send them a message with their contact form. Impossible to call them. Wow, talk about leaving their customers out in the cold.
I went back to the store and asked for a phone number to call management. They gave me the name of the company that owns the franchise and a number with 7 digits, no area code, and they didn't know what area code it was. I also gave them my receipt and asked for a refund since I was unhappy with the mislabeling and poor quality. No, they couldn't do that. Why? They had just "cashed out"--I guess in changing shifts. Hmm, that's the first time I've heard that excuse (hey, it could come in handy someday: "I'm sorry, dear IRS, I'd love to give you more of my money, but I've cashed out for this shift"). OK, now I had a phone number. I tried the two area codes I knew for the area, 847 and 630, but neither worked. Called directory assistance and got the number for the company in the area. That took me to a fax machine. (I considered trying to leave a fax message by making fax sounds into my phone, but that always frightens passers-by when I do that in public.) Then I noticed a number on my sales slip. Called it. No answer. Tried the number the employee had given me with the area code on the sales slip. Got an answering machine. Left a message. Do I think they'll ever call back? Who knows. But now I was marveling at how hard it was to talk to someone about my concerns.
So here I am, after genuine efforts to reach someone to explain a problem, without getting anything close to an answer and seeing several layers of dysfunctionality in the company. In a few moments, a loyal customer became one who may never come back. He might even tell others about his bad experience. They may have the best yogurt in the country, but the mistreatment on one day at one store makes an impression which is hard to overcome--but it was much more than that. It was the concern that they don't care about properly labeling their product, that they don't make it possible to get answers to questions or to register complaints, and that "they" don't seem care to help a troubled customer. A few minutes with an informed customer service rep may have fixed things: "Yes, Mr. Lindsay, we're so sorry. There's no excuse for that--we'll get it fixed. And would you please accept a coupon good for some free, all natural high-sugar yogurt? Enough, in fact, to give you and three family members diabetes? It's the least we can do." That might have kept me. Maybe just a kind and informed word or two, and an assurance that I was being heard and that they would look into the problem. But now I'm a lost soul in frozen yogurt limbo. Which brings me to the topic of retaining our own members when they run into trouble.
Have you shared my frustration of seeing people who once were happy, vibrant members of the Church suddenly give up on it? There are all sorts of rough experiences people can have in a church without professionally trained clergy and numerous mortals among our members. In addition to problems with service (their interactions with others, including those running the local shop), some have problems with the quality of the product or the labeling. Some feel that they have been mislead and not informed about the tough issues and unanswered questions of Mormonism. We may not have good answers--we may not have anything more to offer than an apology, but they deserve attention and answers from those who can listen, understand and respond. Troubled members cannot be ignored, nor should their concerns be dismissed or equated with personal wickedness. We must never assume that the man or woman who is expressing doubts about the "product" of Mormonism is doing so because he or she is having an affair or has picked up some other serious sin. People with objections may have been offended by some interpersonal event, but they may just be having a sincere theological struggle or intellectual challenge that you may not appreciate.
Just as the woman at the yogurt place didn't seem to understand why I was concerned about the errant labeling of the product I had consumed, so some of our fellow Latter-day Saints may have real objections to how we tend to label and package some things. (To be fair, this is a problem for every religion. There is a lot of baggage and complex stuff in any belief system - just spend a few minutes leafing through the Old Testament if you think your Christian church is immune.) Let's take their concerns at face value, listen to them, get them in touch with people who can listen and empathize and maybe even offer solutions. Let's not turn our backs on them and make their quest for help as frustrating as my little experience at O'Hare today. Our members are more precious in God's eyes than any customer to any business. These are His children and He expects us to minister, to listen, to love, and to help, not to judge. We may find some will leave us after all we can do because they have fundamental objections, but that's OK. Respect their wishes, stay friends, love them, and recognize that they are still important, precious children of God wherever they end up.
Personally, I hope they won't leave. I hope all of you who are members will grow in the joy that the Gospel brings, in spite of the puzzlements. But if that changes, I hope we can still talk and respect each other. Learn from each other. Maybe even follow each other on Twitter. You know, the stuff of true friendship. Instead of getting all heated up over our religious differences, we would sometimes be wiser to make like frozen yogurt and chill.
Posted by Jeff Lindsay at 9:39 PM