What Messages Are Your Employees Telegraphing to Customers?

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Too bad most employers believe their directions to employees regarding how to treat customers stay within the company. They don’t. In fact employees telegraph their feelings about the company they work for in myriad ways. Unfortunately, many of us look past these signs that would give us valuable insight into companies—and give us valuable guidance as to where we can expect a positive experience, and where we can’t.

Consider these employee behaviors and what they telegraph.

Bad signs: If you want to experience negative messages sent by employees to customers, visit Circuit City (I wish you could still visit CompUSA, which was worse), or Macy’s, or almost any first-tier bank, or Home Depot, or Hertz, or fly Northwest Airlines. But rather than just getting irritated, think about the bad vibes you’re receiving from employees and how they predict your likely experience. Then ask yourself if you really want to do business with these outfits and so many others where you pick up on employees’ negative energy.

Disinterest: When employers underpay employees, or ask them to work unpaid overtime or on breaks, employees respond with listlessness and reluctance to do anything “extra” for a customer. Wal-Mart has been a classic example for years (although the company has taken initial steps towards cleaning up its act). Macy’s is another. I’ve actually had a sales associate say she couldn’t help me because “no one’s covering that department today.” Do you want to give these companies your business? Not if you buy Fair Trade coffee, you don’t.

Sales pressure: Many people believe that sales people are naturally pushy. In fact, much of this behavior is generated either by: compensation plans over-weighted towards commission (and without sufficient fixed compensation); or by “produce or perish” management pressure, including unrealistic sales goals. Retarded companies still believe commission-heavy compensation plans and creating employee insecurity generate more sales. But they’re a customer turn-off and relatively easy to spot, Car dealers have long been the classic example of employers that overemphasize variable compensation (although a minority, including mine, has now become wonderfully service oriented). But go shop for a major appliance and you’ll likely see the same behavior. Recently I was out shopping for new kitchen appliances at several large regional stores. The minute I mentioned I was still selecting and not yet ready to buy, salespeople would mysteriously melt away. So we bought at a smaller store where we received excellent pre-sale attention—and we could trust the recommendations.

Won’t follow you to the accessories rack: Sales people who attend to you if you’re looking at high-priced items but leave you to your own devices if you need low-cost accessories is another tip-off to excessive pressure to achieve sales volume. Employees at most department stores, consumer electronics stores and furniture stores exhibit this “me first,” rather than customer-first, behavior. How well I remember foolishly trying to buy network cables about which I had several questions at CompUSA. I wound up down the block at Best Buy, having learned my lesson for the umpteenth time.

Cross-selling before determining need: Sales and service people trying to sell you a new product category without knowing whether it fits usually points to customer-unfriendly sales contests and spiffs. It can also be another indicator of putting sales goals ahead of customer satisfaction. Wells Fargo pressures employees to cross-sell, and it shows. Our former “private banker” was impossible to find unless we were ready to give her more business. We gave Wells Fargo the heave-ho instead. Why buy products from sellers that will sell you anything?

Selling inappropriate product: Some sellers who know what you need and want deliberately sell you the wrong stuff anyway. These deceptive practices are an almost sure tip-off that the company as a whole is unethical. Ameriprise did this to us, and we rewarded them by pulling our retirement account and all our insurance. Prudential Insurance’s annuity sales people were caught selling inappropriate annuities to seniors and paid a gazillion dollars in fines. Allianz is now under investigation for pulling the same stunt. Do you really want to do business with companies you can’t trust?

Employee hostility: Hard to believe in today’s day and age, but many companies take the position that customers are trying to screw them and impart that to employees. Hertz is my un-favorite example. Also, labor problems often lead to hostility towards customers. No company and its employees portray this better than Northwest Airlines. I was in first cabin on a Northwest flight a while back when a flight attendant started harassing a couple for being too short to stow their bags overhead. She kept hounding them to “get it up there” so they could clear the aisle until a nearby passenger helped them. But when we landed, the attendant didn’t get to her jump seat fast enough and crashed into the bulkhead. The passengers laughed and gave her a round of applause. Why subject yourself to this type behavior unless you have to, as is the case with Minneapolis-based fliers who lack options.

Good signs:

Fortunately, lots of companies are realizing that how they treat their employees affects their bottom line. And not to sound Pollyannaish or unsophisticated, well-treated, happy employees usually lead to well-treated, happy and loyal customers. While many of the “good signs” are the converse of the bad ones, here are several more ways to read employees to spot a company that cares about you.

Bending the rules (or at least broadening them): My son is death on cell phones. They don’t live through half the contract. But a helpful Verizon rep encouraged me to consolidate all our phones on one plan, and between my broadband and PDA, etc., collectively we have a few. We did save a bit of money. But more importantly, that means we have contracts expiring more often. This last time my son sent his phone through the washing machine, we replaced it cheap because my broadband contract was fulfilled, and I was eligible for a new phone at the discounted rate. For this type assistance, I absolutely don’t shop monthly rates. All Verizon need do is be reasonably competitive.

Creative thinking: In an article running this month on CustomerThink, I describe chapter and verse how a Continental Airlines flight attendant thought outside the box to get me home in one piece. I’ve been a loyal Continental customer since, not only for that deed but because Continental employees are as positively motivated as Northwest’s aren’t.

Warning good customers off bad product: My favorite wine-seller has a neat routine. I’ll arrive at the counter with a basket full of stuff and organize it on the counter for ease of check-out. Occasionally, without saying a word he’ll pick up a set of bottles and walk back and re-shelf them. Then he’ll come back, smile, and ask me, “What were you really after?” Do I want to shop there? You betcha.

Trust your instincts. Trust what you “read” from employees. It’s typically the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Especially when the behaviors are repeated.

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