When Disaster Strikes: 7 CX Rules to Build Loyalty

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It was 1:00 am when we heard the blare of the Tornado sirens going off.

“Dave, the sirens are going off!” my wife yelled from upstairs.

“Big deal,” I muttered under my breath. The sirens were always going off.

My storm skepticism was strengthened by our local crack weather guy, Dan Skoff, who was on an unusually long losing streak with weather prediction. Dan does an incredible job in probably the most difficult meteorological market in the country. I always cut him slack, since predicting weather in Northwest Arkansas is like predicting what Kanye will do at an award ceremony.

We had a series of false alarms throughout the spring, so the sirens were on again. My attitude was Sirens…schmirens.

Nonetheless, I walked downstairs and peered outside, rain was pouring down in sheets and our little road started to transform into its now familiar ‘stream mode’. My daughters started texting with friends. We stayed up for a while as the rain intensified and the sky was no longer just lightening but strobing like a Jersey Shore Fun House.

Then something happened.

I don’t know what it was. Just a feeling that something wasn’t right. What was going on outside was in some intangible way too many standard deviations from the norm that triggered my fight or flight instinct. Naturally I went with Ol’ Yella.

“Girls into the closet!”

We retreated to the back of the house in an internal closet in our spare room with no windows and sat there as our house began to shake. We listened to Dan Skoff who spotted “multiple rotations”. If you aren’t familiar with meteorological lingo, a “rotation” is not something you want close by.

We emerged at 4 am to find streets impassable. Large and ancient oaks, walnuts, and poplars blocked roads, while live wires from toothpick-snapped poles serpentined the roadways. People wandered in the twilight like zombies with flashlights. We tried to make it to our Airbnb where we had guests… but couldn’t reach them. We wouldn’t sleep until Monday night.

We got up at daybreak, and after navigating our way through a maze of dead ends, we finally made it to our small house where a young couple with an 8-month-old was staying. A tree lay across the bed of their vehicle. That tree extended into the home they were staying in. It was a large tree, at least six feet in circumference at its base.

Our guest wandered out, and we cut his slightly damaged car out with a chainsaw. He graciously understood, said his goodbyes and drove back to his home with his family. The GMC Denali next door was not as lucky, having received the full weight of our tree’s brother at the neighbor’s house. What a mess.

In the days after I dealt with the insurance company, the short-term rental company, the city, utilities, and a variety of contractors. Some common traits separated the great from the good and the bad. I distilled these into seven disaster rules for service providers.

Rule 1 – Clear Away the Debris

My first call after ensuring our AirBnB guests were safe, was to my insurance company. I dialed the 1-800 number and after a short phone tree maze, I was told that the process could go much faster if I would go to the website to file my claim via the portal. This reminder was repeated dozens of times in my calls to the insurance company.

This was not only unhelpful advice, but also infuriating as there were no electrical or internet services available and when I did reach the self-service portal via my phone’s intermittent 1 bar of 5G, it told me to call them, where I got the reminder to use the portal again. The short-term rental company was equally aggravating making it challenging to get a person without negotiating self-help hurdles that were no help to me.

While I am somewhat sympathetic to corporations needing to reduce cost by shuffling customers to self-service, that is not what you want in a crisis.

Corporations should strive to clear away all the obstacles in crises to get customers where they need to be. Seemingly small hurdles are amplified when people are anxious and scared. Let customers get the information and help quickly. Complex problems are not easily handled by chatbots and self-help. It requires a person. American Express provides an excellent example of doing this right, in that you can get a person very quickly without an issue.

Rule 2 – Proximity increases Efficacy

When I did eventually get to a human to talk to, that person was clearly from a place far far away. The low fidelity voice-over IP combined with the noisy background of a call center somewhere overseas made it challenging to speak with someone even without a heavy accent. That said, we pushed on together to try to get the claim processed and a date for an adjuster to come out and inspect the home.

As I explained my situation, he mentioned that there were no dates available for an adjuster to come out and, in fact, after several minutes of discussion, that an adjuster could not come out until the tree was removed. A bit frustrated, I asked if he could provide some help finding a service that could remove the tree from my home. After several minutes he found that the local providers were not surprisingly “inundated” and not available.

“So, I’m on my own then?” I asked the rep

“Yes sir, you must find a tree service to remove the tree”

I hung up angry. I got exactly nowhere except to get a claim number. We could have reduced 90% of this conversation if the rep had local knowledge of the situation and I was on the ground and could provide help. He was as helpless as I was in addressing the situation. A local representative would have been more helpful and both understanding and remedying the situation.

Rule 3 – Provide a Way Out and Update to Get There

That news was not comforting. While knowing I had to remove a tree was somewhat helpful as a next step, I had no one to remove said tree[1] which would lead me to an unknown future anyway. I understand things were in flux but a simple “we will know more by this date” would have greatly improved my mood. Having never been through an event like this before, I wanted some kind of plan.

When bad things go down, people want certainty. I remember asking the CEO of Maritz Inc., Steve Maritz, for advice about what to do when your team was in a crisis. It was simple: show them a way out. People want a plan, they want hope. They want to know they have some control and progress is being made, even if that is illusionary.

Premium Healthcare providers know this well. They ensure there is a plan explained to a client as to what is going to happen first, second, third, and last. This does nothing in reality but provides the illusions of perceived control for the customer. Put the customer in control by giving them a plan. It also creates better efficiency in the resolution of an issue by not having customers contact the call center needlessly.

The current team repairing my home provides a daily text message of progress on clean up and repairs. This does nothing to expedite the work, but it sure makes me feel fantastic that progress is happening. Transparency drives certainty, and humans crave certainty.

Rule 4 – Take the Burden off the Customer

As I got passed around from call center rep to call center rep I was requested the same information over and over again. I had to re-validate my information multiple times. This is not only irritating but is inefficient and can introduce errors. It seems like in 2024 call centers should be able to recognize who is calling in validating it only once.

So often, it is just “easier” for companies to put the burden of remembering customer information with the customer. The demand generation and marketing side of the business is very adept at cataloging and acting upon this information, so I find it curious that the operations side seems to be lacking. When possible, make the chore of remembering things the organization’s burden, not the customer’s. They have enough on their mind to remember pins, passwords, claims numbers, and tickets.

Alternatively, create very memorable identifiers for customers. Rather than a claim number that is X4Z00123F-28-2432342 why not WindyBville24? I noticed some cable and internet providers now have default passcodes for WiFi that use this approach.

Rule 5 – Empathize and Authenticity

This one is so simple yet is the one that is missed most often. They miss it sometimes because they have absolutely no framework to see your world even if they want to. Call center reps have extremely difficult jobs and are often underpaid and overworked. No one contacts a call center because everything is awesome, you do so because, by definition, you have a problem in need of resolution. 

Empathy, critical in all customer interactions, is of the utmost importance in crisis situations. Understanding your customer’s situation, sympathy is agreeing with their point of view. We don’t need sympathy; we need empathy.

This is done by training and embedding people in situations with which they will confront on the job. If it is a product rep, make sure they have access to the product in question. Have reps, managers, and every person involved “eat their own dog food” by going through their own processes. This goes a long way in opening up the eyes of everyone involved.

Likewise, hollow words ring hollow in interactions with customers. I remember when my father passed away a rep from an airline said “I am so sorry for your loss” in the same monotone that you would instruct someone to take a number at the DMV. They weren’t sorry, and that’s ok.

Don’t say things you don’t mean and don’t script your employees to do so. You cannot dictate emotion, you must let people be who they are, as people can instinctively ferret out insincerity. This is done partially via training, but mostly by hiring the right people and giving them a reason to care.

Rule 6 – Set Expectations

The full force of the storm hit Northwest Arkansas at about 3 am on Sunday, May 26 which quickly knocked out power for the entire area. The city issued an initial optimistic up time of May 27th.

Within 3 hours of assessment this was changed to Friday, May 31st. While not welcome news, it was information that was useful. Questions such as “Should I buy a generator?”, “Should I leave town?” , “Well I have well water?” and countless other questions could now be addressed and dealt with. Unlike airlines that seem to drip countless updates that crater any hope of productivity, the City of Bentonville set a realistic expectation.

To top it off, they beat their uptime promise by bringing power back to 98% of the City by Thursday. Anyone who is in the service business knows to under promise and over deliver. However, in a crisis, there is enormous pressure to do the opposite. Resist that urge and deliver the bad news so people can plan accordingly.

Rule 7 – It’s Never too Late to Make it Right

When I worked on CX tracking programs we would always observe that if someone screwed up and then fixed it well, we saw an uptick in attitudinal and behavioral loyalty. It was so consistent that we joked that we should screw stuff up for our clients just so we can fix it since the effect was so consistent. It is also a consistent finding in the academic literature.

While you won’t keep customers if you perpetually screw up, most people will give you many chances for you to recover and if you make it right, you will have a customer for life…especially in a crisis.

I got a call from my local insurance agent on Monday (Memorial Day) detailing what was going to happen and when. He sounded exhausted on the phone, but his effort and sincerity went a long way to help me feel better about the larger corporation he served. He told me that an adjuster was available and will be contacting me shortly. Sure enough, I was contacted yesterday (Thursday), and they will be out this Monday. Slightly over a week, in what will likely shortly be declared a disaster.

A Friend in Need

We learned recently that a total of six tornados touched down in a relatively small slice of Northwest Arkansas. On Friday, May 31st, the area was declared by FEMA to be a natural disaster. It did massive damage, but we are cleaning up. 

Needless to say, post-disaster, emotions are very high. This is the make-or-break time for service providers. People who are normally logical, reasonable, and nice can become irrational, anxious, and downright nasty. It’s just human nature.

I was once advised that you can understand a person’s character by observing how they treat a waiter or service worker. How people treat one another during an emergency is a much better litmus test of the character of both individuals and companies.

Disasters are when companies shine or fail and can do irreputable damage. Make sure you are making the right investments in being prepared, and when the time comes, don’t skimp. If you do the right thing in the moment, even if it results in losses, the longer-term upside in loyalty will pay dividends for a lifetime.

Notes:

[1] A huge thank you to the Strickland family and the local Thaden kids who came with chainsaws and determination to remove the tree, refusing payment of any kind before moving to the next house.

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and BookLogix.com.

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