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3 Signs You're Trying Too Hard to Please the Customer

Somewhere between the tragic Casey Anthony verdict and the final Space Shuttle launch, you may have heard about the slow train wreck that is Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World.

If not, then here's all you need to know: People working for the British tabloid are alleged to have hacked the voice mail accounts of numerous public figures, including members of the royal family and a murder victim. By shutting down the newspaper, it's thought that its owners will be able to derail an official investigation.

I mention Murdoch's problem for two reasons: First, I worked for Dow Jones & Co., which News Corp. now owns, after graduating from journalism school. And second, because I think I have a unique understanding of what happened, if the allegations against the newspaper prove to be true. I wrote my thesis on journalism errors, and I've made a few big mistakes myself, so I know what the now unemployed reporters at the News must be going through. I feel for them.

The News of the World's sin isn't "losing its way" as it claimed in its farewell edition last week. It was a much more common one in the corporate world: It was trying too hard.

Simply put, the reporters wanted so badly to give their readers what they thought they wanted, that they allegedly went too far to deliver it. In a hyper-competitive environment, that's an easy thing to do--in every industry.

Three Signs A Business Has Gone Overboard

In an effort to provide the best possible service, companies often go too far to please. Here's how:

1. They talk too much. Answering the phone, "Good morning, how may I bring a smile to your face today?" or signing off with, "Have a magical day!" aren't just annoying to some customers. They often smack of insincerity. One well-known luxury hotel chain used to require its employees to use words like, "certainly" instead of "yes" and "my pleasure" instead of "OK" when interacting with guests. That drove some of its customers nuts, who often thought they were trapped in some kind of 19th-century costume drama.

2. They hover. This frequently happens on the sales floor with inexperienced salespeople. Instead of letting a customer browse, associates attach themselves to the "prospect" and follow that person around the floor. More experienced salespeople will give the customer a little room. But customers still know they're being followed, and it can make them uncomfortable. The only thing worse than that are employees who openly fight over who gets credit for the sale. That's not service; it's stalking.

3. They wanna be your friend. A little hyperbole, particularly used in advertising, is perfectly acceptable for most shoppers. But with the growth of social media, companies are trying to present themselves as more than just customer-friendly and transparent. They also want to be your buddy. Check the Facebook or Twitter accounts of your favorite businesses, and you'd think you've found your long-lost friend. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Sure, all these things can irritate consumers. But they're not as much of a turn-off as a company that isn't trying at all.

No one knows how the hacking scandal will end. But I'd hate to see news organizations owned by News Corp. try less hard, if doing so means the product is boring and predictable.

Then again, I'm something of a contrarian, if not a heretic. I don't think journalism is a religion. In the 21st century, it's become just another form of entertainment for most consumers -- including me.


Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, or email him directly.
Photo: Dominik Syka/Flickr