How to Turn Loyal Customers Into Hate-Filled Villagers With Pitchforks

Last Updated Sep 22, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

Since I wrote the post Do You Work for Stupid Inc?, dozens of people have written to me saying that they do or have worked for this company. Many have marveled that Stupid Inc. has successfully remained stupid, even when thoughtful employees and customers offer suggestions that would make the company smart.

It's a real problem: Having created a stupid company, how exactly do company bureaucrats keep it that way?

I got some insight on this last week from United Airlines. My life is a bit like George Clooney's in "Up in the Air," which means my miles usually get me out of the fees on luggage and upgrades that plague most travelers. So I was surprised by a new policy that extended petty fees to United's most loyal customers: frequent fliers. When I told the ever-helpful United computer at SFO that I wanted to go standby, it offered me a choice: lock in the change for $75 or move to the standby list for $50. (When I read the fine print, the $50 would only be charged if the stand-by worked and I boarded the earlier flight.)

So I did what loyal customers do: wrote a thoughtful email explaining how this new policy would damage loyalty, and ultimately, their revenues.

The resulting interaction gives us several key steps for how your company can remain learning disabled and ineffective by turning loyal customers into pissed-off people who will never bother you (or use your goods and services) again:

1. Come up with a new policy guaranteed to piss off your most loyal customers. Frequent fliers are almost all business travelers, and we appreciate not being charged fees that we can't (or wouldn't) expense to clients. Also, we appreciate the ability to have preferential stand-by status, so that we can get home quickly if a meeting ends early. This United Airlines policy perfectly fulfills step #1.

2. When a customer sends a complaint, send an immediate response that it will get a thoughtful answer within a few days. This provides false hope that a real person with a brain and some power will respond.

3. Wait the full amount of time before following up. The wait period deepens the expectation that the answer will be helpful. You want the customer to imagine that meetings are happening, emails are going back and forth, and people in charge are saying, "Wow, we never thought about it like this. We have to change this immediately!"

4. Send a zombie message that will transform loyalty into pissed off passion, followed immediately by apathy. The ideal zombie message has several parts:

4A: Repeat back the problem as described by the customer. This set-up focuses the expectation that the next paragraph will be the gold that the loyal customer has waited for.

4B: Explain the policy, pointing out how the policy made sense at the time. You want the customer, as I did, to think: "And now you see why this thought process was stupid, and I'm prepared to accept your thanks for pointing how I, the valued customer, sees it."

4C: Wrap up the message by saying how valued the customer is. This is the part of the message that replaces high expectations with feelings of betrayal. Your goal is to make the customer scroll back through THE message, assuming that he/she missed the paragraph that actually solves the problem, only to realize that it doesn't exist.

4D: Say that you're forwarding the message to someone not copied for further review. The step leaves just enough hope alive that the customer's feelings of betrayal won't turn into another email.

4E: Say how important customer feedback is, and thank the customer for writing in. This step increases the chances that you'll never be bothered by this customer again, which is the real goal of Stupid Inc.: Never change, even when changing would be good for everyone.

4F: Ask the customer to fill out a survey that enters him/her in the chance to win something truly worthless, like more miles on an airline where miles are pointless. The result of this tag line is that someone within Stupid Inc. gets to claim credit for being truly customer focused, without expending any actual resources or brain power.


At the end of this process, bureaucrats in Stupid Inc. will have:
  • Responded to the customer in a multi-step process, so that they can show that the company cares.
  • Automated the process, so that no actual resources are required.
  • Put lots of corporate PR-speak in the message, which sets the designer up for one of those coveted 3.2% raises that only go to the highest performers.
  • Decreased the chance of the customer ever sending another email, thus freeing up resources for important tasks, like creating new stupid policies.
The last part of Stupid Inc. customer service is the "grave dressing phase." This is when you explain that the customer not coming back represents some change in the economy, and is no way caused by Stupid Inc. living up to its name. I suspect exactly this is happening now at United Airlines.

Do you have examples of Stupid Inc. achieving its goal of remaining learning disabled and ineffective, even when thoughtful people try to help? If so, please shoot me an email or drop a comment below.

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Photo courtesy CJ Sort, CC 2.0

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.