A marketing manager trying and failing to roll a giant boulder up a hill to the flag/goal - customer expectations concept
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We have seen them on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. Customers in stores, on the telephone, texting or messaging some rant about a bad customer experience. While in numerous cases the outrage may be justified — although temper tantrums never are — increasingly it seems that there are just as many other situations where the customer, quite frankly, is not right. Now we have the data to prove it.

A new study by Qualtrics called the Retail Pain Index finds that as many as 75 percent of people say that a single bad interaction is enough to make them defect from a brand. That's a large — and harsh — number.

Separately, figures from Aegis FinServ Corp. showed that 55 percent of consumer complaints to its call centers are not correctly founded and their manner is hostile once the operator accepts their call. “Many do not read directions or understand what they purchased and even admit they bought on a whim and want their money back,” said Jim Angleton, president for Aegis FinServ. Another 5 percent of consumer complaints are scams, he added. “They have used the item and tried to return it without satisfaction from the merchant and are calling a center to see if they can get their way.”

The Angry and Unreasonable Customer

In short, for those in the trenches, consumer attitudes and behaviors are changing and not in a good way. “We have been in this industry for more than 30 years and can honestly say it is not getting better and in fact, the consumer is more hostile and their language plus comments are very caustic,” Angleton said. “Many call center employees cannot take the day-to-day negativity from bad actor customers. Many will last less than a year before they quit.”

“We've gone from an era of business first, to customer first, to customer insanity,” said Bret Bonnet, co-founder and president of Quality Logo Products. These stats and industry opinions beg the question: Are customers getting too demanding? Is it even possible to eliminate all bad experiences for customers so they will have a 100 percent positive customer experience? Increasingly the answer, again from the trenches, appears to be ‘no.’ “I'm all for making customers happy, but customer expectations are getting a little out of hand,” Bonnet said.

It’s not possible to eliminate all bad experiences for customers, he continued. “The best you can do is try your hardest and become an expert at setting expectations and mitigating any customer dissatisfaction when or if it happens before it spreads like a virus.” In many cases, customers are threatening to take hostages. “It’s not uncommon for customers to demand white glove treatment and threaten to go on review sites if they don’t get it,” said Ryan Knoll, who runs Tidy Casa.

Related Article: What Digital Customer Experience Pros Will Focus on in 2019

A More Sympathetic Portrait of the Customer

Before this picture of the angry and unreasonable customer gets completely out of hand, it should be noted that many customers, when they defect from a brand or get angry with a retailer, are often justified. For instance, 42 percent of customers surveyed in the Qualtrics’ Retail Pain Index said that rude employees would be the type of bad experience that would cause them to drop a company. This is understandable. So is the 55 percent of consumers who say they’ll stop shopping from stores if shipments don’t arrive. And Angleton does note that 30 percent of all consumer calls to call centers are 100 percent properly founded, with the reason for the call correctly based on company fault or product defect. “Those consumers are very nice, accepting of issues and either seek a refund or want a replacement item,” he said.

So what to make of the ill-mannered louts that Angleton and the others describe? Here is one theory: While the customer may not always be right, they are increasingly misunderstood.

The Misunderstood Customer

“It's not that customers are getting too demanding, it's just that the marketplace is becoming increasingly diverse and customers' have differing expectations,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chair of the University of South Carolina's Department of Retailing. Most retailers operate in one manner to service failures, he explained. However, the university’s research shows that some customers want to, for example, complain to a female representative and others to a male representative. Or some customers want a service provider to explain the problem to them and to engage in conversation, and other customers demand that a problem be solved immediately without any other discussion.

“Retailers have to understand that customers are coming into the marketplace with different expectations and thus, a scripted response to a service failure will no longer work across-the-board,” Rosenbaum said.

The Nervous Consumer

Brands also have to understand when and why their customers’ nerves might become frayed. TeleTracking Vice President for Patient Care Model Solutions Scott Newton said that while it's never possible to please everyone, it would be incorrect to state that customers are becoming too demanding. He used the example of healthcare and its changing consumer experience model as an example. Newton explained that the 1980s brought about a shift in healthcare that focused on the satisfaction of the patient, using such techniques as appointment scheduling via the internet, text message and/or mobile app communications with the doctors and so on. “These forms of accessible communication lead to the patient getting the appointment they want with the end result being a positive patient experience,” he said.

But once patients have confirmed their appointments and checked in, the most frustrating part of the patient journey — waiting to see the doctor — is still in front of them and it can’t be completely addressed by technology. “No one likes to wait and a visit to the doctor can often carry a higher level of tension and anxiety,” Newton said. “In fact, studies show that at the 20-minute mark, people start to get frustrated, and at the 50-minute mark they get up and leave,” he said. “It's safe to say we all understand things happen that can delay our visit to our provider, but much like any other industry it's the lack of transparency that causes tension — and being uninformed of what is transpiring only heightens anxiety.”

In such a situation, “a quick, honest, and empathetic response can make all the difference in the world when dealing with an unhappy customer,” said Ryne Higgins, senior manager of ecommerce at Peacock Alley. The key to creating a good customer experience is not to try and eliminate all bad experiences, but rather to focus on how you deal with bad experiences as a company, he continued. “It is true that the best training can help minimize the number of bad experiences, but they are never going to go away completely.”

How Brands Can Cope

To varying degrees, companies have adopted some variation of Higgins’s formula for a happy customer experience in this changing environment. First and foremost, don’t be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror, said Michael Osborne, CEO of behavioral marketing firm SmarterHQ. “Figure out what are really bad experiences and solve them,” he said. “You can't be perfect but many brands have obvious areas to improve on and can do so quickly. There are many areas for improvement that don't take massive overhauls.”

It is also important to be especially good to your first-time customers, said Noah Fleming, author of Evergreen, The Customer Loyalty Loop, and Dealing with Difficult Customers. “Customers are far more willing to forgive a lousy experience after you’ve built trust with them, but if you mess it up early on, and it’s indeed your fault, then it’s almost unforgivable for the customer,” he said.

Also realize that today’s customers are very knowledgeable — sometimes even more so than the people with whom the interact in the stores, said Jordan Ekers, chief customer officer of Nudge Rewards. “In fact, 83 percent of shoppers think they know more about products and services than store associates, resulting in a damaging disconnect and missed opportunities, a concept we call the ‘experience gap,’” he said. “Shoppers are armed with expertise from online research — not only on the products, but pricing and in-store promotions. They are looking to leverage that information to their advantage, but when those expectations aren’t met, it can lead to disappointing results.”

In order to narrow this experience gap, retailers need to turn their attention towards helping their store associates deliver the service customers are expecting, Ekers said. “Ultimately, shifting the focus to investments in employee performance allows retailers to more effectively drive the right behaviors and help deliver a better customer experience.”