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Finally! It’s the time to panic

October 6, 2009

A ‘tip of the tongue’ global CPG company sells a personal care product which stains and bleaches garments.  Customers use the website to register complaints and ask for instructions on how to get the stain off.  The website ‘bot sends an email with a customer service tracking number to close the loop and then promptly does nothing about it.

A well known national coffee chain sells a slice of cake and a coffee which in turn, makes the customer violently nauseous.  Customer uses the website to register a complaint, asking only for an answer on how this could occur.  Website says “thank you for your inquiry” and the company promptly does nothing about it.

A regional appliance chain, competing with the big box store ½ mile up the road, sells a washing machine which soon after delivery, breaks.  Seeking an even exchange, the customer uses the website’s ‘Contact Us’ capability to ask for a straight exchange. Here too, the inquiry is acknowledged with a “thank you” response and promptly forgotten.  Finally, the customer, after almost 8 days of back and forth calling, resorts to sending a flaming fax to the Chairman of the Board. Almost 2 weeks later, someone from HQ calls and gets the replacement machine delivered.  The Office of the Chairman thinks the matter is closed, but no doubt, the customer has relayed this story multiple times.

A large utility takes in customer feedback and complaints via its website, and as above, issues the obligatory ‘thank you for your inquiry’ message.  Customers are now not only incensed at the underlying issues, but at the lack of responses.  The utility in turn spends inordinate time and money explaining itself in front of its Regulators. Ultimately, the Regulators demand an outside audit, the results of which are not pleasant.

2014 is when full employment is expected to return and even the employed are not spending for much more than essentials these days.  Given the recent proliferation of malls and retail in general, one would think the easiest way to increase EBIDTA would be to sell more to the fewer customers now whipping out the plastic and honest customer service is a key differentiator.

There’s a new and cutting edge term in Social Science called ‘Elite Panic’, which is when someone in an elite position in an organization (or society) responds to a disastrous situation by protecting themselves and their power, rather than helping the very people who can help end the situation (or at least make it work as best as possible).  Typically, the phrases “restoring order”, “protecting property” and/or “they don’t understand how we operate”  are bandied about.  In our examples above, the very people who could help those companies are, you guessed it, the now angry consumer.

We have seen, more and more over the past year, Senior Management go into Elite Panic, withholding key information from Regulators or investors, imposing strict new rules, laying off workers and then asking the shell shocked remnants of the workforce to make it work “or else”. Yes, yes, here the usual path is to insert standard blather about ‘don’t panic’ (or ’panic at the disco’ if you’re following your 17 year old’s music choices) but you should panic.  Just panic about the right thing and that is customer service. Let’s call it Constructive Elite Panic.

Every executive should have, on their desk each AM, a dashboard with a full listing of every complaint relating to their SBU/Operation, with a full drill down capability to find the source of the problem.  Never mind the sanitized underling generated reports, especially in a bad economy.  Reroute the website’s complaint/inquiry form to the Constructive Elite Panic circuit rather than the ‘thank you message’  ‘bot and delve into this valuable insight into the consumer and how they see your company and product.  For every crank message, multiple messages will provide insight.  To go further, consider revising the web page’s Contact Us pull down of issues from the innocuous “not sure how to use your wonderful product” selection or “gee, this would be great if it was available in my local store” choices and substitute messages which actually relate to both the nature of the inquiry and the implied urgency. The Contact Us form is not just a standard piece of every website, it’s a 24×7 customer focus group where you can elicit more learning from “the manual makes no sense” than from “inquiry on how to use the product”. In fact, consider having a Qualitative market researcher, someone who knows how to elicit feedback which relates to the product/company, rewrite the pull down entries.

Constructive Elite Panic can also be used internally.  Forget the hallway suggestion boxes or innocuous standard pull downs on the Employee Portal and illicit open, transparent communications from the lowest levels to the highest.  Publish every message, no matter how absurd or even foul on screens near the elevators or in the coffee rooms.  Let your employees know you read the messages and get the message.  If done properly, the internal conversation among your employees solidifies and unifies far better than the usual pep talk.

The last element of Constructive Elite Panic is to change the Enterprise culture from ‘inside fearfully looking out’ to ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. This is not as easy as it sounds – most of us walk into a conference room, demand culture change and watch as our employees and managers nod their heads in a mass example of passive-neutral or passive-aggressive behavior.  Save the banners and lapel pins, open communications, standardization, training and aligned compensation affect culture change. Focus strongly on the talent level and front line supervision.  Just like an army, the Sargent sets the daily tone.

We often see the need for coaching of long tenured executives who’s very rise is attributed to their living well in the existing customer not so centric culture. Many years ago I had just started working at a bank where employee morale was so low it was affecting customer service.  In comes an HR consulting firm who gives the employees an attitude survey.  Weeks later we were brought into a conference room where a Corporate VP lambasted us for allowing the employees to answer so negatively because, in his opinion, everything was OK

My late father-in-Law, witnessing the rising waters from the Great Wilkes-Barre Flood of 1972 approach his garment factories, mumbled “now’s the time to worry”.  37 years later, it’s time to  constructively panic.

Rich Eichen is a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years experience reshaping companies, Operations and key initiatives. He can be reached at

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