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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Vengeful Customers

Oscar Foulkes April 22, 2011 Uncategorized No comments

As a marketer, it is my job to tune into consumer behaviour, whether the purchase is happening online, or in a traditional face-to-face transaction. Through my connection with Dish Food & Social I get another angle on customer interactions, generally in the form of people who have been unhappy with the meal that’s been served to them.

Of course, eating food that’s been prepared by another person (generally out of sight) is an experience that requires a great deal of trust. In addition, as I’ve written about previously (here) our dietary preferences can be tied to deep-seated personal psychology. And, as we all know, when people get close to our ’emotional buttons’ all kinds of things can happen.

As you’ll see from the picture of one of the Dish delivery vehicles above, they’re not exactly anonymous. So, last week, one of the drivers was spotted tossing a cigarette butt out of the window while driving along the freeway. The spotter had booked Dish to do some catering, and had the choice of a number of responses.

Before I get to those, I need to iterate (unnecessarily, I think) that the driver was not sanctioned by Dish to commit this act of littering. In fact, smoking on company premises – which includes the vehicles – is forbidden. Had Andrea or I seen him do this he would immediately have been subjected to the most extreme disciplinary action possible. All parts of the Western Cape are a huge fire risk in summer. Many fires are started as a result of exactly this type of transgression, in response to which Cape Town has passed a bylaw imposing specific penalties on drivers who toss cigarette butts.

We’re hugely appreciative that the spotter took the trouble to let us know what she saw. Society needs people who have a sense of civic responsibility. As a consequence we were able to impose disciplinary procedures on the driver. However, she didn’t stop there. So outraged was the spotter that she immediately cancelled the job. This, despite our most profuse apologies, expressions of appreciation for her informing us, and assurances that the driver’s transgression appalled us as much as it did her.

In recessionary times – actually, all the time – one cannot afford to lose customers, and pissing them off to this extent is really, really bad. However, we can see where she’s coming from, so we pretty much just have to swallow it.

The incident came to mind again this morning, while I was reading Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality. Chapter Five deals with the revenge that customers take against companies that upset them. He makes the distinction between principal (the company) and agent (the employee), which is not a separation that the customer makes. The customer will happily punish the principal for the sins of the agent (cold comfort for us, as we delete a nice job from our order book).

I grew up with a stepfather who would go into a state of ballistic anger without a moment’s warning, which for me, as a kid, was hugely disturbing. I don’t know whether my formative experiences with anger have had anything to do with it, but the adult me has a quiet, vaguely intellectual interest in anger as a phenomenon.

I observe a low grade of anger on many of my visits to the post office, which is something I do almost every day to despatch orders. There are times I experience a simmering rage when trying to contact the Post Office’s customer ‘service’ department by telephone.

While in the Post Office yesterday I saw the notice above, which is worded in such a way as to increase anger, rather than evoke an element of understanding on the part of people waiting in slow queues.

For starters, there is no apology, merely a statement of fact. And, the branch manger has officiously added a post office stamp to the notice, increasing the divide between himself and his customers (although he almost certainly wouldn’t regard them as such). If, instead, he was helping out behind one of the counters, or helping to direct queues (with further apologies), much less anger would be on show.

In the case of the South African Post Office, there is no need to separate principal from agent. The manager (the agent) is acting the way he does because the entire organisation (the principal) is dysfunctional.

Given that the organisation is unlikely to change, perhaps I should get together with the butt-spotting woman (who fired us) to plot an appropriate revenge on the Post Office.

Through the use of positron emission topography, Ariely’s experiments were able to show “increased activity in the striatum” when revenge was being enacted, suggesting that “the decision to punish others was related to a feeling of pleasure”.

In other words, revenge is sweet (but we knew that already!).

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