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A Power Outage, A Cable Bill, And Getting Out In Front Of Customer Expectations

To paraphrase Warren Buffet, the secret to good customer relationships is the same as the secret to any good marriage: low expectations. But customer expectations today are rising more rapidly than ever before, which presents a problem—as well as an opportunity—for your business.

Technology is the culprit, driving a dramatic increase in the speed and volume of interaction. And whenever two people interact—either face to face or online—one of the most important subtexts of that interaction is trust. If we don’t trust each other, any interaction between us just won’t be very efficient. We might even have to call a lawyer or an accountant to provide security against being deceived or cheated. Trust greatly improves the speed and efficiency of interacting, so the more interacting we do, the more trust we come to expect from others. In addition, the transparency that comes with more interaction makes it more difficult to keep secrets, driving more demand for trust. Teenagers, for instance, will tell you it’s much harder to cheat on their boyfriends or girlfriends than it was before everyone was on Facebook.

Rising levels of interactivity mean that customers are coming to expect a higher standard of trust not just from the people they interact with but from the businesses they deal with, as well. They want a kind of Extreme Trust, or something that Martha Rogers and I call "trustability," which we define as "proactive trustworthiness." It’s no longer sufficient for a business simply to do what it says it’s going to do and charge what it says it’s going to charge. That would certainly be trustworthy—it’s not cheating or lying—but it’s not trustable.

Being trustable requires being proactively trustworthy, and as customers we increasingly expect this of the businesses we deal with. More and more, we expect a company to remind us if we have a refund due, or to warn us in advance before a warranty expires, or even to prevent us from buying more than we really need. This is a period of rapid change in customer expectations, and while it threatens current business practices, it also represents a major opportunity for businesses to gain advantage over their competitors.

Let me give you a quick real-world example. On a recent evening my wife and I got home from dinner to find our cable service on the fritz. And our favorite series reruns from Law & Order were on USA that night, too! So I called Comcast to find out what the trouble was and I eventually got a message that there had been a disruption in our area, but the company was working on the problem and hoping to restore service by late that evening. Now, Comcast is a firm that at one time had a terrible reputation for service but has made tremendous strides in just the last three or four years, implementing a truly innovative complaint-discovery program called Comcast Cares to monitor various social media services and identify complaints even when they haven’t yet come in to the call center. The company isn’t perfect, but it wants to be more customer-friendly, and it’s making steady progress.

The next day I called Comcast to be sure its bill to me that month didn’t charge me for the previous day, when service was out. (Do you do that kind of thing too, or am I just cheap?) When I spoke with a billing rep he confirmed that my account would indeed be credited, no problem. Then I asked him whether Comcast had already planned to give me this credit, because when I had called in the night before the company had known from my account number that I was one of the households experiencing the outage. His answer: "No, only if you call."

Folks, this is a perfect example of the difference between trust and extreme trust, and it represents a serious business opportunity for Comcast. First, let’s be clear: Comcast’s current policies are certainly trustworthy—the company isn’t cheating anyone, and if you’re due a refund it doesn’t hold you up, all you have to do is claim it. The customer service rep didn’t question my right to a refund at all, he simply confirmed in his records that we’d had an outage, and then the refund was mine. Comcast did absolutely nothing wrong.

But the trustable thing for Comcast to do in this kind of situation would be to proactively advise customers that they know an outage has occurred, and tell them that the company will be automatically providing a credit on this month’s bill. No call necessary on your part, because we know you experienced this outage, and we’re watching out for you. Comcast already has all the data needed to make this happen. If it really does want to be on the customer’s side, here’s a splendid business opportunity to demonstrate it. A proof point, as we used to call it in the advertising world.

And just think how customers would react! How would you react if your cable company sent you a message, by phone or email, saying "Sorry! We’ll keep trying to do better, but in the meantime we’re taking $x off your bill this month because of last night’s outage, and thank you for your continued loyalty."

It may sound like a costly initiative for Comcast to voluntarily give a few dollars back to thousands of customers at a time—customer who weren’t even asking for the refunds—but the point is that this policy is inevitable. Whether or not Comcast initiates it, sooner or later one or more of its competitors inevitably will, and then Comcast will be forced to follow suit anyway. We are in a period of rapidly rising customer expectations, which means businesses everywhere will be trying to adapt to these new conditions. You could think of this steady technological pressure for more and more trust (because of faster and better interactivity) as a kind of environmental change that will drive businesses to evolve in order to compete and survive, similar to the way evolution works in the animal kingdom.

But in periods of such rapid change, opportunities abound, and this is a great opportunity for Comcast—or for any of its competitors, for that matter.

[Image: Flickr user Bill S]