How NOT to market bad news…


Making bad news sound happy is not good marketing

I had a recent experience with Starbucks that got me thinking about how marketing organizations can have a tendency to think that their job is to make everything sound like good news — and how sometimes that is such a very wrong approach.

The bottom line here is that if you have bad news for your customers, the goal is not to make the bad news sound happy. The goal is to take care of the customer.

My Disappointing Experience with Starbucks

Here is a recent example.
I got a Starbucks “reward” (an electronic certificate or a free coffee) for my birthday. Nice.

I’m a regular at Starbucks. They have loyalty program that for every 12 coffees you buy, you get a “reward” for a free coffee. The “reward” lasts for a month before it expires.

On your birthday you get a special, extra “reward” for a free coffee.

Thinking this reward also lasted a month like the others, TWO DAYS after my birthday, I went into Starbucks, with a smile on my face, happy to extend my birthday cheer by getting my free coffee, but this was not meant to be.
–The birthday reward had already expired.

So I took to twitter…

First here is my tweet on thisstarbucks

And here is their response:


The wrong happy-sounding response!

This is a great example of a marketing person trying to turn bad news for the customer into happy sounding news instead of serving the customer.

Do they really think that “celebrating with me ON my birthday” is a perk for me? They get me to come in pretty much every other day of the year — Do I really have to go there on my birthday too, when I might have some special plans that don’t involve Starbucks?

But the issue here was not merely the stingy expiration period. It was the marketing response.

Pretending that this is great news for me, with a cheerful sounding message does not make me feel cheerful. It is just offensive.

Marketers, don’t lie to us. Don’t spread cheer when what you really need to convey is bad news.

So what is the right response?

Remember, in this moment when there is bad news to share, you have an opportunity to make upset customers more angry or to use the unfortunate situation to build loyalty by using the following basic strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

How about this, Starbucks?

I’m sorry we surprised and disappointed you. We recently had to change our policy so our birthday rewards now expire the next day. Click here to get a free coffee. Next year, if you have a chance to come in on your birthday, we’d love to treat you to your favorite coffee.

That would have been both true and would have provided actual service. They could have used my disappointment to win me back.

When you have bad news to share

In business we sometimes do need to communicate bad news. We need to cancel products or programs, or tell a customer that we can’t help them in the way or the timeframe that they expect.

Here is an example that happened in a business I was running.

As a General Manager I needed to discontinue a product line that several enterprise customers had invested in. They expected it to be available and supported for many years to come.

When I started in this role, I had found that we basically had two of the same product in our business (a double investment to create 2 products competing with each other and confusing our sales channels and customers). We had to choose one, and make that one a great product.

So we made a choice. The problem was, that although the new product would be better than either one of the existing products, many customers had already invested in the one we needed to cancel. The initial news to those customers was bad news no matter how much better the consolidated product would be in the future.

What should our message be to those customers?

Hint: the right message was NOT: Great news everybody! We are moving to different new product that’s going to be better than the one you have. You’re gonna love it!

I see companies do this type of thing all the time. Bad news is bad news. Trying to sell it by making it sound like good news does nothing to help the customer.

Let’s go back to the basic strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

In this type of situation, it’s helpful imagine that one of these customers is your very best friend in the world, and he had made a bet on your company and invested in this product, maybe even against the guidance of others in his company because he knew and trusted you. There was a time when you told him specifically that this product had a solid future. So he not only made the investment but put his career on the line with this choice.

When you need to communicate bad news, don’t think of your audience as an anonymous group of customers. Think of your best friend. How exactly, would you communicate the news then?

The right conversation. Step 1. Tell the Truth.

You might say something to your friend like…

You: I’ve got to tell you, we needed to make a choice to cancel this product line. I know this will cause a problem for you, so I wanted to tell you personally and try to help.

Friend: : Are you kidding me? I told everyone that this product was the best choice. I might lose my job over this. Even if I don’t lose my job, this will kill my credibility and will set my career back. They trusted me. I trusted you. This is really bad. I don’t know how I’m going to recover…

You: :

Just stop and imagine for a moment that given that this is the genuine, actual response of your best friend….How awful would it have been if instead of this conversation, he was the recipient of a mass email saying, “We are discontinuing this product line. But good news, we are transiting to one that will be even better. Stay tuned for the transition plan. Thanks. Your business is very important to us…”

How betrayed would he feel by your happy sounding news?

As a business leader, it’s important to take the time to think about how your “happy news” is going to land with actual people.

So let’s continue the conversation in a productive way. Remember the strategy:

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

Step 2. Help the customer

You: : I know this is a shock, and it seems like really bad news. I know you bet your career on this. So I promise you. I’ll make sure we do everything we can to protect your investment and protect your credibility with your company.

Friend: Like what?

You: (Now you roll out the elements of a good communication plan)
Tell me what you think of this…

First we will provide the transition support for free.
We’ll also provide people to come to your site to help you deliver this news to your colleagues. We’ll help you show your stakeholders that after the transition is complete, this product will be even better. So it won’t just be you saying this, we’ll be standing there with you, and committing to work with you until we make it right.

I think that will help maintain your credibility because your company will see that even though this specific product will no longer be available, that you bet on a company who stands behind what they deliver.

We can also help you have discussions with your stakeholders about how we are managing the risk of the transition and eliminating cost.

We know this is a big change of plans for you, and that in itself has a cost, so we want to eliminate your support costs for 2 years to offset the trouble we have caused with this change of direction.

1. Tell the truth
2. Help the customer

All businesses at times have changes in direction or pressures that create decisions which customers will at least initially see as bad news.

If you get this wrong, you can make the customer really angry.

But if you share bad news in the right way, you can develop even stronger relationships and more loyalty with your customers.

What do you think?

What choices to you make that make your happier and more successful?
Join the conversation about this on my facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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The best approach for an executive sales conversation

executive sales

The conversation

During one of the member coaching hours of my professional development program, someone asked me how to improve the way to have conversations with executive customers.

I recalled a common situation that occurred when I was a technology executive and sales people would bring me into their clients as the “visiting dignitary”.

I would have a conversation, and the sales people would be frantically taking notes about everything the customer said.

We’d leave and they’d say “Wow, how do you DO that?” You got so much valuable information from the customer, and at the same time you make him feel so important. How did you DO that?”

So I thought I would put my magic (actually, not so magic) formula into a blog, as was requested by the member on the call. You’ll see this sort of approach in many sales training programs. But this simple conversation flow that I’ll share here works really well.

1. Stop selling

If you want to have a great sales conversation, stop selling. You should never be aggressively selling. Think of what it feels like when someone is trying to convince you of something.

It doesn’t feel good. So taking the role of convincer is not going to be very effective with your customer.

2. Start actually caring

I would always try to go in to one of these executive sales situations by actually caring about how the customer was doing.

That lead me to ask the following 4 questions.

1. What are you trying to accomplish?

They would tell me about their business and what they were doing.

2. How is it going?

Sometimes they would say a lot, but sometimes they would only say, it’s all going great.

No one, in any business, is in a situation where it’s ever ALL going great. If that was the case, their job wouldn’t be necessary. So next I would ask…

3. What is the biggest issue or struggle you face?

(Note the language is not, “What is YOUR biggest struggle?”, which is more ego challenging. “Struggles you face” subtly refers to something that is the fault of others.)

By asking this in an open ended way — and because I actually cared, vs. looking for an opportunity to pounce and pitch and explain and convince and sell something — the client would typically tell me struggles they were dealing with.

4. What happens if you don’t get there?

Here is the gold mine. At this point they will tell you how bad it is if they don’t get there. They will reveal what is most important to them, and what they are most worried about.

If you ever get to this point, you won’t need to to any convincing because they have already convinced themselves how important this problem is to solve. All you need to say is something like, I think I can help you solve this problem.

The maturity model

5. Where are you in this process compared to others?

This is a final question which I would sometimes use to push the discussion a little further.

At this point it’s handy to have a simple diagram which shows the evolution of how companies solve a particular problem. This is sometimes called a “maturity model”.

Basically it shows how organizations act in the beginning, middle, and end of learning how to do, and then doing something successfully.

If you have a version of a maturity model associated with what you are selling, it can be a powerful conversation tool in a sales situation.

I would show this model and say, “Here is how I have observed other organizations evolving over time to solve similar problems, where would you say you are now on this chart?”

They think about it and then point to something — and then the sales team would know exactly what to sell and how to sell it.

Sales could simply say, “We can help you get from point C to point D, and make sure you solve these two problems on the way. Would you be interested in learning more?”

Sold. No convincing.


I will re-iterate, that for this conversation to work well, it helps to actually care, and to have some natural curiosity. Both of those things create a posture of interest and respect and help the customer to share more.

I remember one instance when I had this conversation with the kind of executive who might be cast in a movie as a stereotypical, successful executive, but horrible person. His office space occupied the entire top floor of a building with lots of marble and glass, and he had at least 4 assistants guarding a series of gates between the him and anyone else.

He was a grey-haired and over weight, and as soon as we walked in, he put a huge cigar in his mouth and leaned way back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. There was no respect coming my way.

It was not easy to genuinely care about how he was doing, but I did my best to get into the right frame of mind. I thought — he is a business person with real struggles somewhere in his organization that are difficult for him — so I cared about the struggles.

I asked, “What are you trying to accomplish in your business?”, he gave me a dismissive answer. I asked, “Is everything going as smoothly as you would hope?”. He thought for a minute and took his feet off the desk. Then he started to talk.

When I asked, “What happens if you don’t solve these issues, and don’t meet this schedule?” By then the cigar was put away.

I showed him the maturity model and asked where he thought his organization was in developing this particular competitive capability. He got a little pale when he realized how close to the beginning of this model his organization was and how far there was to go. By this time he was leaning forward, looking me in the eye, asking for help.

It was really that easy.

What do you think?

Join the conversation about this on my facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook.

And make sure to read her book
3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.

The answers to your career struggles and your next promotion are in it!


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Caring about customer care

Comcast vs. AT&T

I have had a “Comcast experience” over the past 2 weeks (photo is of their actual “finished” job) which took me about an hour to clean up.

(They actually went so far as to put in about 8 cable ties to reinforce the most tangled areas, making it impossible to even shove the pile of wires aside without cutting everything apart.)

In addition to the experience itself, two things happened:

1. I learned that a facebook post that includes the words “AT&T”, “Comcast” and “service” generates more activity and venom, and raises more emotional scars for people than almost any other topic! and…

2. It made me recall my thoughts around customer service being set by one key strategic decision a company makes: Cost or Care?

One strategic choice: Cost or Care?

Here is what I mean…

If the executives choose to “Care”…

…meaning they actually want to help people and give them a good experience, and make the customer experience part of the value they deliver – this single choice will permeate virtually everything the company does at every level and at every customer interaction point.

If instead the executives choose “Cost” …

…meaning we begrudgingly provide service because we have to, so we want to do it at the lowest possible cost — this too will permeate pretty much everything the company does at every level and every customer interaction point.

The main places in a business to look for which choice they made are in 4 places:


I wrote a blog on Cost or Care this awhile back – about what happens when a company makes the choice in each of these four areas.

What it means to Care

But today, I want to talk about the Care choice and what it means to get it right.

Zappos is one company that gets it right. It’s not just about free shipping and returns for 365 days (which is great service which they partially fund through being slightly more expensive than buying someplace else on the internet)…

It’s about how they view people — how they view their employees and how they view their customers.

(Both of which are people… I state this as many business leaders don’t seem to know this.)

Zappos invests in their people, and they actually care about what their customers experience.

They inspire their employees to care. Their customers get care.

Zappos gets that great online service needs to reach beyond the internet and to the actual people. They treat their employees and customers as people who have names and lives outside of internet shopping.

“Press 5 for the joke of the day”

Have you ever called Zappos? For one thing their phone number is not hard to find. Customer Service is the first tab at the bottom on the home page and contact info is the first choice. One scroll, one click.

I called, and here’s what you get – a bright, cheerful friendly voice that starts immediately (with no long connect time and multiple transfers of your line, for the technology to start blocking you from getting to a person).

Thank you for allowing us to put a little Zappos in your day!

I’m Teri, and I’m a member of the Zappos team. To better assist you with your shopping needs please press 1 for new orders, 2 for general questions 3 for returns and press 5 to hear the joke of the day.

For all of your other shopping needs, please just stay on the line.

(How mercifully short and refreshing is that?)

I pressed 5, of course.

Hi my name is James, and I’m with the customer loyalty team here at Zappos.

Why was the chicken afraid of the chicken? Because it was chicken!

OK. So the jokes are not so good, but the “I’m glad I called” reaction is off the chart…I smiled. (I never smile when I call AT&T.)

“Thank you for calling, but please go away”

Think of Zappos’ greeting compared to the unfortunately ubiquitous, “We are experiencing a higher than average call volume right now”.

(As though it’s a service to tell you it’s a bad time at this particular moment, when they play this greeting all day every day.)

“so please use our website instead of expecting actual service, or better yet, just go away and die”.

Why the Zappos approach works so well is that the subtext of it is this:

Caring and humanity works

Hi, I’m a real person with a name, and I am part of a real team. I actually exist, and I acknowledge that you actually exist. I care and we (Zappos) care. So we are going to make this easy for you and make sure you get what you need. And we are going to put in some extra effort to make you smile.

Did your customer smile?

How would your customer service change if one of the measures was: how many customers did you make smile during the service call?

Zappos sets forth this intention in their core value of: Deliver WOW Through Service

It’s not just a technology or a system thing. It’s a people thing that is core to the culture of the company. When you let employees know what you care about as a company, respect them, and encourage and reward them to be creative, and to contribute to the cause they will. Another zappos core value: Create Fun and A Little Weirdness.

If instead you don’t actually care, and you hire people at the lowest possible cost you can, you disrespect them — so they don’t care, and you have systems and processes that prevent them from helping even if they did care – you get the service level of giant utility company.

While I acknowledge it would be hard for AT&T or Comcast or PG&E to ensure that every employee and every contracted worker every minute of every day was being competent and delightful – as if they were being paid to make people smile or say WOW – the service still would not be uniformly great 100% of the time. There would always be stories…

But why not at least start with that intention?

What can your company do?

OK, these giant companies are not good role models for mostly anything.

So if your company is not that big and does not have 24×7 customer interactions world wide every minute, you actually can make a big difference to your customers if :

1. You decide you actually want to provide care.
2. You engage every employee in your company in thinking this way.

YOU have to care

But it starts with you caring. And it’s always been interesting to me how many business leaders don’t actually care.

Caring personally about making sure your customers are treated well, takes a lot of personal energy. Many business leaders are just not up to it. Because once they decide to care, they need to engage employees in a direct, human way.

This is people stuff. People stuff gets complicated and messy. Let’s just put in a system instead…

Make caring part of your company legend

Here’s a great example of what I mean by personally engaging everybody.

I heard this story originally from the brilliant Stan Slap, about a bus company who wanted to provide excellent customer experience in their bus stations.

The new CEO did a tour to do business review meetings across the US, but did something surprising when he showed up at the first one…

He held the management meeting in the bathroom.

Can you imagine the CEO inviting you into the bathroom of a bus station to have a business review meeting?!

You can bet after the first 2 or 3 visits, every station cleaned their bathrooms.

He did not just send a memo saying, “We care about good customer experience”.
He did not just send a memo saying, “You must keep the bathroom clean”.

He created a story that spread like wildfire with no memos. Everyone that worked at the company knew that he cared and that they should too.

Engage Everyone

If you want to drive a change you can’t do so from the top down. Change only happens when the people involved are driving it. So if you want to get people to care about customers, you actually need to get them to personally care about customers.

Whenever I work with teams on this, we come up with some fantastic, wildly expensive ideas, as well as some fantastic low cost or even free, totally doable ideas.

But you only get there by engaging the individuals who deal directly with your customers, and letting them know they have the authority (and the expectation) to care through your choices, decisions and investments.

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About Patty
Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and was featured in Forbes Magazine in a column called Women We Love.

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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BMW Bad Service – The Sequel

Previously…Free service you don’t like

Awhile back I wrote an article about how BMW “pseudo-service” repels customers.

For those that did not read the prior article, the gist is that as an owner of a new BMW your choice is to get free service from BMW that you dislike (because of the awful and useless, “give me a 5″ survey process I described) or to get good, paid-for, service from someone else.

It’s an IQ test. Of course you go for the free service. But you dislike it. You endure it.

Since that post I got messages from so many people that said, “I completely agree, while I love my BMW, I dislike the service/survey experience so much that I do not plan to buy another new BMW.”

Isn’t that awful? Customers not just dis-satisfied — repelled!

Now, the sequel…

My last blog attracted the attention of someone quite high up in the BMW corporate North America operation. I got a phone call…

I must admit I was wondering what the call would be like. Would he be angry? Would he actually be helpful?

Here is what happened.

“Your inputs are very important to us.”

He was very friendly. And it seemed that the purpose of the phone call was for him to tell me “your inputs are very important to us”.

When I asked, “Do you care that your survey process is actually turning customers away?” his reply was fascinating.

He asked me where I lived. I said California. He asked me if all of my service experiences were in California. I said, yes.

Then he went on to say that, “California is strange. We do get the sense that people in California do not like our service, but we are happy with it in the rest of the country”…

OK, so now the reason I experience poor service is that Californians are weird.

I later went to the BMW website and looked at their map of dealerships. (below). If I were a BMW business leader in North America, I would not come to the conclusion that California doesn’t matter.

Customer Service Basics

OK, so what was I really expecting from a phone call?

Most business leaders know that if you have an upset customer it is a tremendous opportunity because the problem gives you a point of connection, and a reason to build a great relationship through your awesome recovery.

Fix what they care about with a show of special attention, and you’ve got a happy customer with a great story to tell – which they tend to tell. (Maybe even on a blog.)

So what could he have done in that phone call if he was motivated to actually do something?

I’ll just go back to customer service basics:

1. Actually care. Go out of your way – I mean really out of your way – to learn as much as you can about why the customer is upset. Ask a lot of questions. Make sure you really understand, and show you care about what the customer is upset about. (And never make the customer feel stupid for being upset.)

2. Accept responsibility and apologize.

2. Fix the problem if you can.

4. Offer Value. If it is too late to fix it, offer something of value. In this case, maybe a free service, a rebate on a new BMW. A hat…. Anything!

5. Demonstrate a commitment to improve. Articulate your immediate next steps to avoid the issue or do something better in the future.

In this conversation, I got nothing from him except a very friendly, useless conversation and the repeated line, “your input is very important to us”.

Something he could have done would be to take me up on an offer I made. I said: In my business I help businesses and their leadership teams get better at what they do. I consult with management teams on improving business operations and customer service all the time.

I would be happy to brainstorm with you and your team (at no charge), some service ideas which would result in happier (higher referring) customers. You have my email address, just send me a note and we’ll schedule a call. This would have achieved #2 (really listening) and #4 (make something better).

His response to this was beyond not interested.

But we need to measure service

He said, “You don’t understand, we have to do those surveys so that we can monitor the level of service our dealerships are providing”.

I replied, “But don’t you see that is not working? Those surveys are not giving you any, real information about the level of service your dealerships are providing. You are not getting accurate picture of how satisfied customers are. Why don’t you try some other things that would get you some real insight?”

He closed with “your input is very important to us”.

This leaves me with two questions that BMW should answer:

1. What does good service look like?
2. How can we measure and monitor our dealerships to make sure they are delivering actual, good service?

Here are some ideas off the top of my head. These are not well-polished ideas, but good ideas come from bad ideas and getting the conversation rolling, so here goes…

Ideas for delivering good service

Idea #1. Help the service appointment fit more seamlessly into the customer’s day.

At one point in the conversation, he said what amounted to, “What is so great about the guy you go to for service now?” I said, “Well, actually I am on a business trip as we speak, and he drove me to the airport”.

This rendered him speechless.

This gives me an idea for actual service: If I owned a BMW dealership within 20 minutes of an airport, I would offer and advertise an on-purpose service, “bring your BMW in for service when you leave for your next business trip, and we’ll drive you to the airport and pick you up when you get back”.

This provides real value and service to the customer.

If it sounds expensive to do this, why not have one of the sales people take the BMW owner to the airport in one of the exciting new models? A chance to build the relationship and get a new model on the customer’s wish list while they are experiencing great service.

Idea #2. Make waiting for service a pleasant and productive experience.

If you are going to have someone wait a few hours for service, why not give them a desk, and internet connection and a phone? I typically sit in the corner of the show room with my laptop on my lap, and a cup of bad coffee on the floor next to me.
While you are at it why not offer a pedicure?

Show your customers that you want to help them use their time well.

What the customer personally experiences during a car service is the waiting.

Most people don’t have an ability to judge the quality of what the technicians are doing. But they will transfer their perception of the quality of the car service to the quality of the waiting experience.

Idea #3. Give service people the opportunity to make customers happy.

BMW’s are not renown for their excellent cup holders. Mine has broken about 6 times in 100k miles. At the BMW dealer it would cost me $200 to get it replaced. With my guy – $50. When I commented on that he said, yes, the part cost $50, and it took me 2 minutes to swap it out so I’m only charging you for the part. That makes me feel like I am being cared for and not ripped off.

Give the service people some flexibility so that they can sometimes throw something in to make a customer feel cared for and happy vs. squeeze every last little drop of profit out of the smallest things. Organizations who are known for excellent customer service typically have a “fix the problem” policy that any employee at any level can spend a set amount of money (like $250) to solve a customer problem on the spot.

At BMW, once the free service expired, I always felt ripped off — like that free service in the beginning was not really free — and then I had to take the annoying survey. The survey asks innane questions like, on a scale of 1-5 how promptly was your service appointment scheduled? Also the survey taker had no ability to take or pass on information about what actually bugged me about the service — and if I don’t give all 5’s, my service rep will call me to yell at me for ratting him out.

Idea #4. Develop and communicate grass roots ideas.

Per the ideas in my last article, the people who are best equipped to understand and improve service are the ones who are delivering it.

Have a contest where dealerships get to compete on ideas to deliver great service. Reward the best ideas and publish them on a service blog. Let the people delivering the service recommend how to improve it.

Ideas to Measure Dealerships Service Delivery

OK… now for some ideas on how to measure the dealerships on service effectiveness.

What is your desired outcome?

If your desired outcome is to collect lots of data that you can use to make yourself feel good about providing service, your surveys are working perfectly.

If your desired outcome is to provide the kind of good service that turns customers into recommenders and repeat buyers you need to do different stuff.

Here are another couple of ideas off the top of my head. (in addition to stopping the surveys which in itself would improve actual service.)

Idea #1. Visit your dealerships

I would put a few people in the busiest regions (see the map above) to visit dealerships, spend time in the service department talking to the service reps and the customers. I am amazed at how many corporations have people who sit at headquarters make decisions about service policies. How can you know what customers think and value without ever personally connecting with sales and service people and their customers.

Idea #2. Have a secret shopper program

Offer free service reimbursement or a rebate on a new purchase to customers who will provide a thoughtful report on their service experience. Let dealers know that they will get visited by a secret shopper who will comment on the quality of their experience.

Idea #3. Get out of HQ

Have all BMW executives take their cars into a dealership for service where nobody knows them. Let them experience what the rest of us go through. And don’t forget to call them at dinner time and make them take the annoying survey.

Idea #4. Reward business performance.

Corporations, stop relying on useless customer survey data and start learning what your customers actually care about. Reward your dealerships on customer referrals and repeat purchases not survey data.

The conclusion

I have purchased a new car. It is not a BMW.

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About Patty
Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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Pseudo – “customer service” that people hate

Service or torture?

I am the type of person that buys a car and drives it forever.

My sturdy little BMW Z4 just passed 120,000 miles.

Today I found myself thinking a startling thought…

“When I get a new car, I don’t want to get a new BMW…I’d rather get a used one, because new BMW’s come with free maintenance for a few years and I don’t want to have to deal with BMW’s service department.

Wait, did I just say that BMW’s free service is a reason to avoid having a new BMW? Would I really rather pay to get my car serviced than to get it for free from BMW?

Yep. I hate BMW service that much.

BMW is a shining example of a company that is a slave to their customer service measures. They make a big show of measuring customer service, but don’t actually provide it.

Their approach to service is uncomfortable and painful for the client — and they don’t care.

You get what you measure

Here is an example of what I mean:

When you have any interaction with BMW sales or service, the person you are dealing with will tell you,

“You are going to get a call from a BMW survey person…When they ask you about me, make sure that you give me a 5 on everything, because if you don’t I will get in trouble”.

Some of them say it better than that, or put nicer words around it.

Some of BMW employees actually do provide good service, but then they are forced to sully the good experience by forcing the issue, and telling you outright that you need to give them a 5 on the survey.

Good service or not. It’s kind of creepy. It always makes me feel weird. It makes me feel bullied.

What is BMW actually measuring?

They are measuring… how well they can train their sales and service staff to coerce their customers into giving them 5’s on the survey. That’s it.

Here is an example.

A tale of bad service

After one of my free car service maintenance appointments, later that same day, a warning light came on. I called them about it, and I was forced to go back.

They discovered that my car was fine, but during their service they had failed to reset a switch, so it caused the light to come on. I had to cancel meetings and get stuck waiting for hours. It really screwed up my day.

When they realized it was their fault, there was no, “sorry we made a mistake”, no “sorry you had to come back”, no “sorry this took so much of your time”. So I told them “You know, when the survey people call, I am not going to give you a 5 this time”.

Giving them a chance to impact the outcome, I continued, “Is there something you would like to do for me to improve my experience?”

(psst. Here’s your chance… provide some service…)

I gave them several opportunities, saying something similar to the manager and a sales person. I hoped they would change my mind by providing actual care –- they did not take me up on it.

The dreaded phone survey

So when the phone survey person called, I gave low scores on the on the quality of the actual service, and the quality of the interaction.

I tested another thing…

Does the person doing the survey have any motivation to care? Answer: NO.

The survey taker/process is designed only to ask the questions, not to care, not to offer any service or remedy, or even share a friendly thought when someone is upset.

The consequences…

Soon after that, I got a call from my service guy.

His tone of voice made it clear that he was being forced to make this call, to follow up with me because I gave him a low score.

In this call, he gave me a hard time for getting him in trouble by giving him a low score.

So now this was my fault.

He was in trouble, and the result of his following the mandatory “service” process was to make me feel bad and uncomfortable for reporting my actual experience.

I decided to do another experiment and give him/BMW another opportunity to provide actual service. I said to him – “I was going to call you because I need another [small thing], can you help me?”

Another chance…

Now here was his shining moment — a chance to provide actual service, when no one was watching or measuring.

He assured me he would call me back later that afternoon to let me know if he had the part so I could stop by on my way home. My hope was restored.

I never heard from him again.

Are you measuring service or process?

Many companies fall into this trap.

Are you measuring how well you have achieved the desired outcome (a satisfied customer), or are you measuring some functional activity related to the service process?

Process provides a great excuse for bad service

Is your service staff trained in following service processes or in providing service?

In my example above, at every step, people were correctly following a process, resulting in my getting more and more annoyed.

Customer service people who are trained in processes often delight in not-helping customers when they confident they are correctly following the process.

I remember one time in New York when a friend brought me to his gym with a free guest pass in his hand, but he had not known that he was supposed to call ahead to get his guest pre-approved.

The person at the front desk who refused to let us in, called the main office at our request. After explaining our error to the manager, she said into the phone, with an almost squeal of delight, “Shall I turn them away?”

She was so pleased with herself for following the process and catching my friend out on not following the fine print on the guest pass.

To get your employees are focused on the service over process try:

  • Training people on what the triggers are for when to throw out the process and use their judgment.
  • Train the service employee to ask the customer “What do you think we should do to make this better for you?” And give them the ability to act.
  • Create a budget amount for solving customer problems that anyone can use without pre-approval.

The wrong measures = the wrong service

Very typical measures companies have in their service department are speed of closing a problem or the number of problems solved.

  • Solving problems fast = good.
  • Solving a lot of problems = good.

Only it doesn’t work out this way.

Measuring Speed

It’s important to understand that measure of speed can cause you to actually ignore customer problems, because your service staff is motivated to close out problems in the system quickly, vs. take the time to actually fix them.

What you get is: I got the customer off the phone quickly vs. I made the customer happy.

Spending necessary time to work with the customer (actual service) would result in a poor service score (spent too much time).

Measuring Quantity

Or if a rampant problem exists, but it is quick to fix in the moment and comes up a lot, here’s what can happen. If your measure is the number of problems solved, the service staff will benefit from leaving it broken because it is a good way to up their numbers.

What you get is: high problem solved count and lots of annoyed customers

Instead try:

  • Measuring the number of problems whose root cause has been resolved.
  • Or measure the number of customers who report their problem has been solved to their satisfaction.
  • Or look for customers who have multiple open issues, or issues open for long time periods and just call them!

Let your customer service people create great service

If you want to provide great service, have your service people help invent it.

In the BMW example, I would have each dealership manage a contest for their service team to get together and come up with three new ideas for how to provide outstanding service.  You could pay $1000 each for the best 10 ideas.

Instead of putting $10k into a survey, where you have sales and service people training the customers to give the right answers, which are of no real use to you anyway, you could be motivating Actual Service!!

The existence of the contest alone would inspire thinking about service, and you get much better ideas when you involve the people who actually do the work in coming up with the best way to improve it.

Avoiding the dark side

Take a look at what you measure.

Then Put yourself in the shoes of your service employee. If you were going to game the system to get the measures to come out looking good what would you do? What non-intended result would occur? –Because it will occur.

People like to make customers happy.  Let them.

At the very least, if you are not serious about providing actual service, please don’t torture your customers with surveys and processes that only annoy them, and give you a false sense of your greatness.

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About Patty
Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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