Vocalabs Newsletter: Quality Times


Of Course You Don't Intend to Kill Puppies. But Hypothetically Speaking....

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Of Course You Don't Intend to Kill Puppies. But Hypothetically Speaking....

Recently, Sun Country Airlines, formerly a Minnesota-Friendly airline reconstituted as an Ultra Low Cost carrier, stranded a couple planeloads of customers in Mexico because of a blizzard in Minneapolis.

Cancelled flights are not all that unusual in Minnesota during the winter, but Sun Country's strategy for dealing with it was. They simply refunded the passengers' remaining airfare and told them to find their own way home. The (now former) customers were not offered any meals or lodging, nor any assistance in finding another way home.

Nor did Sun Country offer to book those passengers on another Sun Country flight: as the airline explained to passengers and the media, those were the last Sun Country flights from Los Cabos and Mazatlan for the season and the airplanes were needed elsewhere. And because there were no more flights, there were no Sun Country representatives on the ground to help passengers, either.

Naturally this didn't go over well. The couple hundred dollars for the refunded tickets wasn't even remotely enough to book a last-minute flight on another airline. It's likely that some passengers had to borrow from credit cards or friends just to get home. The passengers and media were outraged.

But Sun Country was probably within its rights. The company's Contract of Carriage (a 30-page document almost no passenger has read) only says is that the airline will try "to the extent reasonably possible" to provide transportation if they cancel a flight. Someone at the airline made the decision that it would be too hard or too expensive to figure something out. So they exercised their option to punt.

There's a huge gap between what companies are legally or contractually required to do, and what their customers expect them to do. Short of war or bankruptcy, no passenger expects that their airline will just leave them sitting in an airport in Mexico with no money, no ticket home, and no assistance. But Sun Country wrote its contract so it could do exactly this, and I'm sure that every other airline does exactly the same thing.

Nor are the airlines alone. These sorts of one-sided, unreasonable terms of service are everywhere, from Wells Fargo claiming its contract prohibits customers from suing it even when the reason for the lawsuit is because the customer never agreed to the contract, to Facebook giving itself permission to track everything you do and everywhere you go, online and off, and use that information in almost any way it wants.

These contracts go far far beyond what customers think they're signing up for when they click "agree." Not even the companies think these contracts are reasonable, judging from how quickly they back down from the PR stink when they actually try to exercise these rights they've given themselves: after a few days of bad publicity, Sun Country announced it would reimburse customers for the cost of getting home.

Terms of Service agreements are generally written by lawyers, and the job of a lawyer writing a contract is to reduce or eliminate the chances that the client will be sued. So when a company is allowed to write its own contract without any negotiation with an actual customer, the lawyer will  write it to cover all possible bases, no matter how the company plans to operate.

I can just imagine a lawyer at a conference table advising the client, "Of course you don't intend to kill your customers' puppies. But hypothetically speaking, some day a customer's puppy might die because of a mistake the company made, and the customer could claim that you meant to do it, or even enjoyed it. Juries love puppies, so we might as well put in the contract that the customer gives us permission to maliciously and gleefully murder his puppy."

This is fine as long as everything goes well. But when a crisis comes up it's tempting for a company to think it's OK to actually do the things it wrote into the terms of service. If leaving passengers stuck in Mexico gets your airline out of an expensive pickle and you're legally allowed to do it, it's hard to say no.

The solution is both obvious and very difficult in the real world: Write terms of service agreements according to how you intend to treat customers, not according to what will minimize legal risk in every possible situation. If you don't give yourself the contractual right to abandon customers in Mexico, you're much less likely to actually do it when the crunch happens.

This requires having someone to advocate on behalf of customers, someone to ask the lawyers, "If you don't intend to kill my puppy, why give yourself the right to do it?" With the recent Facebook data leaks and the new GDPR regulations in Europe, there's been more of a spotlight on just how egregious many of these contracts really are. So maybe we're in a moment when these one-sided "agreements" can be rewritten to reflect the way companies intend to do business, rather than providing them maximum legal cover.

One can only dream...

Why are we so obsessed with metrics?

If there's one thing that can spark a lively discussion among Customer Experience professionals, it's someone who takes a strong stand for or against any particular metric. But why do we spend so much time and effort worrying about metrics?

Most reasonable CX metrics provide directionally similar results: when Customer Satisfaction or Net Promoter improve, chances are very good that Customer Effort,  Customer Loyalty, or any scorecard composed of customer survey responses will also improve. The numbers will be different, but they should all tell a similar story. Viewed in that way, arguing about which metric is best is a little like arguing about whether miles or kilometers are better.

Though come to think of it, when the United States tried to switch to kilometers half a century ago, it turned out that a lot of people suddenly felt very strongly about measuring highways in miles. So maybe it's not so surprising that we also have strong feelings about which CX metric to use.

When used properly, it shouldn't matter all that much. Most of the real CX action is below the level of the metrics: it's about finding ways to improve individual customer journeys, most often by helping people at all levels of the organization put themselves in those customers' shoes. Metrics, like signposts on the highway, give us some sense of how far we've gone and whether we're moving in the right direction. Miles or kilometers, either one will tell us that how much progress we've made.

And to the extent that different metrics give us different results, that's a sign that something unexpected is happening and we need to pay attention. Because while different CX metrics usually move together, they do measure somewhat different things. So if Net Promoter (which measures the strength of a customer's overall relationship) improves while Customer Effort (which measures how smoothly a particular transaction went) is getting worse, that could be a sign that something's afoot. It may be that there are some operational problems which your customers are willing to forgive (for now); or it may be that you are benefitting from a competitor's misstep. Whatever the situation, it's worth spending some effort to dig deeper.

In the end, I think metrics appeal to us because they give us a simple view into a complex reality. Boiling down our CX efforts to one number makes it easier to explain the impact of Customer Experience, and it makes it easier to show leadership what exactly it is that we're trying to achieve.

This is fine, but it comes with a steep price. Because in the end, it's not the metric that matters. What matters is everything that goes into the metric, all those thousands or millions of individual customers and their individual stories. The metric, while it makes it possible to think about the bigger picture, conceals far more than it reveals.

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