Overpromised and Underdelivered

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Avoid flying into the customer expectation trap.

August 01, 2001
Contact Scott Sedam

via e-mail at [email protected]


Whether builder, supplier, manufacturer or trade, you get letters from time to time. And you probably get more negative than positive - that’s the nature of the beast.

But if you are like most of us, your first reaction is to raise your defensive hackles. In so doing, you miss most of the message - and most of the opportunity.

Customer service, by most analysts’ estimation, has reached a new low. It’s caused by a variety of issues including unmet expectations - the most dangerous because it is the most insidious.

Look at the ads for everything we buy, from insurance to cars - to houses - and they scream Quality and Guaranteed Satisfaction, often with survey results or awards to back them up. The continual efforts to one-up the competition lead us to create ever more intricate programs to gain customer favor or loyalty. But we get ourselves into trick boxes when expectations lead us to overpromise and underdeliver. Let me offer you a personal example that I just addressed this morning.

Upon opening my e-mail, I saw this come-on from my local airline: "Please join us for a live Web chat with Russ Hinckley, managing director of Northwest Airlines’ WorldPerks program."

Oh baby, I thought. Here’s the chance I’ve been waiting for. This is what I sent to Russ:

Dear Russ,

I received your e-mail solicitation to participate in the e-conference "chat" on the Northwest WorldPerks program. Unfortunately, I am tied up that day, but I’ll take you up on your suggestion to submit questions in advance. This is not a "fan" letter. I am in the top 2% of your frequent fliers and have been for more than 10 years. And I can tell you that the frustration your customers have with WorldPerks is incredible. Right now, it is hurting Northwest Airlines more than it is helping. A few examples:

Example #1: Nine months ahead of time, I try to get two coach tickets from Detroit to Paris for my wife and daughter for a trip they’d been planning for five years. No deal. Unavailable. I had to run them through Amsterdam at very inconvenient times with a long layover. I checked back several times, up to a week before departure for the nonstop. No availability. Then, upon checking in, they ask me, "Why in the world are you sending them through Amsterdam? The Paris flight is only half full." Sure, they could change it. No problem! But by that time the bags had gone into the tunnel and could not be retrieved. The agent said she would have gladly put them on Paris direct because the Am- sterdam flight was overbooked. But it was too late because you have to travel with your bags. So sorry.

Russ, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that NWA screwed everyone on that deal, including itself. They could have made my wife and daughter very happy, plus sold two more seats or avoided paying out vouchers - but no! There was a ton of availability, but I couldn’t get to it. Everybody loses.

Example #2: My 18-year-old son wants to go from Cincinnati to Baton Rouge - not one of the world’s great trade routes. He wants to go Wednesday and come back Saturday. Both flights are wide open, as in "less than half full." But we can’t do it because WorldPerks requires a Saturday night stay! This is ridiculous. It’s obvious why you are doing it: because you want to handcuff the frequent business traveler. But here you have all of this frequent-flier liability built up, I want to send a kid to Baton Rouge on a wide-open flight, you have the chance to burn some frequent-flier miles off the account, and I can’t do it. So I call Continental, your partner, and they can do it with WorldPerks miles. No problem - they don’t have your stupid restrictions.

Example #3: I’m trying to take my family skiing. I buy my ticket from Detroit to Portland and through WorldPerks actually find four free seats for my wife and three of my children on the same flight. So far so good. But my college kid wants to go, too, and he’s in Cincinnati. I check for that route on the Web site, and the flights are wide open. Should not be a problem. But I have to do a "rule-buster" from Cincinnati and burn up the double miles because it is "not available" for frequent-flier tickets. That "unavailable flight" flew at 58% capacity. Why did I have to rule-bust?

There are other problems, such as the frequent times you lose bonus miles because e-check-in is mysteriously unavailable or because the airport check-ins were down. You probably owe me 50,000 miles from that alone. And don’t get me started on e-Biz Perks, your supposed reward program for the frequent business traveler. What a total disaster. After trying and trying to get it to work, and agonizing waits for your servers, I gave up. I wrote several e-mails about the problems but never got a meaningful answer. It was a joke. You could get 20 tickets on NWA.com in the time it took to process one on e-Biz ... and this was designed to help the business traveler?

I could go on and on, but it gets exasperating. The bottom line is, you have created a monster. Something that was supposed to gain loyalty and win friends has created frustration, anger and animosity. Everyone I know who flies on business in the Detroit area feels the same. This system will screw you in any possible way it can. It is not passenger-friendly - in fact, it is decidedly anti-passenger. It’s a clear case of overpromise and underdeliver, the worst possible business scenario. You continually build up expectations and then don’t or won’t come through. As businesspeople, what are you guys possibly thinking?

So, Russ, you want to get on the Internet for an hour of "live chat" with your customers about this? You are a brave man. Best of luck. I’ll be flying on Northwest that day, begging for my first-class upgrade and hoping for a flight attendant who is merely indifferent instead of downright rude.

Regards, Scott Sedam

That’s probably not what Russ had in mind. Comes under the heading "be careful what you ask for." Will Russ think I am just another nut case, a stressed-out business traveler looking a gift horse in the mouth? Or will he look at me as a typical businessperson expressing the needs of hundreds of customers? I should probably add that I don’t believe Northwest is any worse than any other airline.

But the Northwest scenario is a classic from which we all can learn. Russ gets to manage a program that was supposed to reward frequent travelers and make them happy, and all it does is make them angry. The airlines make no secret about their hatred for these programs and would give anything to go back to the pre-frequent-flier good old days. But it’s done. The expectations are set.

My old friend Jim Bowen, when he came to the home building industry from Ford, used to preach over and over that you can’t manage the expectations, you have to manage the experience. It took me a long time to understand what he meant. I wanted to set and manage expectations for the customer. But for the most part, forces outside of your company are setting the customer expectations, and they are considerable. Try as you might, you can’t do a lot to manage them down. True, we can try not to make things worse, as in the Northwest example, but primarily our job becomes to build the system, people and organizational capacity to deliver.

Lessons Learned by Scott Sedam tells the stories of the home building industry. As only an industry veteran like he can, Scott examines our habits and practices with an eye to improving the craft and business of home building. Scott is the president and founder of TrueNorth Development, Inc.

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