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Why companies can develop adversarial relationships with customers

A reporter recently asked me to comment on why some companies seem to develop adversarial relationships with their customers.  I found that a really interesting question.

Adversarial relationships between customers and companies that serve them often have their roots in the adversarial relationship that can develop between an employer and its employees.  When employees feel that they are not being treated fairly or that they are not engaged with the company, it can easily spill over into their relationships with customers.  If serving customers well is seen as something that will help an employer they have negative feelings about, front-line service people are highly unlikely to deliver great service.

An even greater level of frustration takes place when front-line people know what it would take to meet a customers’ needs, but the employer simply doesn’t want to or can’t provide the support that is necessary. 

And of course, to the extent that employees see themselves as just “doing a job” rather than really owning the issue of customer satisfaction, they’re unlikely to be very helpful.  I’ll never forget a trip which had us landing, stranded, for a couple of hours at an airport in which people frequently transfer to holiday destinations.  With the place full of thirsty delayed travelers, I was astonished to note that the folks running the full (and getting fuller by the minute) bar were preparing to shut it down, despite obvious demand which would have been there for a couple of hours.  Well, they don’t own the place.  They could work extra hours and make the boss some bucks, but would they be rewarded for their initiative? Paid more? Promoted?  Probably not.  So the most sensible thing to do for them, even though it meant disappointing a load of customers and giving up on a major pile of income, was to go home.  You’d never see an entrepreneur doing that. 

In travel, the most vivid example of customer service that borders on the hostile has got to be Ryanair.  From what I can gather, their active dislike of, and lack of respect for, customers extends to just about every aspect of their business.  The recent flap over the airline floating the idea of making the toilets on airplanes a “paid for” service is just one example of how they view anything they do for customers as a negative, unless they can charge for it. 

Now, customers are not always the injured innocents in these adversarial situations.  I’ve known of plenty of cases in which customers tried to take advantage of a company, which of course puts the company in the awkward position of having to be somewhat adversarial or run the risk of losses from self-serving customers. 

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