Author: Suzanne Oxford
Categories: Knowledge, Business

Promises, promises

Aah, Telstra.

If you own a business small enough that it’s your job to do hand-to-hand combat with a telco, these two words say it all. And it doesn’t matter what brand name you insert: nothing brings out a sense of shared suffering better than a tale of a telco stuff-up.

I had a story I dined out on regularly that involved a telco sub-contractor turning up to fix a crackle – and ending up severing all of the phone and fax lines running to my business. That was fun.

Right now, I’m in my 7th week of hour-long conversations with many truly delightful employees of a certain telco, each of whom is exceedingly articulate and apologetic for all the employees who have gone before them. (One supervisor, in all seriousness, said to me: “You need to expect that we won’t get anything right. In fact, I find it best to have very low expectations.”)

My end of a conversation just a week ago went something like this: “So you’re telling me that you can see that you’ve made a mistake in charging me $700 extra this month, but that it’ll take you another three months to reverse the mistake in billing… so I need to give you $700 now and trust that you’ll give it back to me later?”

Not surprisingly, I asked for this once-in-a-lifetime deal in writing.

Of course, stuff-ups, broken promises and disappointments occur every day between businesses and consumers. It’s human nature. It doesn’t have to be a telco – although they do it with panache. And it doesn’t have to be big business – although it often is.

Small businesses can often break faith with customers through the sheer limitations of their size. Flexibility and nimbleness are great benefits of working with small business; but when lots of work hits, there’s no-one spare to get it done. Unfortunately, SMEs also need to fight harder than big corporates to keep consumer faith and love alive – because it can mean the difference between floating or sinking.

Here’s a great example. Quite a few weekends ago, a small water filter company I’ve used in the past phoned me. The first guy – who said he was the business owner – gave me the sales spiel, and then handed me off to the junior to take my order. Inwardly, I applaud their decision to go aggressively out to the market and to phone customers one by one for after-hours orders. After all, when cash flow’s tight, you have to work smart. Outwardly, I’ll probably not order from them again: the filter still hasn’t arrived.

It’s all very well for marketing managers to talk endlessly about channels, for CEOs to cast vision and for designers to beleaguer brand design.

But at the heart of every brand experience must be trust, in any of its forms. If you’re a services company, then be a trusted advisor. If you provide products, then provide them to a high standard. And in every transactional stage, keep your promises – whether it’s getting a bill right, delivering a product or following up words with actions.

Small businesses also need to keep promises in order to grow their future markets. Nothing closes doors on future opportunities faster than a disgruntled current customer. Case in point: I’m a hostile captive to my telco. No other telco covers my area – so it’s either their way or no information superhighway. But captivity doesn’t encourage me – it frustrates me, and when added to negative experiences, makes me ready to share my tales with anyone and everyone.

Likewise, small businesses need to beware the hostile captives in their business. Is there a customer who’s contractually wedded to you but bitterly unhappy with the service you provide? Beware their rage – it can and will go viral to potential customers in the blink of an eye.

Cherish the value of trust to your customers. Promises kept will define you and your brand long after your competitors have broken theirs.