Growing up on a cattle farm is a chance to see both the promise and perils of freedom. For months cows leisurely graze, sleep in the shade, and drink water from a nearby pond. In the winter when there is no grass, bales of hay are delivered to their “doorstep.” But, when the time comes for cows to be transported to market, herding can become a challenge. It starts out rather peaceful; but, as cows are moved from the open pasture into small holding pens and then forced to go into a loading shoot and onto the truck, it requires electric prods to convert their revolt into compliance.
Our culture is all about freedom. Customers enjoy “grazing” in the fields of choice. They relish countless options and enjoy the security of personalization. And, when they are prodded to follow a lock-step freedom-limiting path, they quickly leave the herd for greener service pastures. When they have no option, they find disorderly ways to register their displeasure.
So, what does this cattle metaphor have to do with you? If you limit customer freedom in any way, you pay the price with their propensity to respond with greater than normal fury. They take out their anger on your frontline ramping up stress, burnout and turnover. They look for ways to circumvent and sabotage your processes. They assertively trash your reputation. Their tweets and Facebook ranting’s spotlight your freedom-limiting service practices informing hundreds or thousands of potential customers to stay clear of your “holding pens and loading shoots.”
Where are these freedom-limited places in your service delivery? Can customers easily and quickly reach a live person if they have an issue? Is your service offering the only game in town—like a utility in some states? Do you hold your customers hostage with high switching costs or complicated account closing rules? If your customers call you, do you use your phone as an answering machine instead of an easy tool for two-way dialogue? Are you always reachable when your customers need you, or do you impose business hours convenient only to you? Are the forms you require of your customers totally user-friendly? How about your procedures? Is your self-service actually “you are totally on your own” service?
Customers are obviously a lot smarter than cows. When cows get herded to market, they are unable to anticipate their imminent plight to jump a nearby fence to freedom. Today’s customers find astute ways to neutralize or immobilize their temporary service jailors. The most alarming part of their mutiny is the ease with which today they are able to get fellow customers to join them in their uprising.
Conduct a customer freedom audit and eliminate any unfair, unreasonable, and unexpected restrictions on your customers’ capacity to get what they want, when they want it, and the way they want it. If regulation requires a restrictive process, provide your customers with a clear rationale, sincere empathy, and accommodating assistance. Interview recently lost customers to get their feedback on the real reason for their exit. Call your own office or department, disguise your voice and ask for something slightly out of the ordinary. Ask your customers for suggestions on ways to reduce their service effort and enrich their service experiences.
The expectations of today’s customers for service freedom are rising rapidly. As more and more companies put “ease of service” front and center relegating bureaucracy to sidelines, customer standards for how service should be delivered gets elevated. They use Zappos and Amazon eyes to inspect your service delivery. And, if your service experiences are found lacking, they remove your brand from their “hide” and wander elsewhere.