Ethics, PR, and Dissing Your Customers

Here is a cautionary tale at the intersection of ethics and customer service. It’s a true story, but names and trademarks have been omitted to protect the innocent.

The story is worth relating at length, and it goes like this. A friend of mine recently emailed one of his favourite chain stores — one he patronizes regularly — to make a suggestion: would they please improve the selection of one product line at the location nearest his home?

I’m sure it’s the kind of suggestion that lots of companies get these days. After all, they’ve got websites with Contact pages featuring phone numbers and email addresses and stock photos of smiling operators waiting to take your input.

What happened next, however, is perhaps not an everyday thing. Following his friendly suggestion, my pal was accidentally cc’d on an internal email regarding his query. The gist of that employee-to-employee email was that my friend should be told to go to a different store (farther from his house, but with a broader selection of goods). There was, in addition, speculation that my friend had “too much time on his hands.”

Excuse me?

Resisting the urge to post this story on Twitter, my friend settled for sharing this story with a handful of friends on Facebook. He also forwarded the offending email the company’s CEO, and its head of Communications, and gently suggested that “if staff want to complain about customers, they probably shouldn’t CC them.”

Within just a few hours, my friend received a response. It included an apology. It also included assurance that such disrespect for customers was not consistent with the company’s customer service policy, and that the offending employee had been advised of this fact in no uncertain terms. Finally, it included a gift certificate, along with an invitation to a VIP tour of one of the chain’s stores in order to discuss its offerings with a knowledgeable member of their staff, and a promise to revisit the product offerings as per my friend’s original suggestion.

To his credit, my friend now considers the matter closed, and has asked me not to publicize the name of the company involved.

But it’s worth reflecting for a moment on just what went on here, and why. The author of the offending email was rude, to be sure — rude in a way that was supposed to be kept behind the scenes, but rude none the less. Whether such rudeness amounts to an unethical lack of respect is a question that is probably best answered in terms of frequency. We all have grumpy days; but a pattern of rudeness amounts to a display of disrespect that is inconsistent with the ethical demands of customer service. We don’t know whether the employee in question was merely having a bad day. But I’m pretty sure that the company in question came within a hair’s breadth of having a very bad day from a public relations point of view. Because, needless to say, the company involved only narrowly avoided a minor social media disaster. Had my friend decided instead just to post his experience on Twitter, the story might well have gone viral.

This reminds me of an anecdote I recently heard related by an executive at Disney, having to do with the customer-service orientation of the Disney employees responsible for picking up trash and emptying trash bins at the company’s amusement parks and resorts. The Disney executive said that, for years, those employees had been told that their job was to keep the place clean. The result: all those tourists leaving pop cans and popcorn boxes all over the place were inevitably viewed as pains in the neck, as obstacles these workers faced in trying to get the job done. The result was poor morale, and occasionally surly interactions with paying customers. At some point, someone had the bright idea of changing these employees’ mission: no longer would their mission be to “keep the place clean.” Instead, their mission would be to make customers’ experience at Disney a positive one. Sure, that would mostly consist of keeping the place clean, but that would just be a means, not an end in itself. The result, or so the story goes, was a big improvement in morale. The lesson: there’s no need to see customers as a burden if it is made clear that customers are why you’re there in the first place.

1 comment so far

  1. Krystal on

    This is a great post! As a student earning my HR management degree, I agree that ethics and justice is part of every single HR function for an organization. The human resources department must put in place their own strategic plan that will add value to the overall current and future business strategy and exemplify the brand and behaviors they want their employee to portray. As this post states, this is done through the culture that is established. As MacDonald, also highlighted, many companies that have failed because of unethical issues had an ethical strategy, but it was not injected into the daily culture and it is the function of the HR to ensure that each employee is carrying out the appropriate ethical behaviors that is outlined in the overall business strategy. This starts at the workforce planning stage and continues through the end of employment. HR managers see each member of their workforce as a valuable asset and is committed to providing an ethical place to work by delivering distributive, procedural, and interactional justice through each of the HR functions and expects ethical and just behavior in return. A fair and competitive compensation program is designed to help each employee balance health, relationships, career, and financial stability to deliver distributive justice. Following employment law is one of the most important part of the human resources functions as well as ensuring all processes are conducted ethically to deliver procedural justice. And ensure all employees are treated equally to deliver interactional justice. These are just a few examples of the many HR functions that require ethics as the foundation and help implant ethical behavior into the work culture.


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