The root cause of your customer's anger

Do you know the root cause of your customers’ delights and annoyances ? It’s a critical question. If you don’t, you can’t give them more of what they love. And you may be tempted to offer the wrong solution to address their concerns.

Here’s a simple example. Airlines regularly survey flyers asking how likely respondents would be to recommend each of the carriers they use to friends and colleagues. They also probe the reasons for different ratings. Of course, many passengers give certain airlines poor ratings because they believe those airlines perform significantly worse than competitors in on-time performance—more delays, more cancellations, etc. But in many cases, flight data shows that the gap is far less than customers seem to think. What’s really going on?

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A team at one airline that studied customers’ responses noticed that many passengers who were upset about delays and cancellations felt they hadn’t received appropriate compensation. One obvious first response for any airline executives might be: We should certainly improve our on-time performance, and maybe we should offer more compensation. But both solutions would cost millions of dollars. Better on-time performance, for instance, requires spare planes, backup crews, extra mechanics on duty, and so on.

Closer analysis yielded different insights. How the airline handled delays seemed more important than the delay itself (see figure). In fact, delayed passengers mostly fell into one of two groups: those who felt that the airline’s communication about the delay had been terrific and those who thought it was terrible.


root-cause-of-your-customers-anger-fig_embed

Passengers who thought the airline had communicated well gave it far higher scores than those who did not. In fact, the scores from passengers who experienced long delays but good communication were about the same as scores from passengers who experienced only minor delays, but thought the communication had been lousy.

Researchers could now investigate each group further. Why did some people believe that communication had been so good? It turned out that someone in authority, usually the pilot, had addressed them clearly and explicitly about what he or she knew, and had shown empathy with the passengers’ plight. Asking why that didn’t happen all the time, the airline found that its procedures were poorly defined: No one was quite sure who was supposed to address the passengers. Some pilots took the initiative to do so, others did not. Moreover, pilots had differing levels of communications skills. Some made passengers feel a lot better and others did not.

As for the group that felt communication had been poor, many respondents said they had been given conflicting information, and thus believed that someone had lied to them. Again, researchers asked why. They found that gate agents and other employees were often using different and uncoordinated computer systems, which provided different information. They also discovered that gate agents were reluctant to give out incomplete information—they didn’t want to be perceived as lying—but as a result they waited for “just five more minutes,” over and over. Unfortunately, their good intentions resulted in prolonged silence that contributed to passenger anger.

Notice what was going on here? The researchers weren’t content with first answers, or even with second and third ones. They keep asking why, in the manner of the famous “Five Whys” of the Toyota Production System. Their goal was to get to the bottom of things—the root cause of customer happiness or discontent—and they finally did. Armed with the root-cause research, the airline was able to take relatively inexpensive corrective actions, such as synchronizing information systems, clarifying communications procedures, and training pilots in communications skills.

Quick, granular feedback from customers is indispensable to a company, which is why we originally developed the Net Promoter system. But you must always be certain that you understand what your customers are really telling you before you take action.

Written by Rob Markey and Fred Reichheld, authors of The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World. Markey leads the Global Customer Strategy and Marketing practice at Bain & Company and Reichheld is a Fellow at the firm.