A customer decides to buy your cheapest product or service, but then changes his mind and decides to buyÂ your most expensive.Â How do you treat him?
a)Â Rather well
b)Â Like a criminal
Well, yes, you’re right, extraordinary though it may seem, there wouldn’t be much point in asking the question unless the answer was b).Â And on trains operated by Southern, it is.
Going with a colleague to a new business meeting on the south coast yesterday, IÂ suffered a rareÂ pang of guilt about my usual habit of paying huge premiums – at the company’s expense, naturally – to travel first class and avoid the orange-eaters.Â Â I must say, the standard-class day returns that I bought really are an awful lot cheaper, but as soon as we got on the train, I could see why:Â packed with orange-eaters and ipod-wearers in all directions.
No problem:Â revert to Plan A, go into (deserted) first class and transform Southern’s margin on this particular service by paying a stupendous amount for an upgrade.Â Everyone wins.
It’s a very odd kind of winning.Â I have beside me the piece of paper issued after we paid the stupendous amount in question.Â It’s called a “Penalty Fare Notice/Receipt,” and it begins: “At 14.14 hours, having travelled and failed to produce a valid ticket, you are required to pay a PENALTY of Â£20 or twice the appropriate single fare (whichever is the greater).”Â Further on, it says “Unless the amount owing is paid in fill by 30 May 2007, legal proceedings may be brought against you.”Â And further still:Â “To enable us to issue the penalty fare notice you will be asked details about your journey and for your name and address.Â It is a criminal offence to refuse or falsify your details.”Â And so it goes on.
I have to say that I can’t ever remember receiving what we marketing types would call such dissonant treatment, not even the time when I was trying to hold back a surging football crowd so that a man who had fallen could get back to his feet and was dealt a sharp blow to the arm by a policeman who thought I was playing silly buggers and getting inÂ everyone’s way.
Is this really the way that Southern think it’s right to treat passengers wanting to buy their most expensive tickets?Â And if so, then for goodness sake why?
I can’t answer the first question, but I can at least give you their answer to the second.Â There’s a Q&A on the back of the form, and one of the questions asks why you get a Penalty Fare Notice when you go into first class because standard class was full.Â Southern explain:Â “Whilst we appreciate it can be tempting to travel in first class accommodation in this situation, we have to be fair to our first class ticket holders and consequently upgrades must be make to your standard tickets before you travel.”
Well.Â If you can make head or tail of that, you’re a lot cleverer than I am.Â In fact, I can’t even be bothered to make the pithy comments I had in mind about it – just copying it out makes me feel too angry.
Has all this got anything to do with financial services?Â Yes, sort of.Â A lot of customers do treat their financial providers very badly, across a wide spectrum of badness that ranges from carelessness to outright fraud.Â But tonally, a lot of providers find it difficult to differentiate between points on the spectrum, and respond by treating everyone as an outright fraudster – levying the huge penalty charges that have caused so much trouble lately, bouncing cheques, cancelling insurance policies and so forth, and sending letters to their customers not much less confrontational than the form I received from Southern yesterday.
A while ago, in the earlier days of Internet banking, something went wrong in cyberspace and a payment to my MBNA credit card didn’t reach its destination.Â MBNA reactedÂ just as you’d expect this deeply charmless organisation to react, suspending my account and writing me an extremely chilly letter.Â For several years, they’ve occupied the same deeply negative space in my mind that Southern moved into yesterday.
As a result, no matter what Southern or MBNA may do to build positive brand perceptions, or develop stronger customer relationships, or cross-sell, or up-sell, or do any of those good marketing things that we and our clients spend our time doing, until hell freezes over I will hate both organisations with an undying hatred, miss no opportunity to discourage others from having anything to do with them and summarily dismiss everything they try to say to me with a harsh and hollow laugh.
I wonder how many other customers of how many other organisations feel – and laugh – the same way.