Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Good customer, bad customer

J. N. Halm

Giving feedback to those who give feedback

In the early months of 2012, a friend I had not heard from in ages, called out of the blues. His reason for calling was that he had a bone to pick with me. Why? His issue was that this particular column, which was in its fourth year at the time, had been championing the cause of good customer service without talking about the role of customers in the whole process. He said I had made customers feel like they can do anything and get away with it.

I apologised to my good friend and assured him that that was far from my intention. I further assured him that I was going to attempt to rectify that perception in the next write-up. That conversation led to the publication in February 2012 of the article titled “Customer Irresponsibility—Shifting Focus to the Other Side”.

I cannot believe it has been a full two decades since that conversation. Indeed, times flies when you are having fun. Over the years, though, I have occasionally touched on the need for customers to know that they also have responsibilities to fulfil if organisations are to give them the best of services.

Unfortunately, some customers still do not seem to get it. Some customers still walk around, carrying with them a certain air of superiority, treating service professionals as they would their house-helps at home. It is as if these customers forget that those serving them are also flesh and blood. Customers abusing customer service professionals, verbally or even physically, are not uncommon. In many instances, these crass behaviours are directed at those lower down the socio-economic rungs of society. Waiters, cleaners, security personnel and domestic helps.

Even when the behaviours do not escalate to these detestable levels, there are still cases where customers will even lie to have their way. There have been customers who have even stolen from businesses. Videos of customers shoplifting are rife on social media. The sad truth is that at one time or another, some customers will resort to some sort of unwelcome behaviour. What many customers forget is that these behaviours end up costing the business money.

It is this constant misbehaviour from some customers that makes some businesses take the stance of also rating their customers according to the ease of serving those customers or just how the customer contributed to the overall service experience. This is like a counterattack on customers. Because for years, customers have been the ones rating and ranking businesses according to the quality of their products or services.

Giving businesses a rating has always been seen as a way of giving customers useful feedback. A business that is constantly receiving lower ratings has a duty to do something about the quality of its offerings. Rating customers can therefore be seen as a way of getting back at customers. It is a business also giving feedback to its customers. Rating customers is simply giving feedback to those who normally give the feedback.

It is important to note that rating customers is most effective if the individual is a repeat customer. If the transaction is a one-off transaction, with no possibility of the customer ever coming back, then rating the customer will not be too relevant. This is why ride-hailing services such as Uber are in the best of positions to rate customers. The chances of the customer coming back to use the service are always very high. A customer’s ratings will be stored in the company’s database and that can be used by drivers to access that customer next time the one logs on. Airbnb is another one of those services where customers can effectively be rated.

By and large, these ratings can be very useful. For instance, if an Airbnb guest is rated as a violent person, it would be very difficult for a host to open their residence for such a person. In a matter if speaking therefore, customer ratings can actually be a life saver. Ratings customers could mean the difference between a great service experience and a terrible one.

Technological advances have made the practice of rating customers very easy. With just a click of a button, a customer’s behaviour during the service interaction can be given a rating and subsequently stored on a database, for future reference. AI with all its facing recognition capabilities provides a very effective way to rate customers.

In practice, when a business gives its ratings on a particular customer, the information does not stay with the business alone. Customers also get the feedback from the businesses they patronise. One can be forgiven for seeing this as a good thing for customers. By knowing what a business thinks of you, it is easy to see what you need to do to be a better customer. As a matter of fact, the desire to see customers evaluate their behaviours and to make changes when necessary is one of the main reasons why customer ratings are becoming quite common. Businesses see it as a way of getting unruly customers to change their behaviours.

Unfortunately, for all the good reasons why some businesses categorise their customers, it has been found that the practice of rating customers does not really work. A study published in the December 2021 edition of the Marketing Letters journal lent support to this assertion. Titled “Feedback as a Two-Way Street: When and Why Rating Consumers Fails,” the study found that when customers get to know that they are rated low by a business, such customers rather tend to misbehave the more. In other words, rating one’s customers rather has an opposite effect from what is expected. Those who were rated high were expectedly better behaved than those who had the low ratings. The study found that even those customers who were not aware that they were being rated behaved better than those were rated poorly by the business.

According to the above study, one of the main causes of the wayward behaviour of customers who are given low rating is the fact that many of these customers simply resent being rated. Many customers are so used to doing the rating, to the extent that when the camera is turned on them, they lose their temper. It is in attempting to show their resentment that these customers tend to more unruly behaviours towards the business.

There are also those customers who do not believe that they should be rated by any business at all. These are the customers who feel disrespected when they are given some kind of rating by businesses. As a matter of fact, human beings by nature do not take too kindly to being evaluated. An evaluation of our performance, in any form, sends us back to our early days in school tests and examinations and this generates some kind of apprehension.

Studies have also shown that customers hate being rated because as far as they are concerned, if they pay for a service, they have done their part. The onus thereafter is on the organisation to do its part. Rating the customer’s behaviour, therefore, is viewed as being unfair to customers. Why should I be rated after I have paid for a service? That is the question that sits at the back of the customer’s mind.

Then there is that notion by many customers that if there is a service failure of any kind or any act that causes a less-than-satisfactory customer experience, the blame should fall squarely on the organisation in question. Many customers of today, especially those hooked on the whole belief of The Customer Is Always Right, believe they are to be treated like royalty. For these customers, therefore, an organisation has no right whatsoever to rate those it is to treat like royalty. In fact, if the firm “dares” to rate a customer who has paid for a service, then the rating must be very high.

For these and other reasons that are uniquely personal to different customers, it seems the practice of rating customers does not go down well with customers. Businesses that are practicing this customer rating policy or have intentions of doing so must therefore take a second look at the policy. It might cause one to lose cherished customers.

According to the study referred to above, one way to curb the possibility of a backlash from poorly rated customers is for the organisation to be selective in revealing the ratings to rated customers. Those customers who have the highest ratings are those who should be shown their scores as is done by some ride-hailing app businesses.

The study also advised against the policy of revealing ratings to customers who have done poorly because those customers would unleash their fury against the employee who might have given them the low rating. It has even been found that in organisations where customer rating takes place, frontline employees might even give a terribly-behaved customer a high ranking, just so as not to suffer the anger of the said customer.

All in all, the practice of rating one’s customers is not a bad idea in itself. However, as can be seen from the ongoing discourse, it is a practice that can backfire spectacularly if not handled well. Businesses must therefore really take a second look at the practice before jumping on it. If an organisation has a problem with the behaviour of its customers, it can look at other ways of getting the customers to behave better. Sometimes, it is better to leave things the way they are than to stoke the hornets’ nest and get into unnecessary trouble.

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