Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: POWER MESSAGING…Company communication when service fails


Anyone who has lived in this beautiful country of ours will attest to the fact that some service providers have gotten better as the years have rolled by. Even the organisations that are public in ownership and monopolistic in competitive stance are actually upping their game. The quality of service delivery has improved, especially from those in charge of our utilities. Definitely, there are still issues with the way we get water and electricity into our homes. We still have issues with waste management. But the truth is that things are not as bad as they used to be.

It is now common for these service providers to have fully-functioning call centres. For those that have no such setups, there are well-resourced customer service units and departments handling the complaints and concerns of customers. Some of these departments and units are manned by some of the best-trained human resource in the area of customer service. These improvements, albeit marginal, are to ensure that the concerns of customers are handled in as most professional a way as possible.

The old image of poor service from these service providers is giving way to a more professional image. There are even some of these state-owned organisations that are far outperforming their private counterparts, especially in the area of customer service. This is a pleasant departure from the old image of public utility providers being out of touch with the realities of the day.

One area where I have noticed a marked improvement is in the way these companies communicate with customers, especially when there is either a service failure or when there is a planned maintenance that can result in some sort of service challenge. These organisations have become a lot more proactive in communicating in these situations.

Customer communication during service failure has been known to have a serious effect on the actions and reactions of customers. As a matter of fact, research has shown that depending on the kind of messages that the company sends out, the negative effects of service failure might even be lessened. In much the same way, the wrong message can really be worse than no message at all. It is true that when things go wrong, the business comes under intense scrutiny. Therefore, any communication that proceeds out of that organisation during a crisis will be looked at twice by all stakeholders.

The July 2022 edition of the Psychology & Marketing journal contained an article titled “Revisiting power messaging in service failures: Pitfalls and proposed solutions”. This study made use of five separate experiments conducted among participants in the United States. The researchers behind this study concluded that businesses must be extra cautious when crafting messages meant for customers, especially when there is service failure.

It is argued that when communicating with customers, there are certain messages that make customers feel very important. These are the messages that inflate a customer’s sense of importance and leave customers with the feeling of holding all the power in the business-customer relationship.

Power is very important in the lives of every individual and therefore it is a highly-valued commodity to have. History has enough proof of the extent to which individuals will go just to have power in life. With power comes an ability and opportunity to do things that the average person might not be able to do. Those with power are able to, among other things, get others to do things for them. They are able to influence others, and that means a lot to a lot of people in this life.

The researchers argued that when companies send out messages that make customers feel powerful, the negative effects of poor customer service are minimised.  The reason given is that customers who feel powerful and feel they have control over a situation tend to believe they can do something about the situation. Therefore, their emotions do not tend to be as negative as when they feel they are not in control of the situation.

Power messaging is adopted by many artistes, footballers, movie stars, and other such performers. A typical example is when these superstars stand in front of their fans and make a statement like “You know, without you, I am nobody!” In the times we find ourselves in, others will make a statement like “Please share this video and let it go viral. Without your support, I will not be here!” What these influencers are effectively doing is making their fans feel empowered. The effect of such power messages is that these fans (read, customers!) begin to feel like they are in control of the individual or the one’s brand. The ultimate effect is that these customers are more likely to forgive their idol if the one wrongs them in anyway.

When brand communications come with embedded messages such as “We exist only to serve you,” “Without you, we have no future,” “We need you to survive,” “Your business means the world to us” or any other variant of such messages, the brand is engaging in power messages. Customers’ feelings of power are inflated with such messages. 

It has however been noted that the way companies couch their messages in the face of service failures can either lead to consumers feeling empowered and thus feelings of negativity are lessened. Or consumers might rather feel angered and thus the feelings of negativity against the brand are heightened.

According to the above-referred research, when the power message is made in a blatant manner, without any attempts to hide the intention of eliciting power, customers begin to view that message as an attempt at manipulation by the business in question. And since no one loves to be manipulated—people actually resist any attempt at manipulation—any attempt to manipulate through power message is met with resentment by customers.

Additionally, when customers begin to view a business as attempting to manipulate them, it leads to suspicions of the business’ products or services as not being of good quality. The suspicion that the business might be up to no good can lead to further negative feelings from customers. Customers who end up forming such an impression about a business would eventually begin to engage in negative actions towards the business. It is not uncommon to find such customers going out of their way to let others know that the business in question is of a questionable character.

The truth is that customers are well aware of the fact that they do not really control the business. Customers know the decisions are up to the “big men and women” at the boardroom. Customers know their place in the order of things and so are not disillusioned as to the extent of whatever power they might wield. Therefore when a business gives the impression that it exists because of the customer, that message already has an uphill battle to win the customer over. The slightest sign of insincerity and the customer would quickly conclude that business is attempting to be manipulative. This means that power messages works best when targeted at customers who are not too sceptical.

From the study, it became clear that the best way to elicit the feelings of power in customers is rather to let the customers know that the service experience itself is what will boost their power. In other words, this kind of messages lets customers know that they have power but that is as a result of the service or product. Instead of “You make us who we are”, the researchers argued that it should be more of “With our X, you can do…..”

Releasing such messages helps in getting customers to see the importance of the product or service in the lives of customers. In other words, it is better to show customer that they get their power from the service they experience rather than they having actual power over the company. When that fact is established, it becomes easier for customers to be a lot more forgiving of the business when things go wrong.

The study also pointed out that power messages work well when employed by brands that are perceived and positioned as underdogs on the market. When these brands communicate that the service experience leaves customers feeling powerful, it becomes easier for customers to identify with the brand. When that happens, it becomes easier for customers to give that brand the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.

The final bit of the study asserted that the best use of power messaging by an underdog brand is when the service recovery includes input from the customer. Co-creation of service is a phenomenon that has become quite pronounced over the past couple of decades. When customers participate in the service creation, they feel powerful, knowing that their efforts are important to the final result. In this sense, it is easier to make a customer feel powerful when the customer is actually doing something with that power.

As competition rises and customers become savvier, the need to get customers on the side of the business becomes more important. When customers are rooting for a particular brand, it will take a lot of effort from the competition to take those customers away. As can be seen from the ongoing discussion, making customers feel very powerful is one sure way to get them to fall in love with a brand, especially when things are not going too well. Every businessperson knows that the tendency for things to go wrong is always high. Therefore any little help is needed by the business. Fortunately, power messaging helps a lot.

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