Don’t laugh: I wrote a whole book about this (title: Nincompoopery), in which I detailed how businesses destroy customer value, satisfaction, and repeat sales with idiotic policies and processes. I then explained how NOT to do this (book subtitle: Why Your Customers Hate You — and How to Fix It).
Alas, I don’t seem to have made much of a dent in corporate stupidity.
So I’ve given up. Instead of advising clueless leaders on how to fix their hapless organizations, I’ve decided to help them get even better at ruining customer relationships. Gentle readers, allow me to introduce you to the Five Immutable Laws of Sales Prevention. I will be assisted in demonstrating these concepts by a hotel employee who—in a call with me last week—recorded a perfect score of 10.0 in applying the Five Laws to make sure that her customer never, ever wants to buy anything from her company again. Without further ado:
Law #1: Design processes that make it as difficult as possible for customers to manage their interactions with you.
I needed to cancel a hotel reservation, well within the “Yeah, whatever, go ahead” period. But when I logged into the company website—the same one I’d used to make the reservation— and clicked “Modify Reservation,” I received an error message saying that I couldn’t do this online; I had to call. This is what we call Level 1 Annoyance: a system designed to make it easy for the company to TAKE money, but hard to GIVE IT BACK. It’s also clear that they didn’t value their time or mine (Why a phone call in an otherwise automated system? Were they going to talk me out of cancelling?). But … OK, I thought. Sometimes random bad processes linger. Legacy programming, etc.
So I dial, get sucked into a whirlpool of endless extension options, finally get the code to “Modify Your Reservation.” I listen as a recording tells me that I’m being transferred (duh), and wait for someone to answer. At last, a Cheerful Employee answers and says, Why, yes, I can certainly help you. But she also informs me that I will be charged $25 for canceling. I then asked a question, which triggered Level 2 Annoyance:
Law #2: Invent mindless, irritating policies that a) generate next to no revenue and b) have no logical explanation.
Me (still chipper, but sensing Nincompoopery in my near future): “Why do you charge $25 to cancel?”
Cheerful Employee: “Well, it’s all over our website.”
“The $25 policy. It’s right there on the website.”
“I understand that it's on the website. My question is: why do you charge it?”
We then quickly escalated to Level 3 Annoyance via one of my favorite Laws:
Law #3: Act as if your irritating policy or process is completely normal, a matter of human understanding as fundamental as gravity.
Slightly Less Cheerful Employee, after a momentary silence: “Well, we’ve always done it that way.”
Ah. Well. That explains it, I think to myself. I mean: Why didn’t I think of that? We’ve been screwing customers out of a few meaningless bucks for decades, and we’re not about to stop now. Brilliant!
You’ve probably guessed by now that I did not, in fact, think any of that. What I did say was this: “Well, just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
Unnerved by this masterful rhetorical gambit, Previously Cheerful Employee started to become noticeably less cheerful. More silence, followed by a countermove to Level 4 Annoyance:
Law #4: Respond to every reasonable customer complaint or request with a single phrase: “That’s just our policy.”
Not Very Cheerful Employee did exactly that, although she actually said, “That’s just the owner’s policy.” Hmm. Was “owner” supposed to impress or scare me? (It didn’t work.) Either way, this phrase is roughly the equivalent of telling a grown-up that you will eat your #!@%$ spinach, and you will #!@%$ like it, whether you #!@% want to or not. Because we don’t give a damn about how you feel, or if you ever do business with us again.
Me: “Well, it’s not a great policy. Because, you know, when I call Hilton or somebody like that, and cancel within the appropriate window, they don’t charge me $25.”
This is when Not Cheerful At All Employee flipped the nuclear switch, taking us to Level 5 Annoyance:
Law #5: Pretend that your company lives in an alternate universe without competition, meaning there’s no need for you to change even the worst policies or processes.
Grumpy Employee: “Well, we’re not Hilton. We’re privately owned."
Boom! There you have it: The dumbest explanation(s) of poor quality or service ever: We’re [insert one: privately held, publicly held, too small, too big, too young, too old, etc.] to figure out how to be competitive, so we’re just gonna give up and keep screwing our customers until they all leave.
Which, of course, I did. But not without a twinge of sympathy for Now Thoroughly Flustered Employee. Why? Because even though the Five Immutable Laws of Sales Prevention primarily victimize customers, they secondarily harm employees who bear the brunt of customer irritation—even though these employees rarely have a say in bad policy or process creation, or even training on why they matter (or, more likely, don’t). Through no fault of their own, they end up looking like nincompoops in the eyes of customers. But remember: It’s never the nincompoops.
It's always the Nincompoopery.
John R. Brandt is CEO of The MPI Group, a global research firm. A humor columnist at IndustryWeek since joining as associate editor in 1994, he was promoted to editor-in-chief in 1995, where he served until 2000. He is the author of Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You—and How to Fix It (HarperCollins, 2019).