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  • January 10, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

Being Insensitive to Customers Is an Odd Business Plan

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‘Bittersweet/ You’re gonna’ be the death of me/ I don’t want you, but I need you/ I love you and hate you at the very same time’
—Kanye West (‘Bittersweet Poetry’)

OK, prepare yourself for a classic “kick ’em while they’re already down” sort of column. While maybe not the fairest thing to do, complaining about widely acknowledged bad experiences can be extremely cathartic. And when the example of bad behavior comes from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), I can have more fun than a tornado in a trailer park.

This story starts with a man named Gary Leff, the author of View From the Wing, one of the premier blogs for frequent travelers and the points-obsessed. On a recent trip through O’Hare airport in Chicago, Leff spotted an ad from the TSA that just struck him as wrong, wrong, wrong. Leff snapped a photo of that ad and tweeted it to his more than 26,000 followers. What was it that so raised the ire of Leff that he took to social media?

The TSA was trying to drum up business for its trusted traveler program, which, for an $85 fee, reduces the indignities that passengers must endure as part of their airport screenings. When issued a PreCheck marker on their boarding pass, passengers need not take off their shoes and belts or remove their computers or toiletries from their bags. How did the federal agency go about this? The ad Leff tweeted out shows a man tying his shoe and bears the tagline “Isn’t getting dressed once per day enough? Get TSA PreCheck.”

Yow. That is exceedingly tone-deaf. One way to read that ad copy is, “You know the awful stuff we put you through? Pay us and we won’t torture you so much. Or, because we don’t guarantee that you will actually get to use the service every time you fly, we probably won’t cause you as much humiliation.”

I joked that this column would target the TSA, but unfortunately for all of us as consumers, that agency is not alone in taking this attitude. The travel industry is rife with this approach to customers. Don’t like the very poorly designed website functionality we offer? Pay us $25 and we will deign to talk to you on the phone. Don’t want to fight for overhead bin space? Pay us $30 per suitcase and we might get it to your destination. Most of the time.

There are two things going on here that really show a lack of customer-centric thinking:

First, these examples all subject us to what one of my pithy colleagues calls a “time tax.” If we are not of the economic class that can afford to avoid these ignominies by throwing money at the problem, we still must pay, but in this case, we pay with our valuable time. The egalitarian in me recoils at how inequitable this approach to customers truly seems. This appears to be an easy way to build up both intra-customer resentment and customer resentment of the company.

Second, these organizations take some pain that they themselves have caused and attempt to use the remediation of that pain as a selling point. How about providing some actual value? That would be novel.

Most of this is only possible because we are captive audiences, but as a consumer, one ends up feeling like these organizations are heaping contempt on us—and that’s no way to drive any sort of loyalty.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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