Seller Beware: Breaking a Promise Could Lead to Losing Your Customer

By Dawn Palmer, Accenture

From the time we’re old enough to make our first purchase in a store, many of us already are familiar with the simple caveat “buyer beware.” Nowadays, however, it may be just as appropriate for sellers to beware of the customer. Because if a company doesn’t deliver on a “promise” that was made to them – even if it’s a perceived promise – they might face some very real consequences to their brand and bottom line.

Accenture research shows that nearly 70% of consumers say a company has made some kind of promise to them, and 40% say they’ve had a promise broken with 62% who’ve had a company break multiple promises. What’s especially worrisome is that many companies fail to recognize that they are breaking a promise with half of the consumers surveyed, believing the companies that broke promises are not even aware that they had done so.

In a customer’s mind, companies make implicit promises every day, whether they realize it or not. Ads that offer fast and efficient service, same-day delivery or expert technical support are making promises without ever mentioning the word “promise.”

According to the research, the most commonly cited promises made by companies are on-time delivery of goods and services and no hidden fees. Encountering hidden fees and unexpected costs was also the biggest broken promise.

When they pay money for a product or service, customers take a company’s promises very seriously. Nine-in-10 respondents who said they had experienced a broken promise either switched companies or at least considered buying from a different company. More specifically, 42% of consumers stopped doing business with a retailer after they felt a promise was broken.

The research also shows how tenuous long-term loyalty can be when a customer believes a seller has broken a promise. One-fifth (22%) of respondents had been customers of a retailer for more than two years when they stopped doing business with them after a broken promise.

Especially important is that customers do give companies a chance to keep these promises before they consider them broken, and many are willing to forgive and forget – as long as a problem is solved. Four-in-five are likely to complain about a specific issue before switching to another company, and nearly half of customers want an acknowledgement of blame and an apology from the company before they are willing to re-consider their desire to switch.

Some of the main reasons consumers felt a promise was broken by a retailer were: they had to repeat an issue multiple times with different customer service representatives (44%); the customer service representatives were lacking in knowledge or understanding of the issue (38%); and the problem just wasn’t resolved to their satisfaction (37%).

No matter the industry, companies cannot afford to break promises to their customers. In an era of burgeoning social media usage and increasing competition, there’s no place for companies to hide. Consumers have more choices than ever before, and as we’ve seen in the research, even if customers are slow to make the switch, break enough promises and even long-term customers will choose another provider.

The steps companies can take to fix the problem are really basic, but they require a strategy and a long-term focus. Among them:

  • Take advantage of breakthroughs in analytics, big data and digital communications to find out everything there is to know about your customers. Ask them directly about their perceptions of the promises a company has made and those they believe have been broken.
  • Ensure that the marketing, sales, advertising and public relations functions are well connected to each other and to the rest of the organization in order to share the information gleaned from customer surveys and create a strategy that addresses customer perceptions.  
  • Conduct a top-to-bottom review of all marketing, advertising and PR materials to determine potential fault lines related to making – and keeping – promises.
  • Train, train, train. Focus greater attention on ensuring that every interaction between the customer and the company is at a level that inspires customers to keep coming back. Tailor customer experiences to their individual needs, aim for more personalized care and make sure that customer-facing personnel are adept at technologies and service issues as required. Focus training specifically on the things customers say they dislike most about dealing with companies that are breaking promises:

    • Help customers avoid having to repeat problems and personal information multiple times and fix customer self-service obstacles.
    • Make sure customer service representatives have the knowledge and understanding required to field customer calls.
    • Quickly and satisfactorily resolve problems related to products and services.
      Deliver and complete service requests in a timely manner.
    • Slow down the direct mail and telemarketing advertising to customers and make it simple for them to disengage from company pitches if that is their preference.

Dawn Palmer is a managing director in Accenture’s Sales & Customer Services practice.


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