February 28, 2021

When a customer, vendor, student, client, partner (or anyone else you do business with) comes back to you after a transaction (or even just an interaction), with any version of any of these…BEWARE! 

  • “That’s not what you promised in the sales letter”
  • “That wasn’t the deal”
  • “The guarantee was deceptive”
  • “This is not what we agreed upon”
  • “Your language was confusing”

If you are a human being doing business anywhere, responses like these are inevitable.

And you must take full responsibility for them…at least initially.

That’s how you will get to the promised land of a more peaceful world doing commerce with tranquility.

I’m not saying that you meant to be deceptive when you receive feedback like the above…but remember that there are always “three versions to every transaction”:

  1. How the other side sees it
  2. How you see it
  3. What really happened (which is often not data you can easily get your arms around)

If you start with #1—another way of saying “the customer is always right” (even if they are not)—you can more effectively backtrack to (some version of) “the truth.”

Every time a disgruntled member from the world you serve comes at you with guns blazing, looking for satisfaction, to make you wrong or simply looking a refund, if you understand that they are coming from a place of unrealized expectations (and not hostility or anger) you will be better equipped to deal with them.

And whether you want to admit it or not, you are the one who created the monster.

Those unrealized expectations are always traceable to how you frontloaded your message in the first place, and taking responsibility is the first step towards redemption.

In response to something I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago, The perpetual hot trend (regarding going deep with an unhappy customer until they are satisfied), a member of my online family (Rose W.) asked me this:

How can we balance giving an unhappy customer what they want with our own personal boundaries in a service-based situation (as opposed to a product-based situation when additional bonuses can do the trick)?

After a lively email thread, Rose and I came to this conclusion:

Frontloading with the most clear and concise communication seems to be the best way to achieve universal customer satisfaction…in so many ways…in both life and business.

But…no matter how clear and concise the communication is to you, it will never be clear and concise to everyone.

The case of the “negative option offer”

When I served on the “Ethics Committee” of the Direct Marketing Association in the 1990’s (yes there was such a thing!), “negative option” was a way of life in the world of direct response (and it still is in newer and even more fiendish forms).

Most of the cases that came before us were this type of offer in some form or another.

If you are unaware of what I’m talking about, a negative option offer (renamed the kinder, gentler “advance consent marketing offer” by us at the Ethics Committee) can go from legitimate to a scam in a heartbeat.

Negative option briefly defined: You receive an offer for a product (say a book)…you buy the book but the “contract copy” (copy on the order form, laying out the full deal, current and ongoing) gives your “consent” to peruse, sample, or buy the next book (with no obligation)…and you will automatically be billed (or for you online only folks selling digital products, your credit card will be charged if you don’t cancel).

This is nothing new…but as we moved from offline to online, with online purchases mostly being credit card only, on a till forbid basis (while direct mail was more an “invoice first” medium), it gets much dicier.

In addition, marketers who seek to take advantage of unsuspecting buyers or members would put the contract copy in mouse type and look to collect as much as possible on those credit cards on the first order or subsequent orders until the buyer realized what was going on and cancelled.

We call that a “breakage model”…it’s the worst kind of negative option…and those who play that game give marketers who do it right a bad name.

Examples of the good guys of advance consent marketing are all of the memberships who are looking for members to actually use the membership rather than forget about it once joining…leading to long term members.

The bad guys hook you in, spend a few months capturing credit card payments, enough to make a tidy profit, and clearly there is nothing long term about this flavor of negative option/advance consent.

It’s the opposite of creating value…they simply created a way to suck some short term funds from folks who don’t read contract copy and don’t check their credit card bills either.

Even if you do everything right frontloading your offer, with all of the legal contract copy in the right place with the right words, you are still bound to get complaints, threats (e.g. someone panning to write to their Attorney General)…and even cease and desist letters (from lawyers and AG’s who are way more powerful than the Ethics Committee of the Direct Marketing Association).

It’s all about how well you frontload and then how you deliver on the back end.

And I know many individuals, then and now, who went to jail for violating the simple rules of frontloading a legal offer of this kind and/or not delivering anything of value on the back end.

I give you this extreme example to make the case for the intimate relationship between frontloading the offer fully with the sole purpose of fulfilling all expectations on the initial order and all subsequent orders.

Whether it’s a legitimate offer with impeccable fulfilment with unclear (or non-existent) frontloading…or law abiding contract copy with an illegitimate product or service…you can’t have one without the other.

It’s always unrealized expectations that cause complaints.

And pity the fool who doesn’t frontload the offer legally (and properly) and also fulfills nothing of value or significance on the back end to grab a quick buck.

If you’re out there doing anything like that, I hope orange is a good color on you.

What is a “personal boundary” in a service based situation?

Creating customer satisfaction in terms of frontloading with integrity for the purpose of diminishing unrealized expectations, specifically in service based businesses (rather than product based businesses), depends on a few things:

  • The price of the service (i.e. the more expensive the service you provide, the more you need to frontload and dare I say, over deliver).
  • The (over) delivery (to clients and complainants alike) is more about what you can “afford” in time rather than with goods and products…so a calculation of what your time is worth is always a requirement.
  • It comes down to “promises made and promises kept” and despite many customers never being satisfied with whatever you do, there is always a negotiation that takes place. (But remember, start with “it’s your fault, not their fault, in terms of deficient frontloading and delivery”…and work backwards from there.)
  • Since the value with a service based business might not have any cost of goods involved—only your time and effort—you need to make a determination of not only how much your time is worth but also how much in terms of time and resources make sense to turn an unhappy customer today into a happy customer for life
  • Avoid “Done For You” (DFY) offers…that is, if you prefer fewer unrealized expectations…because the blame can only go one way (to you) with an unhappy customer when you tell them you are doing everything for them.

Taking the blame for an unhappy customer who has skin in the game (i.e. not DFY) is difficult enough…but if the offer is billed as Done For You, what is “Done?”

If “Done” is only in the eyes of the beholder, you may have problems.

And the bigger the DFY promise, the bigger the need to frontload specific expectations even more—with all of the deliverables and the actual results they will achieve.

If you can guarantee all of that, go for it.

I’m only issuing a yellow caution flag to enter into DFY arrangements with your eyes wide open since there will be much more of, “you didn’t do what you said you were going to do”…with the potential of creating an unwanted flood of unfulfilled customers. 

When you are frontloading any kind of “deal” with the expectation that you can fulfill on it to perfection, you still need to be cognizant of changes that can happen midstream…on your part, on the part of the customer/client/vendor… or just unforeseen “stuff that happens”…that causes someone to go ballistic on you.

I usually know it when I see it (i.e. someone having a legitimate beef vs. someone looking to take advantage)…and while I always give my “partner” on the other side of the desk enough rope, there is also a time to turn off the “customer is always right spigot.”

In a product based situation, allowing a customer to demand free products as compensation for their unfulfilled expectations is the best quick fix–it’s only a hit to short term costs and profit–and I consider it a rule of thumb of basic customer service.

However, when services are in question, allowing them to take free services from you when you’re the only person performing those services (or you’re part of a small team)… well, that can be a somewhat stickier situation, which could balloon into long-term problems and setting a precedent you don’t want to set.

I guess my best advice is to create an “I know it when I see it” template (i.e. the tell-tale signs) to determine when it’s safe to withdraw from a client or partner who is being totally unreasonable (rather than one who is simply unhappy).

Some folks can’t be saved…nor should they be saved. Only you can determine when they cross that threshold.

There are many ways to create a client relationship…from “done for you” to “done with you” to “do it yourself”…and the key is to always set parameters (i.e. expectations) in all circumstances.

Frontload as much as possible…to protect your backload.

There are never any guarantees that customers won’t take advantage of you…it’s the price of doing business in a dynamic marketplace.

But setting up the field of play for a fair game is your first step to a winning (and more rewarding) result.



About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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