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Snip. We just disconnected you.

I was disconnected by three companies I deal with recently. All in the space of one week. All three are businesses I have been a loyal customer of for years (decades, in one case). All three know me well. I have an excellent payments history. There was no real reason to disconnect me. But they all did it anyway.

In the first case, my bill was inflated alarmingly, not sent to me, and a surly fellow was duly dispatched to disconnect me. The bill was not made available for discussion. Mr Surly hinted he might be willing to be accommodated. We did not accommodate him. Snip. Disconnected, and plunged into darkness.

To be reconnected, again no bill was available for discussion. We simply had to pay the astronomical amount and argue another day. We paid. 36 hours later, Mr Surly was back, surlier than ever, but now with a gloat attached. He reconnected us. He looked for some form of reward for doing his job. We gave him none. He left scowling, hoping no doubt to return to disconnect us again soon.

In the second case, my internet provider arbitrarily and without warning decided to enforce a monthly payment deadline day. We had always paid at every month-end (without fail), but the official date, it turned out, was a few days earlier than that. Snip. Disconnected. No warning. No discussion. Cut. We paid the next day. We were reconnected. No apology for treating a customer with an immaculate payment history in this way.

And the third case involved my mobile network provider. Because of my tribulations with my fixed-internet provider (see case two above) I had exhausted my monthly post-paid internet bundle. I knew this, and tried to buy a top-up bundle. As usual, the company’s lame systems were not allowing me to buy additional bundles. So I was put on pro-rated consumption. It climbed. Snip. The system disconnected me. Again, no warning, no discussion. The company held a large deposit from me, more than enough to cover the new bill, but they cut anyway. In this case, to their minor credit, they apologized.

I’m not writing this to bore you with my woes. I’m pretty sure all of these things happen to all of you, all the time. That’s not news. The real issue is why we have businesses so short-sighted, so detached, so officious, that they cannot recognize good customers in their midst.

In all three cases, the providers are monopolists or oligopolists. Their customers are with them because they have no choice, or because the choices on offer look just as bad. We persist because we are in a Stockholm Syndrome situation with these companies. They are our captors, and we are grateful for small mercies.

But rest assured of one thing: bad businesses do get cleansed out of the marketplace. They weaken themselves with their rigidity and arrogance. They fail to build competitive advantage. They take customers for granted. Even if they are state-licensed monopolies, eventually the state turns on them when the laments of customers (who are also voters, remember) are too loud and too many.

I don’t blame the many, many Mr Surly types in these organizations. They are not the problem. They are just ugly cogs in a vast machine of indifference. To isolate the problem, we have to turn our gaze higher, towards the upper echelons. When leaders have no personal standard around customer care, rest assured the organization will also not give a damn. Both people and systems will be set up to be mechanistic and uncaring. They will regard customers as irritations to be silenced.

In fact, understanding, recognizing and managing customers is at the heart of sustained business success. Weed out bad customers, by all means. But even courts don’t judge you guilty until proved innocent; why should businesses? Be very wise about how you treat the greater mass of customers. Handle them like adults. Discuss things with them. They pay everyone’s salary, and the shareholder’s dividend. If you don’t know that, it’s a mystery why you sit in that corner office.

Meanwhile, we, your customers, are biding our time. There will come a day when the snip will be from our side. We can’t wait to disconnect you.

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