About a week ago I sat down to pay some bills. On the statement I saw a late fee. This bothered me a little because I hate late fees. And I pay on time. I have every due date in my life seared into my memory so I don’t forget. And since I pay by phone or online there is never an issue of the check not getting there in time.
So I sent the credit card company and e-mail. “What’s up with the late fee?”
Their response: “You were one day late.” I took issue with this but rather than argue I decided to check the facts myself. Sure, enough, the due date was a day earlier than when I paid. Then I realized what happened. This account does not have a set due date each month. They use a “billing cycle” which creates a floating due date. Several times a year it’s a day earlier or later than the usual due date.
Sure enough they were correct and I was wrong. But does that make it right? I would argue no, it does not make it right.
First, if they check my history they’d see I pay on the same day every month. I was late only because this one month the due date moved backward by one day. So if the purpose of a late fee is to get people to pay on time, then they are wrong to assess me a late fee. My record shows I’m a consistently on-time customer.
Second, if they wanted to make things easier on their customers, they would have precise due dates that were the same each month. Then (I believe) fewer people would have late fees assessed because situations like this would not happen.
When I got the company’s e-mail response I responded with the above argument. “Look at my record” I said. Same response. They pointed out the facts and quoted policy. No change in outcome. I even asked them to escalate the matter. They refused.
So I found a phone number for their “executive customer service team” and called them. Within minutes I had a refund and and apology. The lady on the phone said she does the same thing I do and she hates floating due dates because they cause problems like these. She understood that I was a consistent and reliable customer who did not need the club of a late fee to remind me to pay “on time.”
This situation shows us exactly what is wrong with so many companies: They abuse their customers. Then when a customer calls them on it they stonewall. And they continue to stonewall unless the customer escalates the matter themselves. And then, instead of continuing to defend their position, they reverse themselves completely. There is no hesitation. Their eagerness to please is almost scary after experiencing the cold, machine-like response from the first line of customer service.
Is this the corporate version of “good cop/bad cop”? Is this company so poorly managed that it allows this Jekyll and Hyde to exist?
I doubt it. I’d say it’s a well-executed corporate strategy.
It’s a strategy that says we want to milk as many high-profit fees from our customers as we can but keep customer attrition to a minimum. So we create a goofy billing cycle that causes a floating monthly due date. That way many of our good customers will likely miss one or two each year but it’s not enough to cause them to leave. And if they do fuss we’ll quote policy to them at our first line of customer service. So we retain most of the new fees. Then the tiny number of customers who push the issue will get a refund. But we’ll make them work for it.
I’m certain a couple bright MBA-toting mid-level number crunchers came up with this. And the company’s management probably thinks they’re getting away with something. “It’s a perfect strategy” they tell each other. “We get new fee revenue with almost no expense and no customer attrition. We’re so smart!”
But they’re not smart. They’re stupid.
They’re stupid because they are abusing their customers. They are trying to generate revenue without working for it. Fred Reichheld calls that “bad revenue” and he’s right. It’s bad because it’s revenue that is derived from customers but for which customers receive no value. In the long-run bad revenue will never work. The cost in customer attrition will be too great.
The other mistake this company makes is to make their customers work to get a resolution. Only those customers who self-escalate will get a resolution. Everyone else gets told no and an education in company policy.
This is a great strategy if you want to drive customers away. Even worse, if this strategy is consistent with the attitude of the company’s leadership then this company is doomed. A company culture that says it’s okay to make money by abusing customers will drive a company into the ground.