Is your brand burning bridges?

Be careful how you treat your customers….

Quick: Name a company that you will never, ever work with again.

When I asked my husband this question, he immediately responded with “24 Hour Fitness.” Once upon a time, they continued to charge his credit card after he cancelled his membership. It took him months to straighten it out.

Oh, and did I mention that this happened 20 years ago?

Having a bad brand experience is like eating bad seafood at a restaurant. Whenever you think of the brand, your brain immediately goes back to how horrible you felt the last time you were there (or the last time you worked with the company.) Sure, you know that your experience could be “unique.” You know that the company may have even cleaned up their act. That doesn’t make any difference – you still remember the pain you endured.

I thought about this when I was trying to cancel my Vonage service. I used Vonage for over seven years with (virtually) no complaints. Then, the service got so horrible that people couldn’t hear me, the call would drop – you name it, it happened. After 20 minutes with their customer service rep (with me repeating the phrase, “No, I want to cancel my service” at least 20 times,) I was assured that my service was, in fact, cancelled – effective immediately.

Then, I received an email with the subject line, “Confirmation to continue Vonage services.” The email read, in part:

“We’re delighted that you’ve chosen to stay with Vonage.

We’re writing to confirm the terms you discussed with our Account Management representative on 7/3/2012 to continue your service…”

W. T. F.?

At the very bottom of the email, I read this line:

If you have any questions or believe this information does not accurately reflect what you agreed to, please let us know that within seven (7) days. You may do so by accessing this link…

When I clicked the link, it took me to a page that gave me two radio button choices: Cancel my service, or continue it. So, even though I called to cancel my service – and was assured that it was cancelled – Vonage used this sneaky tactic. Had I not paid attention, my service would have continued.

The result? I will never, ever use Vonage again. And I will tell everyone I can about their sneaky bait-and-switch tactics.

In today’s social media world, burning customer bridges is just plain stupid. If you piss off the wrong person with a huge Twitter following, their opinion of your company will go viral in moments.  Case in point:

(This is a true story. A representative from PayPal’s “escalation department” disputed the anti-SEO stance the first rep mentioned, and said that they could help if I was classified as a “training company.” Having said that, the “escalation rep” is no longer returning my calls – and no-one else from PayPal has offered to help.)

So, what happened here? The post got retweeted, and people wrote blog posts about my experience. I’m sure PayPal’s profits aren’t in danger – but I will tell everyone I know about how I was treated.

What are the lessons that businesses can learn from this?

- Treat your customers fairly. I feel that the Vonage “Confirmation to continue Vonage services” email was completely unethical. Same with how 24 Hour Fitness back in the day kept charging some people’s credit cards long after they cancelled. If people want out of your program – and they are within their contractual rights to do so – let them out. Make it easy for them. The customer may come back if they were treated well. They won’t come back if you made their life a temporary hell.

- Follow through if there is a problem. Mistakes happen. People give out incorrect information. What’s not OK is to tell a cranky customer “I’m on it” and then drop the ball. Because you know what that customer is going to remember? How you said that you’d call them back – and then you didn’t. That’s what they will tell their friends and family (and social networks, too.)  Comcast has certainly won some points with their @comcastcares Twitter handle – prior to that, talking to Comcast was a painful experience. They may not be perfect, but they’re trying. It’s something.

- Reputation management won’t help you if you suck. If you continue to ignore customer issues, do sneaky things and don’t value your customers, it will come back and bite you in the butt. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But someday. And that can cost your company a significant amount of cash. Here’s more information about reputation management from guest author @seobelle.

That’s my rant…how about yours? What companies have left you feeling less than happy about how they treated you?

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