Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Francis Wade | Gaslighting customers to accept poor service

Published:Sunday | January 14, 2018 | 12:55 AM

There are companies in which staff members are rightly embarrassed by the poor service offered to the public.

But there are also badly run organisations that operate without any sense of remorse ­ no apology ever offered, no one willing to be responsible.

Consider them to be gaslighting their customers.

The term isn’t normally applied to corporations, but to individuals. Perpetrators are often narcissists, abusers, dictators and religious leaders who say things which cause people to question their sanity. The victim’s norms are discarded or disputed. Universally accepted standards become individual proclivities to be ignored.

I have met personalities who fit the bill nicely, but recently, my bank showed some disturbing signs. Unknown to me, it froze my account because I failed to respond to a posted letter from its compliance department. So they say. I have no evidence such a correspondence was ever sent.

Their comeback? My mail system had to be faulty. Therefore, I was guilty and deserved the disruptive sentence I was handed.

Unlike the human gaslighters I have met who are easy to spot, I found this situation confounding. After all, the customer service representatives, or CSRs, I spoke with were friendly, polite and helpful. They used my first name repeatedly as if we were old chums.
 

PARROTING LINES

However, in retrospect, they all parroted the company line the multiple phone numbers and email addresses they have on file for me are “with another department” and “could not be used”.

All that was needed to update their files were two pieces of updated information. With robotic efficiency, they assured me full restoration in five working days, in addition to the holiday weekend.

Incidentally, they didn’t mention the fact that they go overboard to ‘incentivise’ customers to be paperless. Or that I was severely and stressfully inconvenienced because of their actions. Or that their explanations were ridiculous. None of them seemed to think these were real issues.

Instead, I was left wondering: Is this just me? Am I the only one in this conversation who thinks this is crazy?

Now, a week later, I can put a name to the experience: corporate gaslighting. My definition? ‘When a company persistently disrupts the well-being of its customers in novel ways, then uses its staff to indirectly but politely attack complainants’ common sense’. It forces customers to question their sanity, while CSRs must shed their humanity in order to do the job.

If you work for an organisation, let’s assume that gaslighting is a fact: the only question is how much of it is taking place each day. Ask the following questions to find out more.

Are customers leaving without telling you why?

Don’t answer this looking at the loud complainers or those who write letters to the editor of newspapers. Instead, find those who quietly quit your brand and shift their behaviour without warning.

Gaslighters convince themselves that customers leave because they have been enticed by the competition. In other words, it’s something they can’t control. Don’t believe your own story ­ find out the reasons why you are silently repelling people, forcing them to seek service elsewhere.

Can customers find relief?

In a separate institution, I am forced to deal with someone who is incompetent. As my ‘point person’, she routinely ignores my emails and voicemails. Direct calls are useless. Desperate pleas to individuals in the organisation, including her manager, produce no change in behaviour or even positive acknowledgement.

As far as I can see, I have exhausted my appeals, so I’m actively searching for a new provider.

If you offer an essential service and your customers are at a dead end with no further recourse, your company is gaslighting them. Fortunately, the answer could be simple: set up an easy-to-find, independent ombudsperson with enough resources to track any problem to its root cause. Have him or her report to an executive to avoid entanglement in your bureaucracy.

Are you eager to uncover problems?

The best CEOs I have ever worked with are quite demanding, especially in one way. They insist I tell them the stuff their colleagues won’t, focusing on areas I consider to be their blind spots.

Here’s a real-time test: If you bristled at the suggestion that your company is gaslighting its customers, you probably share some characteristics of the weakest leaders. They defend themselves lustily, even in the face of obvious evidence. To keep criticism at bay, they suppress people with outside opinions, while actively promoting bootlickers. As a result, it’s just a matter of time before an issue arises which blindsides their cabal, sometimes resulting in disaster. 

Gaslighting in companies is hard to detect. It requires hyper-vigilance and a willingness to empathise with the abuse customers experience. Therefore, it takes supreme but uncommon courage and discipline for leaders to root out this organised form of corrupt service delivery.

-  Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of ‘Perfect Time-Based Productivity’. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com