Planned Inconvenience

The Customer Service revolution is OVERDUE. This week, I called my bank to close an extra business account that I no longer needed. What happened next was stunning. Before the bank finally closed the account:

  1. I spoke with five different humans
  2. I was read a formal apology sentence by all five
  3. I was authenticated four times
  4. I was incorrectly transfered four times
  5. I was read four scripts
  6. I was given three inaccurate “direct lines”

Despite my exasperation, the “consultant” in me immediately pondered: How could a respected national brand have become this dysfunctional? I wondered how much this interaction cost the bank, from a CSR salary perspective alone? I concluded that the problem must be a total absence of customer service empowerment. After all:

  • The team through which I opened the account (my first call) was not empowered to close the account
  • Three of the five teams didn’t know which team was empowered to close an account
  • Only one of the 5 teams was actually empowered to close the account
  • The systems of record didn’t retain authentication tokens across transfers

I’m a good customer and have eight other accounts there. And, since I believe in the Golden Rule, I planned to contact the brand directly to help them improve, rather than to shame them. Public rebuke before private dialog is not my way, which is why the brand will remain nameless. But, as I was crafting a plan to find and notify the VP of Customer Service, a friend let me in on a trade secret. The friend (Richard Natoli) is a customer service expert. Richard mentioned a distasteful practice he’d witnessed early in his career and told me:

“What you experienced at the bank is sometimes referred to as planned inconvenience: A way to force retention.”

This disclosure changed my attitude from helpful to indignant. Any brand that intentionally creates obstacles to prevent customers from departing, all the while apologizing for the inconvenience, is simply unethical. It remains alarming that there are still business leaders who believe passive-aggressive manipulation results in retention. It simply confirms my recent assertions that Disposable Leadership is a chief problem of our day.

A retention strategy that is built on obstruction is short-sighted and disposable. Make your customer happy, even if that means releasing them. You’ll reap the rewards in other ways. Setting up processes to force customers to remain with you is unethical, foolish and “so last-century.”

27 Responses to “Planned Inconvenience”

  1. Planned inconvenience is what built companies like AOL. Make it simple to enroll, and make unenrollment as difficult as possible.

  2. I’ve seen this before. A few months ago suspicion got around that long wait times in the cable/isp biz was a planned inconvenience. If you wanted to cancel any services, you’d end up in a special queue where the agent would try to save the account. If it seemed you were beyond saving, you end up in hold limbo until you give up. It’s disheartening to think the practice even exists.

    In my industry long hold times and missed transfers have always just been a reality and a sign of growing pains. My own company put forth a huge effort to beef up staffing and lower hold times in a direct response to feedback of this nature. Hopefully other companies in other industries can do the same.

    • Hi Jay,

      Yes, the dreaded limbo queue: I had to tell three of the CSRs, “Don’t read me a script, just close the account. You didn’t do anything wrong, I simply don’t need it any longer. I have eight other accounts that I still need. Now stop being silly and CLOSE the account.”

      So glad to hear about the responsiveness where you work! That’s a sign that renewable thinking is taking root and bearing fruit!

      Thanks, Jay


  3. Hi Tristan,
    I had run into this planned inconvenience with a credit card company once and also an internet service provider. I was as incensed as you are indignant. You are correct that the customer service revolution is long overdue.

    It’s bad enough when CSRs are poorly trained or perhaps have a truly bad moment. When the bad service is planned from the top — it’s indefensible.

    Like Richard Natoli, I too spend my life in the customer service industry and I am appalled that this type of thing is going on.

    I believe there are banks that would treat you better and truly respect your business. The foolish strategy this bank used on you is laughable in this day of virtual banking. They have competition far beyond the local sphere and yet they use trickery to “manage their decline”.

    Bravo to your speaking out on this one. I will RT your post on Twitter for sure.
    Best wishes for a better day tomorrow,
    Kate Nasser

    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks for the validation that speaking up is the right move. I have the sneaking suspicion the practice is more widespread than I’d had any idea, based on the comments on this post.

      I am diversified across a number of banks, and they all have similar customer service entry points. It would appear that some industries (maybe those with lower margins) have cut service investments to the thinnest possible slice. Long-term, this disposable model will leave the market wide open for a service-minded competitor to enter and dominate.

      Thanks for all of your advice!


  4. I agree with everything you’ve said and if it is in fact planned inconvenience you’ve experienced it is despicable and your indignant attitude is justifiable. I find that incompetence is often indistinguishable from malice, and I don’t mean to play naive here, I just wonder if you follow through with the message to the Bank’s executive staff: what would be the response? Would it provide any insight to whether intention or ignorance is the driver for the dysfunctional system? To be sure, I’ve seen both motivations as the driver of bad customer service systems and in most cases the initial blush did not reveal one or the other as the primary driver (often I was deceived into thinking wrongly too). Just curious… hope you see the value and will follow up then report.

    Aside… how do you combat this as a customer beyond voting with your feet? How do you combat this as an employee without risking your job or making a lateral (or more severe) move to a new position? If the boss wants to design a system that is intentionally confusing or frustrating to customers as a behavioral control or deterrence how do you convince them this is a bad idea?

    • “How do you combat this… beyond voting with your feet?” That’s a really good question, and though I hate to say it I think the answer might be to rat them out, loudly.

      Tristan, you said that you weren’t going to tell us the bank’s name — and you held to that promise even after you found out that the bank was acting unethically. I respect your position: you’re taking the high road, you want to remain dignified and professional. I’d probably handle it exactly the same way. Yet I can’t help wondering….

      With the virtual printing press that’s available to all of us (blogs, tweets, etc.) perhaps we have an ethical duty to warn our friends and colleagues when we find businesses that are trying to hurt their customers.

      • Larry I think you might be right. I wouldn’t want to push the honorable K.Bishop into something he felt uncomfortable doing because it is contrary to his ethical perspective, yet I am struggling with the idea that this is “the high road”. If, in fact, there is evidence to show this is an intentional policy direction then the consuming public should be informed so we can all make a decision, on merit, whether or not to do business with this entity. If you don’t call them out, what incentive do they have to change?

      • Hi Larry,

        I’m not disclosing the bank’s name because, if I were the CX manager, I’d want to be told. So I have to follow the golden rule before moving another direction. I can’t know for sure if this policy is intentional or if this is institutional incompetance until I speak with them.

        I happen to know folks at this company, and I’ve already reached out to the VP of Cx privately. I’m hoping he is responsive. With regard to warning friends and colleagues, you raise a great point. If this practice is official and endorsed at this brand, it just may be endemic to the industry.


    • Thanks Ryan,

      As a customer, I’d combat it by 1) Writing the executive office a formal letter 2) If no response, calling on the brand to action via social channels 3) voting with my feet.

      As an employee, I’d 1) ask direct line manager for clarification on the purpose behind policy 2) offer alternative view point 3) if no change, move on. Many people find it difficult to do their best work if the corporate values of their employer don’t align to their personal code of ethics. When there is alignment, there is purpose and optimal productivity.

      Thanks for your great comments!


  5. It is unfortunate yet a very pervasive issue. While many customer service professionals tout their customer centricity, they are often caught in a chain of command led by a C-level executive that can’t see past the profit line on a P&L. What feeds into this approach is the fact that “planned inconvenience” can also be a very inexpensive way to artificially boost profit. Purposefully allowing calls to abandon, holding reps to strict return guidelines, etc.

    This is one of the clearest arguments for a CCO (Chief Customer Officer). Imagine how AOL would have turned out if they opted not to use planned inconvenience, what about Verizon, or the countless online retailers that won’t adequately staff their call centers?

    I commend you for highlighting the issue. Keep it going.

    Rich Natoli
    Twitter: richardnatoli

    • Thank you Richard,

      I appreciate your experience, wisdom and phenomenal track-record at transforming support from disposable to renewable.

      I believe your example, and the success that follows your renewable thinking, can be an upward call. The wise will follow, and the rest will fold.


  6. Thanks so much, Tristan, for raising a complex and frustrating issue that causes obstacles for customers every day, and that cries out to be addressed. Far too many business make it very easy for you to purchase a product or service online…but if you need to change, downgrade, or cancel it, you must pick up the phone and call — and go through the hair-pulling ritual you experienced, or be subject to relentless pressure to keep the product or service. Business need to understand that providing service quickly and easily — and respecting a customer’s decision to depart — generates far more goodwill than trapping the customer in an antiquated, costly, time-consuming process that results in “forced retention.” I agree entirely with your statement that setting up processes to force customers to remain with you is unethical, foolish, and “so last-century.”

    I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through this awful experience, and I appreciate your sharing your insights and being a champion for better customer service.

    • Hi Lori,

      Yes! If the goal is short-term profit, then any action that cut’s off a revenue stream is viewed as a threat. But if the goal is long-term viability, generating goodwill is the better choice.

      I’m excited to watch the openness that social channels require bring about needed adjustments in the relationship between customers and brands.


  7. A number of people recommend “voting with your feet.” Of course, this is the best way to respond when a company’s so-called customer service fails to deliver any service to the customer; however, as Tristan described in his post, it’s closing an account that is most deliberately inconvenient.

    I once had a similar experience when my bank was bought out by another bank that I did not want to do business with. One by one I moved accounts to another bank, until only one remained. But they weren’t going to give that one up without a fight. I called three or four times over the course of two weeks. I was transferred around and “cautioned” about the dire things that would happen if I withdrew a CD before maturity. (It was only $1,000 and I lost less than $3 in interest. Rates were better back then.)

    Finally, after yet another transfer to a manager who supposedly had some authority to help me, I said, “I would like to speak with one of your computers. I don’t seem to be having any success with your humans.” At least that got his attention.

    • Wow! The matrix is everywhere.

      I wonder why brands think that keeping customers against their will serves anyone’s interest? Does a few dollars in fees each month truly merit the loss of good will in the marketplace?

      Someone’s using that “Disposable Leadership” again.

      Time for change.

      Thanks so much, Karen!


  8. You have a nice website. Customer retention is very important. Eldon

  9. Planned inconvenience is so ubiquitous that I had been fully expecting it the last time I went to close a bank account (and had budgeted half a day for all the circular references). The girl at the counter directed me to another girl at another desk who gave me a form to fill up (took me 5 minutes) and then closed my account in 5 minutes flat and handed over my cash to me. I was so stunned, I asked, “That’s it?” She smiled and said, “Yep, but just remember to cut up your ATM card before you throw it away”.

    Miracles exist, I suppose. This was/is a bank that’s famous for “being aggressive”.

    • Wow, Anindita, that IS a miracle! What will they think of next? Will the cable company give you a 1 hour repair window (rather than 4 hours?)

      I always love to hear about great service. Thanks for sharing this story.

  10. Laura C Lorenzana August 23, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    Can you imagine being told by your mortgage company, for nearly 8 months, that they would foreclose your mortgage because you didn’t qualify for a NEW mortgage, although you weren’t late on your current one? What?

    This happened to me. I had a balloon mortgage, and I was trying to be proactive when I called about a year before the balloon would be due. I contacted the CS dept at this large national bank and was told that due to our current financial situation (3 mortgages w/them) that they would not refinance the balance of the loan when the balloon was due, even though we were current. I got the run-around consistently for nearly eight months, and had resigned myself to the fact we would lose our home.

    It was completely by accident, while researching something else, that I found a non-800 phone number for a office they have in Ohio. When I called the number, the person who answered the phone directed me to a website where I could fill out a form, send it in indicating I would like to reset the current mortgage, and that was all I had to do. SERIOUSLY. In the end, the interest rate was lowered by 50 basis points also.

    I’m still confounded by how companies can get away with this. We KNOW the CSRs are reading from scripts, and most likely compensated on a commission basis, so there is no incentive for them to give us the information we really require. They are more likely to call us ‘as5*01es’ and hang up on us than have any empathy for our situation, or feel any connection to the company for whom they work. *Sigh*

    • Hi Laura,

      That is a peculiar story. I can’t even fathom how a policy of that nature could get written? But I’ve been in enough loop-de-loop scenarios to know this: Unethical companies complicate things for customers, in order to confuse them into parting with more cash.

      If they WANTED you to claim your rebate, there would be an online “email” field with a link to paypal. Instead, you have to staple a dragon scale onto a unicorn eyelash and send it via Tinkerbell to neverland.

      The things brands do for short-term cash. Rob Markey from Bain consulting calls it “Bad Profits.”

  11. Speaking as someone who worked as a CSR for more years than I care to remember it’s worth noting that the customer service line of any company is often manned by people sitting in cubicle farms in an industrial estate in some godforsaken place (or India, these days), and that the CSRs often have no direct connection with the company at all.

    I spent a couple of years working as a CSR for a well known British utilities provider, and on my first day on the job I was put on the phone without any training whatsoever – just a flowchart to follow. If there was a problem I wasn’t equipped to handle I had no recourse – no other departments I could transfer to, no managers possessed of more information, no nothing.

    Customer service, as we all know, is truly a shambles, but until consumers make it clear that they won’t tolerate service of this standard any more it will never change.

    • I think consumers are increasingly making this clear. There will always be those who prefer cheap service to good service, but more and more customers are demanding quality experiences. Thanks for your input. I really appreciate it! 🙂


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