Customer Blacklists: Throwing Out the Granny with the Bathwater?

Most companies and call-centers have blacklists—names and phone-numbers of people who complain with such frequency, they are considered a liability. Some call customer service hotlines tens and even hundreds of times a month, over-burdening the company’s resources and leading them to create special mechanisms for handling such callers. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technologies usually trigger an alert once a given customer exceeds a company’s specified call threshold. This prompts the company to take any one of a variety of measures in which, the customer is placed on some kind of blacklist, either with or without their knowledge.

Some companies assign these high-maintenance customers to designated call-center teams who are specially trained to handle them. Other companies might discuss the issue with the customer and inform them they are allowed to call only a certain number of times per day or week. Once the customer uses up their allotment, their calls are refused until a new counting period begins.

In other situations, customers might be downgraded without their knowledge. For example, their calls might be routed so their hold times increase, making it more laborious for them to get through to a representative to discourage them from calling with the same frequency.

A few companies have even tried breaking up with complaint-happy customers by sending them corporate versions of ‘Dear John’ letters. In 2007, Sprint made the incredibly bonehead decision to terminate their relationship with over 1,000 subscribers who Sprint claimed, were calling the company too often (apparently, anything over 40 calls a month was a relationship killer).

Needless to say, Sprint’s initiative led to a public relations nightmare for the company. Message boards went wild at the time, with cell-phone subscribers of various companies happily posting, “Now I know how to get out of my cell-phone contract—harass customer service!” which was not the takeaway Sprint was hoping for. Indeed, public breakups are always messy.

People who contact call-centers dozens of calls a month can belong to the chronically malcontent or the vindictive but they are just as likely to be elderly, infirmed, lonely, cognitively impaired (like the character in the film Memento except with fewer tattoos) or all of the above. Some of these people are chronic complainers but others are just looking for someone to talk to.

Some habitual callers are elderly customers who are trying to recreate the kinds of personal relationships they enjoyed with local banks or businesses during their earlier years, when they visited several times a week to withdraw funds or deposit checks. That the person at the other end of the line might be located in an entirely state or country doesn’t occur to them.

They used to know all their local tellers, sales associates or business owners by name and they long for a similar kind of personal relationship with their current service providers and vendors. They refer to the call-center representatives as ‘sonny’ or ‘dear’ and once they are informed their calls are considered a nuisance, they usually reduce their frequency drastically.

However, few companies’ CRM technologies can distinguish between a well-intentioned and nostalgic geriatric and a chronically-displeased and relentless complainer. Certainly it would be impossible to do so without discussing the matter with the customer in question.

To avoid marginalizing customers who actually seek a closer relationship with the company, customers should only be placed on blacklists once efforts have been made to discuss and clarify these issues with them. Having them speak with service representatives trained to handle such calls with sensitivity is the only way companies can be sure they don’t make a mistake.

After all, we wouldn’t want to throw out the granny with the bathwater.

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

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