Oil-company arrogance helps teach a lesson


November 07, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

Have you noticed the signs popping up at Exxon stations lately? In small and tall letters, the signs shout that cash and credit prices at the pump are now the same.

Two years ago, I had a straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back experience with my Exxon credit card, which I reported to readers. I received a number of supporting letters, some of them describing similar encounters.

My anger peaked that late fall day when I stopped at an Exxon station in northern Delaware. After filling my tank and freezing my hand on the metal gas dispenser handle, I dutifully trudged inside, waited more than five minutes to be served, and was rewarded for my loyalty by being charged more than 10 cents more per gallon for using my Exxon credit card.

I admit to having been a long-term fool. For years I had put up with what I call customer abuse from Exxon. Only a corporate marketing department run by idiots could come up with a scheme of charging loyal credit card customers extra for using their cards. I put up with the extra fees simply because I felt a few pennies a gallon was not worth the effort of applying for a new card, I rationalized. But the 10 cents surcharge in Delaware was the end.

I dashed off a letter to the company. And I waited. I wrote an angrier letter to the CEO. And I waited. I called the CEO's office. And waited. I called again. And waited. I sent my card, cut in half with another letter. I was finally referred to the director of marketing for the credit card division.

Needless to say, the conversation was a gem of marketing wisdom. No, he didn't see any problem with the policy. Yes, it did seem to fly in the face of encouraging customer loyalty, he admitted, but no, Exxon didn't plan to change it. Wrong, I said. They would change it, so long as marketers at oil companies hungrier than Exxon pushed the trend to uniform pricing. Didn't he see an opportunity here to ride the forward edge of the wave? No. End of conversation.

Even a follow-up copy of my column recounting that conversation did not elicit a response. Arrogance is a privilege of the ignorant, or huge oil corporations, or in this case both.

I again report on that incident in light of Exxon's new advertising blitz touting its uniform pricing policy. Now Exxon is in the mainstream fold. From their advertising, you'd think they had invented the equivalent of sliced bread. Perhaps their recalcitrance over the past two years actually swelled profits compared to competitors. But my guess is that it began to hurt market share.

Is there a comparable arrogance on the part of your nonprofit agency? Most charity leaders would be indignant at such a notion. But we get so used to doing things as usual, arrogant policies and practices are hidden in the background.

One progressive agency with which I'm familiar had a consulting company come in to audit their client services practices. Revenues had declined slowly but steadily for three years. The consulting group brought in their own employees to act as customers. They called the agency. They sat in their clinics. They wrote letters of complaint. What they uncovered was a wealth of information -- much of it irritating to the agency leaders.

Their low-income clients were placed in the telephone hold twilight zone, far too many of them indefinitely. There was no policy to get back to the person.

Similarly arrogant practices ran through clinic operations. Employees routinely talked about patients loud enough for other patients to hear.

This was an agency with a good reputation in the community. Routine surveying of clients had not uncovered dissatisfaction before, not an unusual occurrence in a low-income population unfortunately used to poor service. But the findings conflicted with the agency's mission of empowering their clients. Subsequent policies and practices corrected these negative client experiences.

Learn a lesson from the Exxon experiences of the business world. Nonprofits on the cutting edge of customer service are always on guard for practices that convey a sense of arrogance, a sure-fire way to disenfranchise loyal customers.

Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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