Does Your Company Bully Customers?
April 2022. I have just re-done my annual coaching training for youth sports. One of the topics is “Bullying” and I have a question. Why do we work so hard to eliminate Bullying with youth, while allowing it — even making it policy to bully customers — in many businesses?
Bullying: Behavior intended to control or diminish, to force compliance, or to exclude.
This definition fits exactly some of the interactions I’ve had with some banks, attorneys, the police, and unfortunately, many businesses. I see tactics of bullying in business policies much too often. From phone support conversations to unsolicited sales calls, from warranty questions to political ads, to – perhaps most subtly in EULA’s.
It is definitely worth thinking about your business practices to see if you are ever the bully.
The result of bullying for kids on the playground is usually hurt feelings and often tears. The result in business is very much the same, though not as visual. If customers feel manipulated, or taken advantage of, it just may be they have been bullied. Maybe by you.
I must first point out that not every interaction that creates frustration or anger is due to bullying. Many times as a customer, we may feel some anger about thoughtless policies. We may feel taken advantage of because we didn’t know a policy or because of our circumstances, not the company. Some policies can feel like bullying when circumstances are simply not to our liking. Yet, not every unhappy interaction is bullying. The classic example is a limited return policy for open products. If the customer opens the product, then decides they don’t want it, they may feel bullied when a refund is not given. This, in spite of knowing the policy at the time of purchase.
That may or may not be a good policy, but it is not what I mean here. In this article, we are highlighting places where a customer must change paths, often with significant expense, if they don’t succumb to the bullying.
We’re talking about company policies that “control or force compliance” of customers.
The Bully EULA
Most of us are familiar with EULA’s (End User License Agreements) with software. We have to agree with them for almost all programs and apps we choose to use. The EULA’s by themselves are not a problem — they are to protect the relationship and the intellectual property involved. So, they are good.
However, the way companies choose to use a EULA can definitely make them a bully. They decide to make a change, then force it on customers by bully tactics.
Take MicroSoft for instance … For that matter, I just went through this with PayPal, MyMail, etc.. They send out notice of the new EULA with a statement saying something like … if you don’t agree, then quit using the product.
On the surface it seems polite, and perhaps matter-of-fact. However, the implications of discontinuing use can be catastrophic!
In truth, that simple statement is a carefully worded threat. The phrase and the implications behind it are most certainly a bully tactic.
The MicroSoft Example
June 29, 2022: MickySoft just issued a new “Services Agreement” which states “If you do not agree, you can choose to discontinue using the products and services”. While it sounds simple enough, the implications are enormous! It’s carefully crafting a cloak of violence.
How many thousands of hours and dollars do we have wrapped up in using their products. To “discontinue using” means throwing away years of work (along with all the money we have paid them), simply because we can’t access our own information without using their product.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is a marketing piece with words to make you feel like they are doing you a favor. Sneak it in under the radar, and most people won’t even notice.
This is Forcing Compliance by Bullying. And by deception. Effectively “You don’t get to play because we just changed the rules.” Classic 2nd grade playground bullying.
If you don’t agree, you must suddenly find a different way to handle years of work and rebuild anything you still need — all at your expense, in a month. That is BULLYING !!!
Whether in business or on the playground, is it ever OK to be a Bully?
The PayPal Example
Yes, MicroSoft is pretty easy to pick on because they do so many bone-headed things. Unfortunately, because of their size, other companies follow their foibles down the same dishonorable path. PayPal recently did the same thing.
To be clear, I’m not talking about changes in fees or in ways they support their customers. I’m talking about fundamental changes that affect the ability for the customer to interact. PayPal changes the way they wish to handle things, if you don’t agree, you must suddenly find a different supplier and rebuild your website features — jumping through lots of hoops and expense on a moment’s notice, just because they want to change their mind. Forcing customers in this way is BULLYING. Why is that OK?
Seriously, as a 1st world society, why do we allow these big companies to BULLY customers? How is that OK?
Unfortunately, there are many more such examples.
See It For What It Is
Things like the EULA we think of as a contract. They provide the software, and we agree to use it with certain terms. However, because of the clauses saying they can change it at any time – makes it ONE SIDED. They expect us to live by it, and obey, but they may change it randomly to suit their desires. That’s not a contract, it’s manipulation – ie. Bullying.
If you work for a company with policies to BULLY customers, take it up with your bosses. I’m sure they won’t care, but they need to know they are asking you to be a bully too. Help them see it for what it is.
A Non-Bully, Respectful Solution
We have often said Software companies demand more than they are willing to give. Software companies don’t have anywhere near the commitment to their customers that customers have to the software. And, we see it again in the bully tactics with EULA’s.
Change is inevitable. They say it’s the only constant. I get it, so how do companies make those changes without bullying?
First, Put A Little More Thought Into It.
It is very easy for humans to focus on their own needs (or needs of their company) while forgetting or overlooking those who they serve. It’s easy to focus on one problem while ignoring the masses that are doing just fine.
So, the first thing is to think about what and why changes are needed. Approach them very cautiously and find other ways to deal with the “one” issues without overturning the apple cart for everyone. Maybe, in the case of MickySoft where they want more freedom to profit off of you, this paradigm is beyond their ability. IDK. (Based on the stupidity in so many things in their software, maybe thinking is beyond their ability. Oh well.)
However, ego of some (so titled) leaders aside, it really does not take much to mentally trade places with a customer to consider the true ramifications. I am pretty convinced that some large institutions like Wells Fargo have a “dunce dome” over their workplaces to suck the intelligence out of their employees while they are at work. Perfectly wonderful people outside of work become idiots while at work.
If stress is the atmosphere at work, perhaps that is the source of some bully policies? Think beyond that, and find respect for the customer.
Second, Act Honorably.
I find it amazing that companies want customers to show respect and to act honorably, but fail to do the same. Seriously, if you want to change the rules, do it with your new products, and honor the agreements in place when customers engaged with you in the first place. That would show much more respect.
For a company like MickySoft, that might need a new EULA when a customer gets new software, or upgrades to the next product. But leave the current agreements alone. — Too hard you say? Maybe you should not be in business if you can’t handle the complexities of showing respect.
Oh, I can hear the complaints about how it is not easy with the way things are now. HOGWASH. Go back to the First, and THINK about how to show respect. There is always a solution, it’s just a matter of finding it. If you really can’t figure out ways to treat your customers with respect, please quit. You are obviously not smart enough to have that job.
If you have built disrespect into your products and services, re-do it better. It’s NOT all about you. It should be all about your customers.
Bullying As Standard Practice
The above highlight is the EULA, but that is just one of many ways business uses bullying as standard practice. Maybe you’ve run into it as well?
I’ll give one more, different example. (Warning: Stay far away from M&T Bank.)
Recently a family member passed away. They had a mortgage with M&T Bank, so I called about the account. Of course they couldn’t really tell me much for privacy reasons, but they assured me it was fine and they “have programs to help with these situations”.
A few weeks later when legal documents where issued, I contacted the bank again. I was informed that since I notified them and the person with the loan is no longer living, they are starting foreclosure. So, they wouldn’t let me make payments before court documents are issued, then because it was more than a few days (courts are slow over Christmas), they start foreclose. Apparently their “programs to help” mean accelerate foreclosure to take advantage of the grieving family and seize the property.
The bully part continued as they insisted, with threats of taking the house, that I pay right then – everything. They wanted full payment (immediately) or foreclosure would proceed. Normally a customer must be 3 months behind to start foreclosure, but because I notified them (out of courtesy), they accelerate it?? The bullying was so bad that they called me again and again demanding full payment.
I got a bigger bully, an attorney, to correct the M&T Bank bully tactics. While it may be legal, it is also immoral. It is crazy that it takes legal action to make people think and stop the bullying! The worst part, this bully is by company policy!! While they did cease most of the bullying with me, I’m sure it had no effect for other customers in similar circumstance.
Don’t EVER Use M&T Bank. You’ve been warned. Enough said.
Walk The High Road
There are times and places where things get uncomfortable, I get it. While it’s hard, walking the high road is definitely a better approach than bullying. Yet, in reality, the hard bits are the temporary situations.
The focus of this article is the planned, schemed, bully tactics that businesses use to cowarce customers. Those have no place in our society. Companies like MicroSoft that use those tactics regularly should absolutely be ashamed of themselves. Part of being big is being better. Since “better” is not a usual descriptor of MickySoft, they have work to do. Honestly, we can apply that to many companies.
Yet, before we get too much into the finger pointing, now is a good time to reflect on ourselves. Are there ways that you, and I, use bully tactics in our business practices? That’s a really good question to consider.
Good luck as you re-focus, and find greater respect for your customers.