Today I’m pleased to bring you another guest post by Sarah Simon

In the afternoon of the 11th of June 2013, the moment my neighbors and I all feared became reality: A wildland fire had broken out on the western edge of the Black Forest, our semi-rural community of horse properties and wooded large-acreage lots northeast of Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.  It was an unusually hot, sunny, and breezy day.  Whipped by strong winds from the western mountains, the fire roared eastward greedily consuming grass and trees in its way – and, we all knew deep down in our guts – cars, homes, and memories…perhaps even lives.

Two neighbors drove up my driveway, one in an ATV, pointing to the smoke plume to the west, telling me to get the *#@! out!  I knew this was my chance to grab my most cherished belongings, load my three big dogs in the Jeep, and leave.  I had 40 minutes to haphazardly decide what I needed and what I could live without and leave behind the home I had worked so hard for.

[Image to the left: A horror repeated thousands of times in my community: A parting glimpse of my home, the sky darkened by encroaching smoke]

Pulling down my driveway, my neighborhood was filling with smoke like Halloween haunted house dry ice.  I knew I made the right decision for my personal safety by leaving promptly but was haunted by the notion that I likely had seen my house and most of my personal possessions for the last time.  Driving along the Palmer Divide toward I-25 to evacuate, I turned to view the smoke plume consuming my community.  I couldn’t handle what I saw, nothing I had experienced in my life could possibly steel my emotions for this…I pulled my Jeep to the side of a narrow 2-lane blacktop and cried.

I spent a week under forced evacuation notice, unable to return to my own: Sheriff’s deputies, fire crews and National Guard Humvees blocked my way.  Day after day, I hoped for some status update on my home, and stress of worrying was at times all-consuming.  Homes all around mine were burned and a house 2-doors down leveled by the flames, but I returned to an intact home – amazingly – without so much as a blade of grass scorched.

[Image to left: The Black Forest Fire smoke plume races eastward, engulfing trees, grass, property and lives.]

Many neighbors, however, were not so lucky.  Two residents of my community lost their lives.  Nearly 15,000 acres burned, and taxable property loss is estimated above $85 million.  In all, nearly 500 homes were completely destroyed in the blaze.  These weren’t just structures ruined but people’s lives turned completely and irrevocably upside down.  Roofs, walls, floors can be replaced.  But mementos, photos, collections…these things never return.  I held in my arms my neighbor who suffered unimaginable loss; no words could possibly comfort.  A friend of mine who survived war and internment in the former Yugoslavia described the appearance of the primary road approaching my home as “World War III.”

My story is far from unique and was, in fact, repeated over and over.  At the height of the fire, nearly 40,000 residents were evacuated from their homes, and the impact of this fire were felt far and wide. 

Tales of heroism and selflessness began to flood Twitter and local news sources.  But so, sadly, did darker stories: looting of abandoned residences and stealing from the cars of evacuated families.  One story in particular spread as fast as the flames of the fire: Resident Jeremy Beach, who lost his home to the inferno, contacted his utility providers to shut off services.  Many were sympathetic, but not DirecTV, which promptly ordered Mr. Beach to immediately pay $400.00 to compensate them for the satellite dish that was burned beside his destroyed home.

The Twitter storm that followed consumed DirecTV in some very negative PR.  Here was a community struggling to hold itself together, and one utility provider is jabbing fire victims right in the eye.  To lose nearly everything you own, then have a disembodied voice from an air conditioned office tell you to pay up “or else” is not going to enhance the customer experience one bit.

While DirecTV came around and apologized to Mr. Beach, admitting they made a mistake and forgiving the fee, the damage to their relationship with this customer and his sympathizers had already been done.  I get it: DirecTV is in business to make money, not to donate goods and services.  Still, their decision to coldly demand money from a shell-shocked fire victim resonated with the community as clueless, heartless, and tone-deaf.

 [Image above: Don’t be the company sticking your hand in this family’s face demanding money and adherence to rigid policies.]

Here are some lessons your company can take away from this fiasco:

  • Resist False Economization: What is $400 really worth to you; is it worth the loss of one customer, or several?  Even if half of the 500+/- homes in the area had destroyed company property, are you willing to fight tooth and nail against victims of natural disaster for $100,000 when the damage to the relationship with your customer base comes at a much greater price?  Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish with your customers, the most lucrative asset to your business.
  • Value Public Relations – good reputation is worth its weight in gold:  Good will can take years to establish but only hours to destroy.  In a natural disaster or similar event, align yourself with the angels, not the pirates, devils, scoundrels, and thieves.
  • Respect the Authority of the Modern Consumer: Communities of consumers will talk, they will rally, and your company will suffer for playing the Big Bad Wolf when the chips are down.  During this event, social media was certainly a star communications player, but with neighbors meeting in shelters, churches, coffee houses, and civic centers, this was no time for a company to play Bad Guy.
  • Be Informed:  Stay abreast of current events that impact your customer base, clear down to the local level.  DirecTV had zero excuse for being uninformed about the Black Forest Fire.&nbs
    p; At least three vendors of mine (telco, waste management, and milk delivery) proactively contacted me acknowledging the disruption of the fire and extending sympathy and even concessions (e.g., grace periods on payments).  While DirecTV was busy burning bridges, these companies were earning the good will, admiration, loyalty, and appreciation of their customers.
  • Be Flexible: Don’t let rigid policy and dogmatic thinking get in the way of compassion for the customer.  Consider some alternatives to sticking hard and fast to policy – maybe a 6-month grace period or a meet-us-halfway cost sharing would have been more appropriate in this “burned satellite dish” situation.  Ensure this emergency plan is communicated to all staff, and keep these contingency plans on the books for the next time chaos strikes your customer base.
  • Have Some Sympathy: Emotions run high during natural disasters, and customer’s lives are spun into craziness.  When times get this tough, be the supportive company, the vendor that takes the high road, a community contributor, not the bumbling idiot or cold-hearted corporate robot.

Catastrophes happen – natural disasters, political uprisings, terrorism events.  In this era of customer-centricity, your company cannot afford to further contribute to the misery of your customers impacted by these events.  Today’s customer wields power like never before to demand companies live up to increasingly high expectations.  Emergencies like the Black Forest Fire etch memories on a person’s mind that last a lifetime, and you can’t afford to be the company that deepens a consumer catastrophe.  Seize such rare opportunities to put your best foot forward and show your customer just how much you value them.  It’s good business to be a good neighbor.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation “big data mining” operation and is happy to live to tell about it.