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Sunday, September 25, 2016

When companies alarm customers needlessly



When A.S. received a letter from the insurance company that held the policy on her house, she was concerned. In the first paragraph of the letter, it indicated that the company wanted to clarify how it handled late payments.

Rarely had A.S. received anything in the mail from her insurance company other than an invoice for the cost of that year's insurance. But this letter raised her concern that perhaps she had missed making an insurance payment since there was nothing in the letter to indicate whether her account was paid in full. There was a note that customers could shift to an automatic payment system where funds could be withdrawn directly from their checking accounts.

A.S. had never had any interest in setting up an automatic payment plan. She liked writing a check after the invoice arrived in the mail. But she feared that perhaps a payment had not been received, or, even worse, that she had neglected to pay on time even when she thought she had.

After calling her insurance broker, A.S. was told that she indeed was not late with a payment and "never had been." The broker pointed out that in the letter it indicated that the lateness is not an issue for most customers. But because of the regulatory nature of the industry, it felt obligated to send out a letter to all customers.

"They've been my insurance broker for more than 20 years," writes A.S. "They have all of my records on file. They knew I wasn't late with my payment and that I'd never been late with a payment. Shouldn't they have included a notice along with the letter that indicated I had paid on time? Even if they feel obligated to send a letter like this, isn't that the ethical thing to do to avoid alarming customers who always have paid on time?"

While A.S. has every right to be annoyed with her insurance company for not anticipating that its letter about the change-in-late-payment policy might confuse or alarm some of its customers, the company didn't cross any ethical line.

By meeting its obligation to send the letter, the letter writers did what they felt was needed to keep customers abreast of a policy change. The insurance company did what it believes the regulatory agencies governing it required it to do.

But by not including a note with each letter to indicate which policy holders were late and which weren't, the insurance company lost an opportunity to engage in good customer service. If longtime clients such as A.S. had received a statement of their accounts along with the policy change letter, any unnecessary concern could have been alleviated and the number of phone calls to the agency would have been cut down significantly.

Certainly, the right thing for any financial service company is to comply with the regulations that govern it. But there are times when companies, if they want to solidify their relationships with new or longtime customers, should take the extra step of doing what's in their customers' best interests. This should have been one of those times. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

If I won't eat a slice, should I offer one to you?



Lil, a reader who prefers I not use her real name, works for an organization that allows its employees to accept small gifts from clients or families of clients, as long as they do not exceed $25 in value. Often these include baked goods or other homemade treats.

Last December, Lil received banana bread that was baked by one of her client's mothers. Lil knew the family well and writes that she was concerned about the "cleanliness" of the kitchen in which the banana bread was baked. Rather than decline the gift because of her concern, Lil decided to accept it and graciously thanked the grandparent.

Lil writes that she hesitated about whether to dispose of the banana bread by throwing it away. It seemed "a waste of food" to her to do so.

Lil decided to leave the banana bread out in her workplace's common area for any of her colleagues who wanted to have a slice.

"None of them knew the family, so they had no reason to be concerned about cleanliness," Lil writes.

Within an hour, the banana bread was consumed.

All these months later, Lil wonders if she did the right thing by accepting a gift she knew she found suspect. She also is nagged by the thought that perhaps it wasn't entirely fair to her colleagues to offer them the banana bread when she had concerns about its origins.

"Should I have handled this differently?" Lil wonders.

Yes. Yes, Lil should have handled this differently.

There was nothing wrong with being gracious about accepting the gift when she knew she would never eat here. Many of us have received gifts over the years, food or other, where we knew on impact there was no way we would use it, display it, or consume it. But there's no need to embarrass a gift giver by refusing their gift or questioning their taste. Expressing thanks for a gift is appropriate and takes little effort.

Where Lil went wrong was to foist the suspect banana bread onto her colleagues without disclosing her concerns about its "cleanliness." If Lil was concerned and refused to eat it because it might have been prepared in an unclean setting, it was not OK to risk her colleagues' health by putting it out for their consumption -- and, given the history of shared food in her workplace, she was confident it would be consumed.

That no one got sick after eating the banana bread is a good thing, but doesn't make right the wrongness of Lil's choice. The right thing would have been for Lil to accept the gift and then, if she believed the banana bread was not fit for consumption to dispose of it when the gift giver was not present to witness its burial.

If Lil was unwilling to tell her colleagues about her concern about the cleanliness of the gift giver's kitchen because it might color their perception of the banana bread and its giver, then she should have taken that as a sign to toss it rather than share it. No one should put the health of colleagues at risk, even if the perception of that risk proves to be ill-founded. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.