Customers think they own things they really don't.
It's an instinctive thing. I first noticed this quirk of human nature years ago as a customer service trainer. Whenever I'd facilitate a multi-day class, people would invariably return to the same seat on day two.
Seats weren't assigned. It's just that people felt it was their seat.
Participants would even get a little uncomfortable if they arrived to find someone sitting where they had sat the day before. No reasonable person could lay claim to that seat, but you could tell they secretly thought it belonged to them.
I've since noticed this in many customer service situations. Here's an overview along with some tips on handling it.
Hey! That's My Seat
The seat issue happened on a recent Southwest Airlines flight that was delayed because of weather. Southwest doesn't have assigned seating, but that didn't stop people from thinking they owned their seat.
The flight crew handled flight delay very well. They made an announcement and told us it would be awhile. We could de-plane if we wanted to. Most people did.
A few people from our flight were re-booked on different flights so they wouldn't miss their connection. Other passengers from later flights joined ours. This meant the passenger mix was slightly different when everyone re-boarded the plane.
Per Southwest's open seating policy, the new passengers sat wherever they found an agreeable open seat. Of course, this often meant they chose to sit where someone else had been sitting before we de-planed because of the weather delay.
I could hear more than a few passengers exclaim, "Hey! That's my seat!"
Seats weren't assigned, but passengers felt they owned the seat by virtue of having sat there first. Some displayed some genuine distress despite the frequent and gentle reminders from the flight crew that Southwest Airlines has open seating.
Other Ownership Examples
There are other situations where customers can think they own things they really don't.
It happens when customers are assigned dedicated account managers. They start to develop a relationship with that person. They think their account manager is their account manager.
Trouble can happen when that account managers leaves the company or some accounts need to be re-assigned or re-distributed. Customers get upset. They feel slighted. Often, their business follows the account manager to the new company.
Perks are another great example.
It's tired news that airlines have made people unhappy by taking away inflight meals. What people conveniently forget is that nobody liked those meals! They were the target of universal disdain. Comedians made a living by poking fun at how bad airplane food was.
But, now that they're gone, we feel slighted.
My local hardware store used to offer customers free bags of freshly popped pop corn. One day, the popcorn machine was gone. A store employee explained that they had to get rid of the popcorn because of some sort of health code issue (apparently, you need a permit or something - I didn't fully understand it, but it sounded reasonable). It made sense what the store had to do, but customers were disappointed.
At the grocery store, try shopping out of someone else's shopping cart and see how they like it! (Just kidding - don't try that.)
Prevent The Ownership Problem
There are a few things you can do to prevent the customer ownership mentality from causing service failures.
The first thing you should do is get proactive. Identify situations where this is likely to impact your customers. Create a plan to ease the pain.
The second thing you should do is set clear expectations.
The Southwest Airlines flight crew did a great job of continuously reminding people that the flight featured open seating. This prevented the ownership issue from getting worse.
If you have dedicated account managers, make sure your customers get to know a few other people. This might include other support staff or a back-up account manager who can help out if the regular person is on vacation or out sick. Setting up multiple relationships will ease the transition if their favorite account manager leaves the company or is re-assigned.
The final thing you should do is avoid taking something away from a customer that they are likely to think is theirs.
That means keeping perks in place whenever possible. Or, if you have to take something away, give customers something better in exchange.
Squarespace is a great example of this. They provide cloud-based software that makes it easy to create websites.
A few years ago, they upgraded their platform. This upgrade had many new features, but existing users had to convert their websites to the new platform to take advantage of those new features.
Squarespace's remarkable decision was to continue supporting the old platform indefinitely while giving existing customers the option to upgrade their website to the new platform at no charge.
They gave, without taking away.