Stay on alert for perception of arrogance


I've waited more than six months to write this column, hoping against hope that I'd calm down and gain a new perspective on the issue. It hasn't happened yet.

Last year, I stopped at a Texaco station, filled my business car, and paid with a Texaco credit card. I have to admit that I have a problem with how these cards work under the best of conditions. I mean, for my pains of applying for the card and for my brand loyalty, I get charged an average of five cents more per gallon, and that's on top of 12 percent interest that Texaco gets on any amount not paid within 30 days.

OK, I'll take the rap for putting up with this rip-off, just for the accounting convenience of paying the bill once a month with a single corporate check.

Anyway, on this particular gray day, I went out of my way to stop at a Texaco station just off Interstate 95 in Delaware. I was rewarded with an incredible 10 cents more per self-help gallon surcharge for my brand loyalty!

I was so irate, I spent the entire drive mentally composing a poison pen letter to Texaco. In my fantasy, the letter would open, releasing a gaseous cloud that would inexplicably cause real brain matter to form in the crania of Texaco's marketing wizards.

Under the guise of trying to understand their marketing rationale, I sent a one-page letter to the head of marketing, asking for some insights into their strategy for retaining loyal customers. I waited for a response.

Finally, two months later I sent a second letter, addressed to Don Schmude, manager of the offending division. And, I waited again. By now, I was mad.

Two follow-up calls later, some lackey from the marketing department calls back. For the life of him, he cannot understand why I would be upset about the exorbitant surcharge. Besides, it must've been one of them thar evil "independent dealers" that was doin' the dirty deed.

Well, might he consider that maybe we lowly peasants perceive it as a Texaco company problem? No way. Well, what is the rationale for even charging four or five cents a gallon extra for loyal card users? Well, he wasn't sure, but, to his credit, he dutifully wrote down my questions and promised to get back to me. That was more than six months ago.

Whenever an oil spill, gas pricing scandal, or other catastrophe hits the oil companies, they cannot understand why the public goes for thejugular. H-e-l-l-o-o-o, anybody home upstairs? And how do you spell a-r-r-o-g-a-n-c-e?

Every cloud has a silver lining. Despite its negatives, this incident can also be instructive for non-profit organizations seeking to become more client-centered.

If you are a non-profit executive, have you examined every one of your policies and procedures from a client's point of view? Do you and your staff regularly experience the routines and services that your organization offers, as a client would?

Do you regularly have an independent group sit down with a representative sample of your clientele and ask them if they feel any arrogance in your approach, even if unintentional? For those executives thinking this last procedure would be prohibitively expensive, consider swapping that focus group task with a non-competing non-profit organization.

Arrogance has many faces. It can show up, uninvited or unrecognized, even in the best-run non-profits. Vigilance is the only way to defend against it. Arrogance is apparent when we, as experts, assume that we know what is best for our clients, without asking them what they want.

We are arrogant when we fail to put ourselves in our clients' shoes. There is arrogance in keeping social service facilities open only during business hours, rather than providing evening and weekend hours for the convenience of the client.

Arrogance is also apparent when a private foundation does not even acknowledge receipt of a sincere request for funding from a non-profit organization. Or, when a non-profit does not maintain relationship with a major corporate funder until it is time for the next funding request.

By the way, I've stopped using my Texaco credit card, no big deal to the oil giant. But, equivalent actions by non-profit clients and donors could have an impact in today's competitive philanthropic marketplace.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 7 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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