Data breaches drive me crazy. But not for the reason you think. It’s not really the hack that disturbs me. It’s the slow and pathetic response by the organizations that were hacked that kills me. You know the saying: “It’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover up.” One of the surest ways to alienate a customer is to try to hide the hack from them.

I felt this way when Equifax, one of the largest consumer credit reporting agencies in the market, was hacked a few years ago. If you don’t recall the episode, here’s an excerpt from a USA Today article recounting the event.

“Between mid-May and July 2017, criminal hackers infiltrated the company’s servers and accessed personal data — including driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, and birthdays — of more than 145 million Americans, potentially exposing them to the threat of identity theft. Perhaps even more troubling than the security flaws exposed in the hack itself was the way the company handled it. Despite discovering the breach on July 29th, the company waited a month and half to make a public announcement. The public was further outraged when the company forced consumers to agree not to join a class-action lawsuit in order to see if their information was hacked.”

Source: USA Today (

I have little love for consumer credit reporting agencies like Equifax and actions like these simply send me deeper into an emotional bunker every time I think of them. Even worse, I don’t have the option of going anywhere. I can’t really take my business somewhere else.

There’s a real problem when the people who are being served have a strong dislike for the people who are serving them. This happens more often than you might think—from law enforcement to banking, retail, public health, education and beyond. I’m generalizing, but you get the point.

When you consistently disappoint your customers, they are likely to retreat into emotional bunkers, especially if avoiding you is not a viable option. The goal, as all successful businesses know, is to prevent your customers from withdrawing emotionally and to coax them out of those bunkers when they do. We all know this principle, but few are able to consistently abide by it.

The same principle applies to you as a leader and the people you’re leading. When the people you’re leading form a strong distaste for your leadership, they’re also likely to retreat into emotional bunkers, especially if they can’t avoid you. The goal, as all effective leaders know, is to prevent the people around you from withdrawing emotionally and to coax them out of those bunkers when they do. Again, we all know this principle to be true, but few heed it on a consistent basis.

I hope you see the similarities here. Organizations, like individual leaders, share the same challenge. And the solutions are shared too. 

Card Linking

I picked up some useful solutions around this very issue earlier this week. I was asked to moderate a conference by the CardLinx Association, a membership-based association designed to “increase interoperability, eliminate friction, and promote the growth of the card-linked offers industry.” The event featured 15-minute “talks” by experts in the card-linking industry. If you’ve never heard of card-linking, it’s a fascinating and rapidly emerging industry.

Card-linking represents the next frontier in digital commerce. It is a world marked by hyper-personalized buying experiences where delighting the customer is the objective. To do this, it requires an ability to proactively deliver various customized “offers” that are linked to the consumer buying experience—linked directly to me, my preferences, and my methods of payment. Think personalized digital coupons on steroids.

Card-linking is a relatively new sector comprised of a diverse array of players, including merchants, banks, credit card issuers, payment processors, loyalty programs, publishers, and tech platforms. Alipay, Apple, Amazon, Google, Rakuten, and Mastercard are some of the more familiar brand names playing a role in shaping the emergent card linking ecosystem.

Beyond the shopping cart

There was a central theme that permeated the entire event at the CardLinx Forum. It centered on the importance (and challenge) of emotionally engaging consumers. As signaled by the event’s organizing theme, there is an unexplored world “beyond the shopping cart.”

The message was clear. Your consumers want to be delighted. They want to feel like you “see” them as individuals with unique needs and preferences. They want you to connect with them and they expect you to take the lead in making all of this happen.

The same principle holds true for leaders. Your staff, and anyone else who follows you, also want to be delighted. They, too, want to feel like you understand them as individuals, holding their needs and preferences at the forefront of your thoughts. They want a connection with you and, like consumers, they often expect you to do most of the work to forge that connection.

When these things are missing, consumers and followers become disappointed, detached, and disillusioned. Emotionally, they withdraw and they retreat into bunkers. Consumers spend less with us or they abandon us entirely. Followers do just enough to get by, or they cast their loyalty somewhere else.

Look beyond the transaction

If you want to delight consumers, go beyond the shopping cart. Think above and beyond the transaction. Leaders, if you want to inspire loyalty and commitment to you or to the shared destination you’ve elevated, make sure you also think beyond the transaction. Don’t make people feel like transactions. Make them feel like partners on the road to realizing the vision you’ve laid out.

When you look beyond the transaction, there are plenty of things you’ll find. Let me highlight three I’ve observed.

  1. People want you to address their needs, but in context. Our needs are often connected to other needs (and desires). When you see the initial thread, know it exists within the context of other threads—of other needs and desires. Look for the patterns in the threads of my needs.
  2. People prefer authentic conversations. That doesn’t mean you can waste my time. But start a conversation with me as you are completing my transaction. Use that conversation strategically to get to know me better and, hopefully, to serve me better.
  3. People want you to match their expectations in the situation. When there’s a mismatch between how I perceive the situation, and my expectations for what the optimal outcome looks like in that situation, I expect you to meet me where I am. I am not looking to meet you where you are. I’m expecting you to match my expectations in the moment.

So, how can you coax your customers out of emotional bunkers?

One way is to engage them emotionally. Without empathy, it’s very difficult to do this. Coaxing someone out of their emotional bunker will require some effort and may cause some discomfort. That’s the case, however, for any good relationship. You have to want to work on them.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.


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