In my opinion, the quality of a company’s customer service is BY FAR the most important ingredient of the numerous factors that go into a company brand reputation. Unfortunately, there are too many companies–even of the large, successful variety–that just don’t get it.
I wrote previously about “The End of Customer Service“. Driven by cost reductions during the great recession, it doesn’t appear that things have gotten any better.
The impetus to write further on this topic came from a painful personal experience a while back. The source of my pain was DIRECTV.
Troubling developments for a long-time customer
I have been a DirecTV customer for well over a decade. This is a long time for a relationship with any consumer products or services company. I initially fell in love with the programming offered by the company, especially they wide variety of sports. I still find their programming compelling. Initially, I also found the customer service and support to be first rate in the beginning. Unfortunately, over time the level of service has declined from first rate to astonishingly bad.
The level of customer service began slowly deteriorated a number of years ago. I suspect that it did because at the time the company was struggling to show a profit. It appears somewhere in that time frame management of the company transitioned from a customer-orientation to focusing strictly on short-term profitability. This led to some short-sighted policies, which I believe could eventually lead to real problems for the company.
A long series of customer service and equipment incidents left me so frustrated that I decided I could no longer remain a customer, and became resigned to finding another TV service provider. I have since stayed with them for several reasons, the most significant being that that have one particular piece of programming I can’t get from their competitors. So I guess they win for now. But that won’t last forever. When that is no longer the case, I’ll be up for grabs as a customer regardless of my long-term relationship due to their customer service issues.
The final straw
My last customer service snafu was what put me over the edge with respect to my long-term loyalty. I had payed $400 for an NFL programming package, only to find 2 games into the season that one of my two receivers was no longer capable of receiving this premium programming. It wasn’t really a technical issue, but a decision by DirecTV to no longer support this specific programming on that type of receiver. The receiver worked fine otherwise, and in fact had some key features not available on the more contemporary DirecTV models of comparable capability. I had paid good money for the receiver and had given the company a large premium programming fee for the NFL package that year (and many previous years) and I had not been told prior to renewing football subscription that year that the receiver would no longer receive this programming.
A few years back DirecTV had come under the control of Rupert Murdoch, which led to an equipment partnership with one of Murdoch’s affiliated companies. I had one of these as my primary receiver, and it contained some of the worst software I’ve ever seen in a consumer electronics device. Because of this, I would have preferred to continue to use my old receiver, which worked great. But I wanted to be able to access my expensive NFL package on my second receiver and I felt that I was at least entitled to one that could do this without losing other features important in my current receiver–at not cost, given the circumstances.
What ensued was a Keystone-Cop like series of customer service episodes punctuated by poorly trained service reps, extremely long phone-support hold times and multiple equipment shipments back and forth. I won’t bore you with every detail, but it started with an initial call which required 15-20 re-dials just to get through to the “hold” point, followed by a 1½ hours wait time. I’d like to say that was the worst part of the experience, but things actually went downhill from there.
At the end of this saga, I knew more about the internal customer service processes and procedures at DirecTV than most of the representatives I spoke with. It wasn’t hard; many of them seemed to be clueless. Some of them were good people trying hard to help me–others just didn’t care. But many were inexperienced or poorly-trained, and nearly all of them were overwhelmed by the sheer complexity required to accomplish even the simplest task. Long story short, my simple request for a replacement receiver that would leave me happy paying DirecTV well in excess of $100 every month was never fulfilled.
Even the CEO couldn’t make it right
It was at this point I’d had enough, and was resigned to the fact that I needed to change TV service providers. It wasn’t what I wanted–I felt I’d been pushed into a corner by the company’s arrogance and incompetence. But first I needed to blow off some steam, and so I wrote an email to the DirecTV CEO at the time, detailing my painful experience. To his credit, he immediately and personally responded, apologizing and agreeing that what happened to me should not have happened. He asked if he could still make the situation right and promised to have his personal representatives contact me to fix the situation. I was pleased by his reaction.
I was quickly contacted by a member of the DIRECTV Customer Advocate Team, a small top-secret group that you wouldn’t be aware of if you hadn’t interacted with the highest levels of company management. She was very nice and understanding, and told me that she was empowered to do just about anything that was required to make me a happy customer once again.
Apparently she was empowered to do anything except fill my very simple request.
She offered me a lot of things, many which were desirable. But I was a bit stuck on principle at this point; I wanted to be able to watch my expensive NFL package on a second receiver with comparable features, with no additional money out of my pocket.
She told me she could take care of this, but with one big condition: I’d be locked in to 24 additional months with DirecTV. Apparently, any new equipment sent to a customer automatically triggered this additional 24 month commitment, which no one had the power to override–no exceptions.
Complete idiocy–and very bad business
Here is a customer who has stayed with a company for well over a decade and loves their programming, but has been treated badly by customer service, and feels wronged. Making him happy is going to cost you probably $25 extra–one time– to send him a premium receiver instead of a basic one. He’d like to find an excuse to stay, but ready to leave due to frustration. The response is to try to lock him in for 24 months against his will?
I was wondering if there were any managers trained in Marketing at DirecTV? Is there anyone in upper management that has actually ever dealt with a customer? Or are they all accountants?
So for all the software developers, hardware manufacturers and service providers out there, what are the takeaways from this customer service tale of the absurd?
Your product/service isn’t everything – I still love the DirecTV programming, but will be very open to leaving because my personal experience have been poisoned by poor overall customer service and misguided corporate policy.
Train your people – There is often a lot of turnover in the customer service department, and it’s easy to skimp on training for people that might not be there too long. If you don’t want to ruin your brand, Train & Retain! These folks ARE the company to the customers calling for help.
The customer is king – regardless of how desirable your offering is, the customer has alternatives. Treat him badly enough and he will eventually vote with his feet–its human nature.
Lock customers in with value, not contracts – that’s where you’ll find loyalty and long-term profitability. 24 month contracts will only create animosity with your customers–and represent a big opportunity for an upstart, more customer-focused competitor.
Don’t be arrogant – Regardless of your market position, if a customer truly has been treated shabbily, swallow hard and do whatever it takes to make it right. Install a customer service culture of taking care of the customer, almost regardless of direct costs. The hidden costs of angry customers are very high from word of mouth and other bad publicity–especially in the Internet Age.
Don’t let your accountants set Marketing and Customer Service Policy – As described above, the easily traceable short-term costs savings which are the focus of the financial guys will be overwhelmed by less obvious negative effects on future revenue, due to damage to your brand.
So that’s my sad story, and hopefully some valuable lessons for all of us as we formulate marketing and customer service policies. Do you have a customer service story of your own, negative or positive? Have a different view on the state of customer service today? Share with us in the comment section below.
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Working for DISH Network I see a lot of positive and negative from all companies. But the F rating for Directv leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Direct had three times the number of complaints to the BB then DISH had, now no company is perfect, but wow, 39000 complaints.
Bill, Amen to your comments, I have seen the very same things over and over. A really good example with respect to government legislation (which usually eventually hurts everyone involved) is the recent rules put on the airlines with respect to their unbelievably bad customer service practices. It amazes me that companies are too stupid to police themselves and treat their customers like the lifeblood they are.
Manjunath Nettem says
Urs blog is one of the must read resource for technology management professionals.Thanx for the great info.
BILL JOHNSON says
I completely understand your frustration; I beleive that we have all been victims of a company that values short profits over long term gains. I am seeing more and more reports from customers who have been treated badly and in some cases out right cheated by nefarious customer service reps (sort of an oxmoron) and or companies in general. With the economy in such bad shape and the fact that consummers usually have many alternatives it seems counter intuitive that there are so many instances of poor customer service, but that sadly is the case and it appears to be getting worse. Not only are companies less willing to give the customer a break and a good product or service but they have really cut back on their customer service depts. Many companies even very large ones have reduced the number of customer service agents/reps, cut he salaries of the customer service people, given them less power to deal with the customer and in general are behaving like they just don’t care what the customer wants or thinks.
I have been a sales manager and national rep for several products in different industries and I can wittness that poor service is epidemic you can find the same mindset in numerous industries…this will eventually hurt these companies…why don’t see or care is beyond my comprehension. The thing that from my perspective is the worst is that when I sell a product or service it is MY REPUTATION that is damaged the most…I am the one that will ultimately be blamed and I am the one that will lose any chance of a referral …I am the one that will suffer the most from losing a customer. For a large company they don’t care if they lose a few customers so what there are more where they came from but for the salesman or woman…every customer is precious…the loss of even one can mean disaster. I have also found that usually there is nothing that I can do to help the customer either…I am (and I have stories from other salespeople who say they have the same experience) ignored even threatened if I raise a stink…
I don’t where this is going to lead but my guess is that we are headed to some place that we will not want to go…..I see very restrictive legislation on the horizon coupled with customers refusing to sign any agreement that binds them for longer than a month…I hope I am wrong but I don’t think so..
benjamyn damazer says
Depressingly familiar story across the developed world. I am based in the UK and could quote fifty similar tales from all parts of the product and service sector. There are a number of issues at play.
Product changes : I used to like a particular brand of peppermint lozenge, made by a long established British company to a recipe it had been using for over 100 years. The flavour then, suddenly changed. I wrote to the company to ask if old flavour still available and of course had the short-term costs response. One lost customer for them.
Transactional servicing : Car hire companies, retail banks and supermarket delivery services all have a very large number of customers and subsequent transactions, often in the millions per day category. Overwhelmingly these go to plan – the cheques are processed properly, my hire car works, the dry cleaner removes the stains and does not damage my suit. Occasionally things go wrong. The payment to my local council for property tax gets misallocated, the insurance renewal has a wrong digit in my car registration or the gas board cuts me off even when I have paid. Statistically, this doesn’t happen often. But when it happens to me, it is a real issue. Organisations respond in one of two ways – either the problem is within the range of scripts held by the call (not service!) centre and can be fixed immediately or the organisation goes into meltdown. Most organisations have no mechanisms nor procedures for dealing with the very very small number of exceptional errors and omissions. Typically, the CEO is powerless as they don’t know how company systems work, so make promises that they can’t keep or do nothing and accept that the loss of my business is less costly to them than putting the problem right.
This is of course difficult if dealing with a real or de facto monopoly. I can’t change gas supplier, nor local authority. I have therefore developed a guerrilla approach. I sent a registered post letter to the CEO and chairman giving them seven days to put things right, following which I go to the small claims court. In the UK this is a truly painless process, all online and very low cost – costs which in any event are recoverable from the other party. I have done this several times and never, ever failed to win. experiences include a train company which spilled coffee on me and offered to pay for the replacement light coloured trousers, for a travel company which cancelled flights but didn’t think to tell me before I arrived at the airport and a car par operator whose staff damaged my car.
In theory, I agree with what you say. However, I’d argue that you are your own worst counter-argument. Despite your horrible experience, you stayed with DirecTV because of the programming. You write “The Last Straw” and yet it clearly wasn’t really the last straw. The content is what’s keeping you with them.
I had to deal with Dish Network over problems with my mother’s cable subscription (partially self-inflicted), and it was the most excruciating experience ever. Even worse than United Airlines, and I’ve had some doozies of bad experiences with United Airlines. After it was all over, I told my mother that if she self-inflicted any further problems like that, I was going to switch her to DirecTV. Her answer was “But only Dish has the channels I want.”
I recently offered to pay a broke & unemployed friend to call Comcast for me to resolve some issue, because I so dread calling their customer service I had been procrastinating this for *months*. His answer? “Hell no!”
Let’s face it, we are conditioned to accept (or even expect) a crappy level of customer service. That’s why no one is selling “better customer service at a higher price”. No one would believe it, and therefore no one would pay for it.
Phil Morettini says
You seem to assume I mean that the reason for better customer service is to charge a higher price. I don’t think that’s the case–I believe it’s more of a customer retention tool than a way to charge more. That can have a very powerful effect on your profits; the cost to acquire new customers is very high.