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.