Bad Customer Service is one of my hot buttons and what I feel is an undervalued area for many consumer and B2B tech company CEOs. As a result it’s not considered a “core” area of the business and receives far too little attention from senior management.
I’ve said in the past that not only is it important to have good enough customer service that your customers and prospects won’t flee in droves–but that is can be used as a strategic competitive as well. This is true for nearly every company, whether B2C and B2B.
In past articles I’ve been pretty hard on some tech company management teams for their approach to customer service: see The End of Customer Service and A Case Study in Bad Customer Service.
But I’m always looking for the bright side on this topic. I’ve had a couple of experiences recently which lead me to believe that more companies may be giving customer service greater attention–and maybe even thinking about it as a competitive weapon instead of a cost center.
Change in tone and substance at DirecTV
In A Case Study in Bad Customer Service I was pretty hard on DirecTV. I’ve been a customer for 17 years now and any relationship that lasts that long will have its ups and downs. But I was truly ready to leave when wrote that article. The only thing that slowed me down was some unique programming (attention CEOs and Marketing Managers–here’s another important customer retention tool) that at the time I just couldn’t get elsewhere. But I was so frustrated and angry with the company’s policies toward longtime customers that I would have left soon.
However, they are trying very hard to improve in their customer service policies. When I call for service and support now the first thing that happens is that the rep acknowledges how long I’ve been a customer and thanks me for it. It’s a little thing, but it sets the right tone. And in many cases, I’ve felt like the fact that I’m a long time customer has actually made a difference in how I’m treated. And you know what–it should! Of course all customers should be treated as well as possible. But it’s important to remember it’s far less expensive to keep a current customer happy than to acquire a new one. Maybe more importantly, long term customers are far more valuable than the simple cash flow they generate: they serve as key influencers (positive OR negative) and even champions in the marketplace–and maybe even write articles like me.
I recently ordered additional service from DirecTV and was misquoted with respect to the cost. It wasn’t a lot of money and I wasn’t really upset, but I was immediately transferred to a remediation department where the rep went far out of his way to make sure I was happy, including deep discounts and free stuff. At the risk of sounding like a price whore, it did make me happy!
A couple of months later I ran into problems with a receiver–and then the replacement receiver. After a slow start, I was put into what DirecTV calls “Case Management” which they now reserve for special cases or intractable problems. My issues were treated with great urgency and quickly resolved, including onsite visits from their top technicians.
It hasn’t been all sugar plumbs and lollipops. While overall the training of the customer service reps has improved dramatically, customer experience is still spotty, depending on on who answers when you call. For example, I called on a problem with a remote control; the on/off buttons had stopped working. The rep informed me that there wasn’t anything he could do for me since “most of the buttons were working”, as well as pointing out that their receivers were now so advanced that they really didn’t need to be turned off anymore. So on the other side of the ledger there’s that.
But there is a very noticeable overall difference in DirecTV’s customer service operations, which clearly come from the top. There is someone in a position of power (this company was previously run using an Accountant’s approach to marketing) who understands marketing and the power of positive customer service. As a result my attitude has completely changed toward the company.
T-Mobile may be number 3–but it tries harder
Some of you might remember the advertisements by Avis, long time runner up to market leader Hertz in the rental car market: “When you’re only #2, you try harder”. It was the underdog approach and one of the classic advertising campaigns of all time. My mobile phone service provider T-Mobile is a distant #3 in the US wireless market and has taken on a similar underdog-style marketing message. Of course, great advertising is fine, but it’s not all that meaningful if it isn’t backed up by reality. In T-Mobile’s case, it appears to me that they really are trying harder.
I’ve found their prices and program innovation to be market-leading among the major carriers. Among the big 3 they’ve led the way in areas like no-contract service. I’ve saved a lot of money with them over the years. There wireless service has been generally solid, with one notable exception: service inside the house. This has always been an occasional problem, but seemed to be worse lately. T-Mobile’s hasn’t had access to the type of spectrum which best penetrates walls (I’m told this is changing). When I called with this complaint the customer service folks jumped into action to solve my problem. No denying they had a problem–or trying to blame it on something I was doing–which you get all too often from customer service reps. They just stated they wouldn’t want to lose me as a customer (again, I’m a long term customer of T-Mobile). They tested the service and decided to send a signal booster for the house–at no charge. This solution is working quite well and they’ve won my continued loyalty.
Salesforce appears shortsighted
At the other end of customer service is my recent experience with B2B software company Salesforce.com. A truly great success story in recent years, they created the first really successful SaaS-based software company. Sales have risen rapidly and the stock has been a huge hit, trading at ridiculous valuations. But if my recent experience isn’t an anomaly, I wouldn’t buy this stock.
This is a company that lives up to it’s name–the entire employee base appears to be one big sales force. I recently set up Salesforce.com for a startup software client of mine. I didn’t need to be sold–I’d already decided to use the product and was doing an evaluation only to decide which version to buy–and told them so. I could have used someone technical to answer my questions about setting up and using the product. What I got instead was a constant stream of sales people contacting me in an attempt to close and/or upsell me. 3 or 4 handoffs to different types of “account managers” just during the initial evaluation period, all starting over with me each time. All of them proactive and persistent in contacting me, but none with the product knowledge to actually answer any of my questions. I’m a sales & marketing guy, but this was beyond excessive. And it continued from there: 6 months into a 1 year contract we were handed off it a “renewal manager” to sell us on the next contract.
But it’s what happened when we had a problem that I found really troubling. A colleague of mine and new user inadvertently deleted some important data. It was about a week before I realized it and promptly used the help links to discover there should be a recycle bin that held any deleted data for two weeks. Since the clock was ticking, I both opened an online support ticket and called their help desk. You’re not encouraged to the help line unless you’ve purchase “Premium Support”. But this is already an expensive products simply to access what is really pretty basic CRM functions. To get anything very advanced you really have to pay through the nose. Yet they want to only provide support via the Internet, as if it was some free online consumer application.
After being on hold you I finally got someone who isn’t really a support person and am told their support time is 2 days–even with the issue being raised to a priority level. Remember, this is our data I’m talking about! And the clock is apparently clicking on our ability to retrieve it. When I finally do hear from someone 3 days later, what’s the potential assistance they offer? Another sales rep pitching “Premium” data restoration at a minimum of $10,000. I was flabbergasted and asked “what about the recycle bin?” The answer was” Oh, just go to your homepage and access the recycle bin”. I responded: “but there is no button showing for the recycle bin on our homepage”. Remember, this was still within the two week period in which our data should have been easily restored. The answer came back “Sorry your data is gone” and that was the end of the communication from their end, even though I wrote back several times.
So here’s a high-flying company that apparently has 30 sales reps for every support rep and a hyper-sales culture. It reminded me of the days when Novell was shipping bricks to their distributors at the end of fiscal quarters, so the sales force could make their numbers and receive quarterly bonuses. This company also appears to be focused on meeting those public company-critical quarterly sales goals–at the expense of taking care of the customer. They have serious momentum and this tactic will work for a while. But in the long run taking care of the customer is what grows your business–I predict a big crash at some point if the approach doesn’t change.
A trend or isolated experience?
So my latest snapshot on customer service performance in the tech market is a still a mixed bag, but the arrow appears to be trending up. Some very big players have come to the realization that in the long run how you treat your customers will define your brand–and brand is the only true long-term differentiator. Of course, my experiences represent a small and narrow sample.
What have been your experiences lately, good and bad–in the customer service area? Leave a comment below so we can expand our collective experience.
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