how to lose customers

Soviet telephone, Popov Communications Museum, St Petersburg, Russia_2

Part of the fabric of a modern life is access to the internet. You don’t really think about it but you rely on it more heavily than you know.  In addition, you rely on simple and quick fixes to problems with your access.  You could say the same for most services.  Most of us don’t anticipate a year without phone service, or a year without electricity.

Let me dial back about 10 years to a younger Steve living in Moscow, Russia. I had a home telephone line through the state phone company which had – at that point – resisted efforts by the state to privatize the service.  Cellular phones were available, but considering handsets started at $1000 apiece, they weren’t a reasonable option for your young expatriate-about-town.  I relied on my home phone, which I had jury-rigged up using a half dozen European converters to my Radio Shack answering machine.  I conveniently recorded polite messages in both English and Russian, informing callers that I might be back soon.

As I’m sure my worried parents could attest at the time, my phone service was spotty at best and nonexistent at worst. I tried to keep up with payments, which had to be made in cash to a local branch.  Bills were shoved into my keyless mail box and tended to “fall out”.  I struggled to keep up my payments, but since my mail box was an empty hole in the wall and – unsurprisingly – mail often disappeared, I missed a payment or three.  Service was cut.

After I was cut off I was forced into two dark underworlds – first, the world of Russian payphones, and second, the world of state telephone service restoration. Suffice it to say I did not merely endure – I prevailed.  I stood in the local subway station and called friends for weekend plans.  I abused office calling privileges to call the States.  I threw myself against Soviet power, and was rewarded with a restoration of phone service (after being disconnected for six weeks).  I spent hours in line.  I brandished forms.  I triplicated.  I stuttered my way to glory in Russian.

My point? Simple. In every way that matters, dealing with the post-Soviet state services was easier than dealing with the horrendous post-globalization customer service we have to deal with in America today.  People were nicer, humans were easier to come by, solutions were easier to arrive at and resolutions were clearer.  I love India.  I wish India the best going forward replacing the US as Superpower 2.0.   But let’s face it – India’s really not ready to deal with Steve from New Jersey’s internet access problems.  Steve is needy, and won’t be mollified with reading from a script unless it solves his expensive problem today, or at least promises some chance at a solution in the near future.  Whether or not Megacorp believes he will be, Steve won’t be happy dealing with voice response systems, endless menus and customer service reps from the far reaches of the former British Empire.

I’ve got internet access again for the first time in weeks tonight. It’s nice.  What I don’t feel happy about is the fact that I had to fight for that access.  I’m paying for a service.  I can understand when Google doesn’t perform as advertised – I’m not paying to subscribe to Google.  I’m paying some other services, and I expect at least a pale imitation of service.  If these corporate customer service departments are the future, I’m ready to fold.

Photo:  photo credit: gruntzooki

13 comments

  • Would you care to call out the provider (or lack of provider)? One afternoon Comcast came and disconnected my cable modem service at the pole outside my house. Turned out they had the wrong address. When I called the toll-free customer service number, I was told it was done in error, but I had to wait until the following week for an appointment to have it restored. The next morning I drove to the local Comcast office (fortunately next door to the place I worked at the time), explained my problem to a very nice customer service person, who went into the back room and found a technician who drove to my house to restore it later that day. Moral: The personal approach almost always works.

  • Curm – the personal attention always prevails. After being transferred 300 times to different departments they told us that there’s a problem (couldn’t say what) and the technician will come on Thursday from 8am to 2pm. Ok, how pleasantly surprised I was to see the technician coming on Tue. at 5pm. After he fixed everything, I wanted to kiss and hug him ;o) They couldn’t even get the dates straight. The problem was very simple, we got a new internet service and they never sent a tech. to switch lines in the main box next to our house, but they did everything else in the central office, duh!
    I am sure everybody will have some sort of “war story” to tell about getting a service in the house, whether it’s phone, internet or TV cable.

  • Oh, Steve didn’t mention, but we were planning to cancel the new service before we even got it to work. So the technician that showed up totally kept a customer for the company. They owe him big time.

  • @Bubelah – Oh, and the technician scheduled by the national customer service organization still showed up the following week. It happened to be the same one who originally fixed the error. He said, “What am I doing here again?”

  • I think it’s fair to say that telecom companies have just given up. Them and most north american airlines. I’m stunned to get even adequate service or hell, just an indication that the employees don’t actively hate their customers from phone/internet companies or airline staff (hence our slack-jawed amazement at Porter Airlines this last week). Why should you care about losing customers when other consumers are bailing from your competitors just as quickly, and many will land with you?

  • Hilariously, brutally true in every way. Love this post – kudos!

  • Great post! I think you hit on what’s wrong with America’s version of capitalism. In a true capitalist society, there would be many competitors vying for your business; however, in many industries, especially where heavy infrastructure is involved, there are two, or at most, three competitors even willing to provide you with a service.

    Oh, they’ll sell you a service, but they often won’t deliver.

    For industries like telecommunications (energy is another), it might not be a bad idea for the government to fund the build out, and let service providers compete to provide the content and delivery. Then, there might be dozens upon dozens of competitors begging for your business.

    Competition breeds innovation, efficiency, and, most of all, excellent customer service. If you cannot provide those things and I have viable alternatives, I walk next door to your competition and sign right up. In this case, there would be no riff-raff, either, about having to “re-connect” or set up my service: It’s already on. Billing would simply have to be switched.

  • Ah, my poor homeland. Always the fall guy for the failure of American capitalism. Of course, when everything *does* work, hooray for the poor schmucks in the developing world! They break their backs to keep America fat and happy.

    Not a jibe at you, Steve – I feel your pain on this one. Just a general frustration at misguided globalization.

    One reason why I love the little, local guys – you always get great service. And when you don’t, they make it up to you in ways that count. I’ll pay extra for the reduced stress.

  • @Curmudgeon: Well, I didn’t want to mention the company by name since it’s all working OK by now. Let’s just call them Pherizon. 🙂

    @Guinness416: You’re absolutely right – I’m more likely to be stunned by DECENT customer service than anything. Good customer service is downright shocking. And the company I’m talking about knew that they had so few competitors that there was almost no chance we’d leave them – and their competitors are famous for horrible service (and prices) too.

    @Bill: I think the word “capitalism” is overused in America. As you said, so many services are monopolistic: energy, telecommunications, water. In less populated areas it can be even worse. I don’t know what the answer is. The telecommunications industry was famously deregulated from the monopolistic AT&T (not the same company that’s called AT&T today, of course). The industry fragmented, competed savagely, then reconsolidated into regional monopolies. How do you force competition? I assume that if a local phone company was awful enough, a competitor might come in – think Vonage vs. the phone company, for example, or cell phones versus land lines. But those changes take a long time and we end up with highly inefficient systems in the meantime.

    @deepali: I’m sure you know that I wasn’t really trying to pick on India. It could just as easily have been the Philippines or China, of course. Here’s my biggest problem with globalized customer service – I have yet to see any outsourced customer service do anything more than refer me to another number that can only be called from 9 to 5 weekdays. If they could actually fix something I could see the point – but it seems to be largely a delay-and-frustrate tactic. I do feel bad for the people in the call centers – it must be tough to deal with so much fury on a daily basis.

  • @Steve – Yes, FIOS was available to me until recently, when they sold their land lines in northern New England to FairPoint. FairPoint is promising to expand DSL in my region, so I don’t know what they are doing with all those nice fiber optic lines the Verizon buried in the ground.

  • @Curmudgeon: I am sure they are taking massive action to ensure that their resources are allocated in a responsible and effective manner to maximize customer satisfaction….

  • I was reading somewhere about how outsourcing and globalisation is key to cutting costs, but that savvy companies are realising that they shouldn’t be outsourcing customer support, but backend functions. Save money and don’t annoy customers at one fell swoop.

  • @plonkee: you’d think that would be the obvious solution, wouldn’t you?