Category Archives: Customer Service

High Speed? I Beg to Differ

*Sigh*  Here I go, whining about poor service again.  And this time, it involves my cable company.  Now there’s a shocker! 

Cox Communications is our cable provider, and we get digital cable TV from them, as well as high speed Internet.  On Wednesday evening, I came home to find that neither my TV or my Internet were functioning.  So I dug out my last bill, to make certain I was paid up (I was), and found the phone number to call for support.  After navigating my way through the automated attendant, and then holding for ten minutes, I was at last connected to JC, who was my support rep.  (Before going any further, let me also say that Cox has a cute way of having their reps answer the phone.  Instead of identifying themselves and asking how they can help, they instead identify themselves and say "I can help you."  Wellllllll… it’s nice to think so, but it is not always the truth.  Can you see where I’m going with this?)

So I told JC my problems with TV and Internet, but before saying anything, he needed to confirm my account.  So he asked my name, my address, the name of the person who set up the account (my wife), and then, the kicker – for security purposes, he needed to know the last four digits of my wife’s Social Security number.  Well, call me an inattentive husband, but it shames me to say, I do not know off hand my wife’s Social Security number.  And this turned out to be a boulder in the road which prevented me from getting any sort of response from JC.  So, after realizing that my pleas were not getting me anywhere, and that JC had a script that he was NOT going to stray from, I asked to speak to a supervisor.  Seven minutes later, JC returned, and verbally handed me off to his supervisor, who told me the same thing: No last four digits of my wife’s SSN, no service.  Well, as my luck would have it, the missus was traveling on business, and not immediately available to provide me with her SSN.  I pleaded with the supervisor, appealed to his sense of judgment and fair play.  However, he wasn’t getting off of his script, either.  He acknowledged that is must be frustrating, but stuck to his story that he could not help me until I came up with those last four digits.

*Sigh*  There is a lesson here for all of us.  The lesson for self-involved husbands like myself was to keep the wife’s SSN handy, ‘cus ya never know when you might need it.

The lesson for Cox Communications is, when setting up an account for a household, maybe something other than one spouse’s SSN could be used for security purposes.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for security.  I wouldn’t want an agent from the Axis of Evil to weasel his way into our cable account and cancel my HBO, thus inflicting a serious wound into my American way of life.  But maybe a pet’s name, or maybe a birth date, maybe a hometown, mother’s maiden name, perhaps… Something that might give another family member half a chance at unlocking the golden door of service at the cable provider.  I mean, what am I gonna do without TV and Internet?  Read a book???

   — Chuck Dennis

Escaping AOL Redux: You Read It Here, First!

One month after we posted comments from a former AOL employee concerning the company’s hardcore tactics for trying to talk members from canceling their accounts, the web site called "The Consumerist" has posted a copy of the AOL manual which teaches their "retention specialists" how to desperately cling to existing customers.  Check it out!

The Consumerist also provides their witty, scathing analysis of the the AOL manual, which is also a good read.

As a Customer Service consultant and an Angry Customer specialist, it amazes me sometimes on how little concern for the customer experience is shown by major corporations.  By the time the genius business strategists and the pointy-headed bean counters create their little plans, you would think that commerce was one big choreographed dance designed to put whatever is in your wallet into their coffers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all about trying to salvage existing accounts!  We all know that it costs 3 to 10 times more to cultivate a new customer than it is to service an existing one.  However, if the customer decides to leave, the business still needs to treat them as a customer, and provide the best possible customer experience.  If the customer is going to leave, better he should leave with a smile on his face, rather than a sour taste in his mouth. 

Instead of trying to trick the customer into staying, or wearing him down with countless questions, there are really only two questions that need to be asked:

1. Can you tell me about the problem that led you to want to cancel your account?

2. Is there anything we can do to remedy that situation, and keep you as a happy customer?

If the answer to number 2 is "no," then the best thing to do is gracefully cancel the account for the customer, and wish them well, and ask that, should the need arise in the future, they consider using your product / service again.  Pretty simple.  You can’t win ’em all, so show some class when you lose one.  In the long run, it will reflect better on your organization.  Hello, AOL?  Are you listening?

    — Chuck Dennis

Escaping AOL: A Peek Behind the Scenes

As with many newsworthy issues, by the time the word hits the national media, it is old news.  The "English-only" policy at Geno’s Steaks in South Philly, mentioned in earlier entries, has actually been in effect for six months.  Now, the desperate measures that an AOL rep took to try to prevent a user from closing his account have come into the national spotlight.  However, in speaking with a colleague who worked for many years at AOL, I learned that this type of thing has been part of their culture for quite some time, and while the company publicly denounces the extreme measures taken by the customer service rep in this situation, they have also set up lucrative incentives for reps who can retain accounts.

My colleague explains it this way:

AOL has made a huge investment in retaining members because the more members they have, the higher the ad rates they can charge. (There is far more money to be made in selling ads than AOL memberships.)  Internally, the reps who receive cancellation calls work in what is called a retention queue. Their job is to sell people on the service, so they won’t cancel.  While making efforts to retain customers is not a bad thing, the real problem was in the way the incentive programs were set up, and the actions of one of the original retention managers. The reps were getting two bonuses, one was 24-hour save bonus, and the other was a quarterly bonus made up of the accounts that the rep in question had kept for 90 days.

The guy who was the retention manager easily met his first quarterly goals, which were pretty low. Then the game started to get elevated, with no internal controls on rep behavior. There was a period where reps were abusing the system by telling the customer they were canceling an account when they really weren’t. The reason for this was twofold; first the management was putting high pressure on the reps to retain accounts, otherwise people would be fired.  So the reps started to cut corners and game the system to their advantage. Second thing is the incentive for the 24-hour save was greater than the 90 day incentive. We had retention reps who were making close to, if not more than $100,000 a year, due to bonuses and incentives. Basically it boiled down to no internal controls to prevent negative behavior and plain old greed.

So, a situation that AOL tried to make appear to be simply the fault of a bad customer service rep, is in actuality part of their corporate culture.  Pretty pathetic.

  — Chuck Dennis

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

As most customer-focused people know, it is usually more cost-effective to keep a customer than to find a new one.  The current customer typically does not require the same amount of "selling to,"  product / service explanations and training, and buying incentives.  Thus, it behooves businesses to make every reasonable effort to hang onto existing customers.

The operative word here is "reasonable."  Recently, media mega-giant AOL far exceeded any definition of the word "reasonable" in their efforts to salvage an account that a former customer wished to cancel.  You want details? 

For some time now, AOL has had a reputation for being easy to sign up with, but difficult to separate from.  This reputation is underscored here, by this particular customer service rep’s tenacious attempt to argue the customer out of his decision to terminate his account. 

It’s all well and good for a service rep to try to salvage the relationship, by asking if there is anything that the organization can do to keep the customer.  And even if that question comes up empty, it’s still permissible and commendable for the rep to ask the customer for feedback on what the organization could have done better, so as to not lose other existing customers. 

But once the customer makes it clear (as this customer did) that all he wants to do is terminate the account, and is not interested in an exit interview, then the thing to do is cancel the customer’s account, thank them for their business, and wish them well.  That’s how you handle such matters with professionalism and class.  You may not have this customer’s business anymore, but your organization’s reputation and dignity are in tact.

It is puzzling that a huge conglomerate such as AOL would use such tactics to desperately try to preserve a single user’s account.  AOL said, in a statement, that they regretted the incident and have fired the rep, but really, what are the chances of one lowly customer service rep pulling out all the stops, on his own, in order to prevent an ordinary customer from closing his account.  I have to believe that the reps are trained, to some degree, to steer people away from closing accounts.  Even to the point of this rep telling this 30 year old customer that he wanted to speak to his father (who had a sub-account)!

Desperation is such a sad, ugly thing.

  — Chuck Dennis

The Cheese on that English is Spreading

Well, I am not the only one who has taken notice of the Geno’s Steaks "English-only" policy.  A quick search on Google regarding this issue reveals over 81,000 hits!  Whoa, pony!

As one friend, an attorney in Philadelphia, put it: "…it hasn’t hurt this clown to take this position, he’s gotten a week of national media coverage because of it."  So I guess the old saying is true – there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

And, as this is a business blog and not a political one, I will try to keep our focus on the business aspects of this matter.  In my last entry, I questioned the business sense of alientating (no pun intended!) a significant portion of your customer base by insisting that English be spoken at your establishment when ordering a product.  I also think about how completely out of luck most US travelers would be, if merchants in other countries adopted the "Geno’s policy."

But then, I look at the number of hits on Google, and think about my friend’s comment about national media coverage, and I think that this has turned into the type of publicity that the top PR firms dream about.  Whether Mr. Vento, the proprietor of Geno’s, is now known as a champion of US values or known as a xenophobe, the fact is, he is now "known" from coast to coast.  P.T. Barnum would have loved this guy.

  — Chuck Dennis

Ya Want Cheese with that English?

We try not to get too political in this space, but sometimes political issues spill over into customer issues, and we feel compelled to comment.

Being a native of the Philadelphia area, and having grown up on cheesesteak sandwiches, I was drawn to this article in today’s Boston Globe, about a famous cheesesteak joint in South Philly called Geno’s. 

The gist of the article is that the proprietor of Geno’s has instituted an "English-only" policy for his customers.  This is ironic, given that Geno’s is located in an area settled and developed by Italian immigrants, and that the proprietor’s own grandparents struggled to learn English when they came here from Italy in the 1920’s.  Part of this policy might be fueled by the fact that, in the past 20 years, the neighborhood has been infused by different types of immigrants, those of Hispanic and Asian origin.

Joseph Vento, the proprietor of Geno’s, is trying to mask this "English-only" policy as an attempt to "help these people."  Does he really believe that by forcing people to order their cheesesteaks in English (not to mention their "Freedom Fries" – I kid you not!), he is helping the process of assimilation into the open arms of America?

Aside from the obvious political and racist overtones here, let’s look at this from a customer service viewpoint.  The world is changing.  People come to this country, and to other countries, looking for a better life.  As they struggle to build their new life in a new culture, are they supposed to put aside all purchases of products and services until they master the local language?  Is this not just a tad self-serving?

Rather, intelligent businesses should want to reach out to customers of all nationalities.  The customers may speak different languages, but their money is still US green.  And businesses that build reputations as being ethnically friendly will see a rise in business activity, as customers they have graciously served (in spite of language or cultural differences) will tell their friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

If your business is located in an area populated with people of different nationalities and cultures, you do not do them any favors by humiliating them by insisting they deal with you only in English.  You will not win any humanitarian awards for forcing your language on them.  Consider that over 30 million people in the US (12% of the population) speak Spanish as their primary or secondary language.  Regardless of your political or cultural leanings, or your feelings toward the US immigration policy, does it make sense to alienate a significant chunk of your customer base by imposing your language preferences on them?

Finally, as a matter of full disclosure, I always preferred to do business with Geno’s chief competitor across the street, Pat’s Steaks.  They never worried much about English; they spoke "Sout’ Philly."

  — Chuck Dennis

Lost and Found

Sometimes a great service experience appears when you’re not even looking for one.  I had just returned from a business trip and was in the parking garage at T.F. Green airport to get my car and drive home.  I was in Parking Garage C, to be exact, which  is the longer term garage.  Granted, I’ve been at the airport too much this year – but when I went to the 5th floor where I expected to get my car and drive home, I couldn’t find the car.  I walked all over the 5th floor.  Then I went down to the 4th, then down to the 3rd.  I knew it wasn’t on the 1st or 2nd – they were full when I parked there just 3 days earlier.  As I was trudging around and around and around (literally), I noticed that there was someone in a street cleaning machine who was cleaning the floor of the garage.  When he saw me the 2nd time, he pulled up and asked me if I needed any help.  I told him I couldn’t find the car.  He asked me to wait just a couple of minutes and he would get his regular truck and help me find it. At this point, I was exhausted from dragging my suitcase – so I said yes.

He was back in 5 minutes and loaded my stuff into his truck – and off we went. He asked what I was driving, and when I told him, he said, "I think I know where that is."   It seems that the 5th floor has several sections that aren’t easily apparant – and he found the car in 5 minutes flat. On our way there, he stopped to help someone who was having trouble getting into a space.  He helped her guide it in, then proceeded on our errand.  As he loaded my suitcase into my trunk, I thanked him profusely for his help.  He said to me, "Thank you for parking in Garage C.  It’s my garage."  He said it with sincerity and with pride.  I promised that I would never park in garage A or B – ever.  I drove away thinking about how great it was to meet someone who was that into his job and that into the experience people had in "his" garage.  A great experience – from lost to found.

— Lisa Dennis

Survey Like You Mean It

My wife is becoming a customer evangelist for JetBlue Airways.  And with good reason, it seems.  Not only are their flights comfortable, roomy, on time, and best of all, inexpensive, but they are becoming known for their customer-focused attitude.

To underscore their dedication to service, JetBlue sends out an email to customers returning from a flight.  They say that, in order to better serve their customers, they invite you to take a brief customer satisfaction survey.  Nothing too revolutionary about that.  But here’s the cool thing…

Right below the link that you need to click to take the survey, there is a beautiful sentence.  Beautiful in its simplicity, beautiful in its message.

"If you have an urgent concern or a comment that you believe requires immediate attention, you may send your comments directly to a Customer Commitment Specialist who will assist you directly."

And then there is a link to contact their customer service department. So simple.

You want your customer’s input on their service experience.  If it was a positive experience, there is a survey to relay your feelings.  But if you had a negative experience, JetBlue wants to hear about it immediately.  That is putting your money where your mouth is.  And a great way of getting candid feedback, which will help them improve their business.

— Chuck Dennis

A Tale of 2 Service Experiences

It was the worst of service. It was the best of service.  Sometimes it’s amazing how you can have two entirely different experiences with the same company.  How about the same retail outlet? 

It all began when I discovered that my Palm Treo 600 was no longer able to recharge.  So I took it back to my Verizon authorized reseller to have it tended to.  They told me that I needed to go to the regular Verizon service center in Burlington, MA to have it taken care of. I was assured that they would be able to set me up with a new phone, no problem.  So I drove from Waltham to Burlington, and went to the Verizon store in the Burlington Mall. I waited in line at the service desk there for about 20 minutes.  When it was my turn, the technician didn’t even lift his head from his computer screen – but just asked "How can I help you?"  I showed him the phone – and before I was able to complete a sentence about my issue, he wanted to know where I purchased it.  I told him and he told me that I would have to go there.  I explained that I had already been there, and was instructed to go here.  "Well,"  he said, "You damaged your unit so we can’t help you.  We’ll have to send it to the data team."  Again, I tried to explain that I had not damaged anything.  One day the charger plug worked and the next day it didn’t.  He began to get impatient with me.  I told him that I was told that I could get the phone replaced if it couldn’t be fixed here.  He said that they didn’t have any of the Palms here.  In front of me, he called the store I purchased it from to tell them that they should not have sent me here.  He than again told me that I would have to contact the "data team."  I love it when a company talks about internal policy or internal departments using internal language that an external customer couldn’t possible know about.  I asked him who or what was a data team and where were they?   His response was to just tell me I needed to talk to them – and he said it in a louder voice.  I asked him if he was raising his voice to me.  He said he’d go talk to a manager and disappeared from his chair.  He came back 5 minutes later to tell me that he couldn’t help me – that I would have to go to the data team. Period.  I tried to explain that I was leaving for a week long trip the next day – and needed to get a chargeable phone before I left.  His suggestion was to buy a new one – since the data team was not local.  He was curt, rude, impatient and obviously not going to help.  To say that I was unhappy was a big understatement.  "So you’re not going to do anything to help me?" I asked him.  He just gave me a dirty look and repeated the words "data team."  I had to ask him for contact information – which he finally gave me.  I guess one of the high points of our interaction was when I asked to see the manager – and he informed me that he was the assistant manager, and that he had already spoken to the manager.  "He’ll just tell you the same thing."  Well, I guess that showed me!

So now what?  As a loyal Verizon customer (and yes, I’ve tried other providers, Cingular, AT&T and others) I was pretty much out of luck.  Since the service center was attached to a Verizon phone store, I went in to buy a cheap phone to tide me over for the week.  It seemed like a lousy but inevitable solution.  In this store, they have a little "triage" desk at the entrance where they ask you what you need, and then "assign" you to a staff member.  I asked the "greeter" for the name of the regional vice president or general manager, because I was going to write a letter about the terrible service treatment I had just received from the assistant help desk manager.  And I needed to buy a phone.  I got assigned to a woman who took me right away.  I repeated my request for a name and address for my letter.  She told me she would give me the information, and could I share with her what happened.  I told her the circumstances and how I felt about them.  I reiterated my need for a low-cost phone which seemed my only option to help me with my trip.  She looked up my account – and then looked me in the face and told me "you’re a big Verizon customer."  That got my attention.  She asked for my Palm phone – and she would go talk to the manager about my issue.  I told her not to bother – that my "friend" over at the help desk already had.  She paused, and my husband suggested that I should let her try since she was making an effort to help.  That was a turning point, because I took a deep breath and did just that.  I reserved judgment and stepped back to see what she could do.  In about 10 minutes, she came back with a brand new Treo 650.  She apologized for the bad experience I had, and told me that she had spoken with the manager about how I was a big customer with over 1500 minutes a month.  She confided in me that she had the longest tenure at the store and had learned to make things happen. She gave me the name and address for my letter, and then walked me over to the payment desk.  She said she had also reviewed my usage and wanted to recommend a plan that would save me $35 dollars a month – could she have that adjustment made to my account?  She also had someone come and set up the phone right there.  She also sold me a car charger and a Blue-tooth ear piece. It was like being in Verizon heaven – after doing time in Verizon hell. 

So netting it all out – I got heard.  I got my issue resolved.  I got my call plan improved without even asking.  I got recommended some additional helpful products.  I got an upgraded phone which I hadn’t asked for.  I got my travel emergency handled.  The key of my experience with her was that she was both a terrific service person and a marketer.  She understood that she had a promise to keep with an existing customer – and by delivering that kind of service, she was marketing to me why I should stay with Verizon.  AND she up-sold me some new accessories flawlessly, without making me feel like she was taking advantage of the shift in service.  She was so good – that she made the assistant manager look even worse!  She was so good – that I didn’t write the letter.  She was so good that I’m writing here weeks later because I still remember how great and it was to be taken care of so well – after being treated so badly by someone else in her organiztion.  She took my problem, made it her own, and kept me as a customer.  There is a school of thought that customers who have a problem resolved to their satisfaction are more loyal than a customer who has never had a problem.  Now, I know first hand that this is true.

— Lisa Dennis

Can I Speak With a Human, Two?

Well, apparently I was not the only person who took great joy in discovering the web site that lists the phone numbers and "tricks" required to bypass the automated attendant in many prominent business’ call centers.

On the front page of yesterday’s Boston Globe, writer Bruce Mohl wrote an article discussing Paul English, the man who put this listing together, his motivation for doing so, and the reasons that businesses use automated attendants in the first place.

It is an interesting article, and even-handed.  It discusses the automated attendant as a cost-effective way of serving customers, along with the trend toward more "help-yourself" tools provided by businesses web sites and telephone systems.  Many of these tools do streamline processes, and save businesses money, which theoretically means that they don’t necessarily have to raise prices so much (stop calling me naive!).

On the other hand, as a customer service advocate, I believe that these wonderful tools should be an option, not the corral where customers are herded.  Many customers prefer the human touch, and should have that option when they contact a business.  If that means a little added expense for the business, so be it.  There is a cost to doing business, especially doing business well.

I touched on this concept not too long ago, in an article called The Golden Rule of Customer Service.  Let us know how you feel about this fundemental service issue.

  — Chuck Dennis

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