Bad customer experience: power to the people?

This is a guest post from Karl Indigne – a marketing professional that specialises in services marketing.

We have a choice, we can do something to effect change

Thanks to social media, you and I, can have an impact on bad customer service.  I agree, it can take a while, before things actually change in a structural way. But we have a choice, we don’t have to stay indifferent, we can do something to effect change.  We all know, it is not always the people that “help” us that are the problem. It is more like the procedures of the company and lack of good alternatives. But sometimes, somebody stands up and than it is not just a company that responds, but a society. Youp van’t Hek is a well known Dutch comedian and he almost, accidentally,  initiated a crusade against bad customer service.  The story starts in Holland in October 2010.

T-Mobile angers the wrong person

van’t Hek Junior (“vKJunior”) the son of Youp, has his mobile phone stolen. So he goes out and buys a new phone signing up to a new long term contract with T-Mobile. This new phone breaks and he sends it to be repaired; he was paying an additional monthly insurance to cover these kind of events.  vKJunior does not get his phone back.  So after a few weeks vKJunior rings the T-Mobile call centre to find out when he is likely to get his phone back.  After a long wait (several hours) he learns that T-Mobile couldn’t repair it and they will not replace it nor pay for vKJunior to buy a replacement.   Why?  Because the mobile phone they have on the system is vKJ’s old phone – the one that had been stolen.  He goes to the store (where he bought the phone) and asks for help – they say they cannot help.  He rings the call centre (again)….  At some point the call centre agent tells him to write into the company and make a complaint if he is not happy with the situation.   All of this takes place over a period of several months and is rather messy – I have given you the simple version.

Eventually, the son calls his dad (Youp) and asks for his help.  Youp, who is preparing for a show in Flanders, calls T-Mobile in an angry mood and asks to speak to the manager in charge of the call centre. They call centre agent refuses – the company policy states that they can’t put through angry customers . In a rage, Youp tweets: “The terror of T-Mobile is funny. For every mistake they apologize and they refer you to the customer service. Wait time 4 hours…” Minutes after his tweet he gets a call by a guy from T-Mobile, with a melodious voice, who wants to settle the matter. This manager tells Youp that vKJ (the son) can get a replacement phone, immediately, from the store. The son flies to the store, gets his replacement and thanks his dad.

The T-Mobile voice calls Youp back to ask if everything is ok now. Youp is furious. “Why can’t you treat all of your customers like this? Why is it that I, who happens to be famous, can settle such a matter so quickly”. He keeps on tweeting, gains 5.000 new followers and hits the news – national television and newspapers cover the story. People start complaining about all kinds of bad customer service especially in the areas of telecoms and energy in the Netherlands. And this spreads to Belgium – the country which shares a border, language and culture with The Netherlands.

“Hello, is it me you are looking for?”

In Belgium, Radio 1 (a national Flemish Radio Station), starts a program inviting people to talk about their bad experiences with call centres. Now, two nations are talking about the subject. Why are customers treated that way? Are call centre employees trained to embarrass customers? Why does the sales story seems like a fairytale and the customer service so awful? Shouldn’t advertising have some truth in it?

Some Belgian comedians play a practical joke. They have a large lorry size container dropped in front of the Mobistar (a Belgian Mobile Operator) car park in the early hours of the morning.  Result: the employees arriving for work cannot get into the car park.   On the outside of the container is a contact number -put there deliberately by the comedians. The security officer of Mobistar calls that number to get the container removed.  Call after call the comedians take the calls, invent excuses, stall, give the security guard the run around, hang up on him and so forth.  In total they stall him for 3 hours and 20 minutes.  Every time the security guard rings they put him on hold and play Lionel Ritchie’s”Hello, is it me you’re looking for”.  You can watch the joke being played here (English subtitles!) – it is funny!  By the way, the guard was congratulated because he stayed calm and polite despite the run around he was given call after call.

Eventually, the Belgian Federal Minister urges companies to do something about the matter. He finds it unacceptable that too much time is lost before getting to speak to a real person. In June 2011 the companies with the largest contact centres in Belgium signed up to a charter: to limit the waiting time to 2,5 minutes and to use a minimum service level. It is not a law, it is an intention.

 Conclusions

Consumers have more power than ever before, a complaint can go viral now, but the transition from bad service to good customer service does not happen overnight.

As a marketer it strikes me that it is very hard to break through silos within a company and put the customer experience first.  In the case of Telecom operators, most customers only have a choice between bad and worse. Consumers have long term contracts, companies are organized in a specific way.

Is improving the service at the contact centre level enough? In my opinion, the issue of good service is too focussed on the management of contact centres.  For example, why can’t the mobile operators select the right, best, call plan for me?  The giffgaff example on this blog, shows the advantage of a more holistic approach.  My point is this: the customer experience goes far beyond the contact centre only – it is the whole chain of the service across all touchpoints on the customer journey.

The core of the problem is that call centres are too often considered as a cost. The whole telecom industry is managed by the same mantra. This means that contact centres have to work efficient and should process a number of calls within a specific timeframe, I’m afraid we have to wait for new entrants to the market… or keep shouting it out on social media.

Final words

In his book Delivering Happiness, Tony Shieh, CEO of legendary Zappos, explains that for them logistics management and the call centre are considered as the core competences of the business. The call centre doesn’t use any script. They are trained to make people happy on the phone by helping them, even if that means they have to refer a customer to a competitor. And that message goes viral too.

giffgaff: where customers are ‘members’ who sit at the heart of the organisation

What makes giffgaff special – worth learning from?

Some customers love giffgaff so much that they are willing to have giffgaff tattooed on them.  If this does happen then it puts giffgaff in the same league as Harley Davidson and Apple – brands that have fans not just customers.   giffgaff won the Marketing Society’s 2011 best new brand award . And in the customer management community some hail giffgaff as representing the future of customer service.  So what makes giffgaff special – different from the pack?

First let me tell you a little bit about giffgaff.  Vodafone, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, 3 – are the main brands that dominate the UK mobile telecoms industry.  giffgaff is an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that launched towards the end of 2009 and piggybacks on the O2 network.  And in that sense giffgaff is rather like Virgin Mobile (the first commercially successful MVNO in the UK) and say Tesco Mobile.

So what makes giffgaff special?  It is not one thing, one ingredient, it is the entire recipe – the whole business model and organisational design.  In a way it is like the way that Dell (at the start) rethought the PC industry or Ryanair / Easyjet / Southwest Airlines rethought the airline travel industry.  Let’s start with customers.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say that giffgaff does not have customers – at least not in the traditional sense of customers simply as consumers.  giffgaff has members.  Customers are seen as members who are involved in, contribute to and carry out an array of organisational tasks: provide ideas, get involved in new product development, recruiting new members, serving other members (‘customer services’)……  Many pundits talk about putting customers at the heart of the organisation yet few organisations do that – giffgaff is an exception.  There is a lot of talk about transparency, authenticity, mutuality, collaboration and co-creation yet few organisation do that – giffgaff is an exception.  Finally, giffgaff is keenly focussed on its core customer segment (those looking for a great SIM only deal) and the associated value proposition (cheap calls, texts, internet).  If you want to find out more about giffgaff then I suggest you listen to Tom Rainsford, Head of Brand and Proposition, giffgaff.   For the rest of the post I simply wish to share with you my experience of dealing with giffgaff and why I am an advocate.

My giffgaff customer experience

To sign up with giffgaff you have to head over to their website as giffgaff is an internet only operation: there are no retail stores to visit nor call centres to ring.  The first thing that I noticed was that it was easy for me to sign-up and request a SIM: the task was prominently signposted on the webpage and the task was easy as I only had to supply my name, email and address – five fields in total.

Second, I noticed that giffgaff is great value for people like me – people who already have a phone and are happy to keep using that phone.   On Orange, as a pay as you go customer, I had been paying 20p+ a minute and 10p for text messages.  With giffgaff I would be paying only 8p a minutes for phone calls and 4p a text.

Third, despite the fact that I knew absolutely nothing on phone unlocking, all the information that I needed to get my phone unlocked was on the website.  Better still upon entering the make and phone model the giffgaff website provided a list of companies that are able to unlock my phone.  And each of these companies was rated so I could just turn to the best rated one. 

Within two days I received the SIM card and it was easy to register my SIM card: I simply logged into my giffgaff account, entered a six digit code and then purchased a £10 goody bag that bought me 250 free minutes, unlimited texts and unlimited internet.  Within 30 minutes my SIM was activated and I was making calls and surfing the internet.  The process could not have been easier.

In the process of purchasing the goody bag I noticed that the giffgaff website had an automated top-up facility.  I simply had to activate and specify how much I wanted my top up to be and when the balance on my account hit a low of £3 giffgaff would automatically top-up my account thus making sure that I was never in a position where I had run out of credit and thus could not use my phone.  This grabbed my attention because that was one of the tasks that I hated doing on Orange: topping up my phone and the phones belonging to my two sons.  I still cannot believe how such a small feature delivers such a huge benefit to me: always being able to use my phone and giffgaff doing the work behind the scene.

Whilst I was using the phone I got more suprises in the form of useful information: the giffgaff network regularly displays how many minutes I have left if I have bought a gift pack (a bundled package that expires at the end of 30 days).  If I have bought ordinary minutes then giffgaff lets me know how much credit I have left at the end of calls.  Finally, when I make calls to other giffgaff phones then the giffgaff network automatically informs me that the call was free.  This is the kind of information that I had yearned for and never got from my previous provider.  And it got me thinking: if giffgaff can do this then why did my old provider not do this?

About two weeks later I got another pleasant surprise: an email from giffgaff letting me know that they were sending me an additional SIM card that I could give to a friend.  And on the same day it arrived.  When I opened up the envelope I noticed that I was not simply being asked to get a new customer for giffgaff.  giffgaff had thought through the value exchange: once the SIM was activated then the person using that new SIM would be credited with £5 and so would I.  So I was being rewarded for my effort.  How could I refuse?  My wife switched over from Orange to giffgaff.  And she is delighted with the money that she is saving and how easy it is for her to manage her mobile account/relationship with giffgaff.

At the end of the month I was able to view an analysis of my phone usage via the giffgaff statement.  This took me by surprise because on Orange I simply got a list of phone calls I made chronologically.  On the giffgaff site I got that and I got a bar chart type analysis which I found useful – it helped me to figure out what I had been doing with my phone.  I was surprised and delighted by the thoughtfulness of it: giffgaff is providing me with information and tools that help me to be informed and make better decisions. 

Interestingly enough giffgaff beat me to that as well.  Shortly after this experience I got an email from giffgaff telling me that they had done an analysis on my usage and had a recommendation for me.  So I logged on the website and accessed that recommendation.  The recommendation itself was no surprise but the fact that giffgaff was doing this was and is a delight.  It was something that I had wanted from my previous provider and yet was never able to get.  As a consultant I had advised a major mobile telco to implement this practice, as this telco wanted to improve the customer experience, yet management refused because it would have an adverse impact on revenues and profits because most customers were on tariffs that were too high and costly for them.

Now this might not sound like a big thing and yet it is to me: the language that giffgaff use is a human one and that really connects with me.  The other day I got a SMS message which delighted me both because it was unexpected and because of its simplicity.  Here it is “Thanks for helping to grow giffgaff, you’ve earned ….so far. For more information and to check your recommended plan see My giffgaff at giffgaff.com, cheers!”  I have recommended more than once the companies and marketers use a human language that speaks to connects with customers – that is something that giffgaff is doing rather well.

Finally, I recently took my phone to France and got another pleasant surprise.  On landing the mobile connected to a French network and up came useful information from giffgaff.  I cannot remember the exact words yet the message was clear: we don’t want you to have any unpleasant surprises so lets make clear how much your mobile calls are going to cost.  I was told that I would be charged 38p per minute if I was making the calls and 15p per minute if I was receiving calls.  This is the kind of honest, proactive, information that I have always sought and never got from previous suppliers (mobile networks).

Why am I a giffgaff advocate?

I am adding giffgaff to the list of companies I recommend.  Why?  Simply because they have made my life easier by taking hassle out of it (e.g. automating topping up), provide me with useful information (how much credit I have left, how many minutes I have left, how much calls are going to cost…), talk to me in a human way (the simple friendly informal language), provide more value for money (cheaper calls, texts, internet..), reward me for the contribution that I make to giffgaff and the call quality / network coverage is as good as that provided by my previous supplier (Orange).  Finally, I prefer being called/treated as a ‘member’ rather than a ‘target’, ‘consumer’ or even ‘customer’.  How about you?

The latest 6 secrets of good service

I have often wondered about the folly of companies pursuing the new stuff (Relationship Marketing, CRM, Customer Experience, Social Media….) whilst neglecting to provide good service.  Why?  Because I know that my social circle uses service as the key dimension to choose between one supplier and another.

At the weekend I read my weekly copy of Marketing magazine and came upon a piece that talks to this point.  Marketing teamed up with Lightspeed Research and Promise to undertake quantitative and qualitative research to figure out which brands customers are to recommend and which fail the grade.

The key point that this article makes is this “Brands spending millions on the above-the-line marketing are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to customer satisfaction”.

One of the paragraphs that jumped out to me because I have experienced this as a truth and so have many others is as follows: “The research reveals that even for product-driven companies, consumers comments are almost always focused on service. This means that the more inferior the service a brand offers, the lower the satisfaction score they are likely to get.”

The research found that the top 10 brands customers are likely to recommend in the future are: Virgin Atlantic, BMW, Mercedes, Samsung, Boots, Sainsburys, Eurostar, M+S, Toyota and VW.

The brands that ended up towards the bottom of the recommendation table are from the following sectors: utilities (Npower, British Gas, EDT, E.ON), telecoms (BT, T-Mobile, Talk-Talk) and financial services (Egg, HSBC, Barcalys, Lloyds TSB, NatWest, Virgin Money).  Ryanair was second to last – and that is to be expected.

Here is another paragraph that struck me as worth sharing:  “Promise recommends that all brands – regardless of sector – think of customers as human beings to interact with, rather than as an amorphous mass to be sold to.” That sentence says it all: companies need to balance out their obsession with selling (the direct route to the customer wallet) with good customer service (the indirect route to long term relationships, higher revenues and higher profits).  I still find it amazing that after ten years+ of relationship marketing and CRM that the point needs to be made that customers are human beings and should be treated as such.  I believe I wrote a post on that some weeks ago, here it is:  Blind to the Obvious Part III

Another finding that is worth sharing is that “While many marketers have increased their focus on social media …..word of mouth remains by far the most important channel for peer-to-peer recommendations.  Two-thirds (66%) of consumers make recommendations this way.  In comparison, just 15% of recommendations are made via social networking sites.”

Promise, as a result of qualitative research, has put forward a list of 6 things that brands need to work on to deliver high customer satisfaction:

1. Be customer centred – that is to say look at the situation from the customer point of view and work on the assumption that customers are reasonable human beings.  For example fit service around customers: “know what I said and calling me back when I have got the time.  That would show me I’m really valued”.

2. Have superstar staff – apparently spending millions on TV advertising is not that smart if the brand’s staff don’t know and can’t advice customers on the basics of the product.

3. Delight the customer – exceed the post-purchase expectations: “when my flowers from Interflora arrived at my wife’s doorstep wilted, I phoned them and they sent me £50 vouchers.  It was really good of them.”

4. Keep your promises – “I was on hold with my insurance company and then an automated message tells me it will call me back in 10 minutes – and you know what, they actually did.”

5. Sort out service recovery – my post on The Suites Hotel in Knowsley talks to this very point;

6. Build a relationship – being handed from one agent to another and having to start from the beginning each time is a real hassle for customers: “With BT you can never trace who you have spoken to and which country they’re in. There’s no relationship at all, it’s confusing.”

My take on this:  I continue to be amazed at how the obvious (what we all know) has to be restated again and again in one form or another.  Time and time again the critical importance of good service is highlighted.  Time and time again this insight is ignored by many organisations as if this insight is too painful and has to be repressed.