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.

If you want to improve the customer experience put fairness into the contracting process

Focus on reducing the effort that customers make

A recent HBR article titled Stop Trying To Delight Your Customers the authors argue that delight does not deliver loyalty if companies fail to get the basics right.  They argue that companies should focus on reducing the effort that customers make in doing business with them. 

The importance of the contracting process

Now what can be more basic then making it easy for customer to figure out what they are signing up for?   I’d argue that the contracting process is the start of the relationship and the vendor has a responsibility to make it absolutely clear to the customer what she is signing up for.  And in particular, it is critical that the vendor makes the customer aware of anything that the customer may find an unpleasant surprise after she signs ups.  Why?  Because we dislike unpleasant surprises.  We feel cheated when what we signed up for is not what we think we signed up for.  It erodes trust.  And trust is the foundation of all ongoing relationships.

How are UK companies doing in making contracting fair, easy and transparent?

So it is with interest that I read the following article: Problem contracts cost consumers £3b, OFT says.   Here is paragraph that leaps out at me:

“Common problems included a lower quality of service than expected, firms interpreting contracts to their own advantage, problems accessing a service, and poor customer service.”

The OFT study goes on to say: “The highest instance of problems occurred with telecoms and internet access packages, with 10.3% of consumers surveyed affected.”

Is taking advantage of your customers limited to these two industries? No.  The study says:

“Telecoms and internet access aside, of the 32 sectors investigated by the OFT problem areas included home entertainment, home deliveries, home improvement, travel, mobile phones and in-home services and repair.”

I wonder if all this talk about customer focus is simply talk

How hard is it to make the contracting process easy and fair?  I contend that it easy if you want to do it.  So why are companies not making their contracts fair, easy to read and easy to understand?  Bear in mind that the worst culprits according to the OFT, the telecoms companies, have been on the Customer Experience bandwagon since about 2002.