Tag Archives: Customer Management

Top Posts Of The Year #3

Continuing our countdown to the most-read post of the year, this post is from last May. I’ll often use something that has happened to me as a case study, particularly when it involved bad customer service. I generally find that many of the issues that escalate into customers not returning to a business involve things that could be prevented or remedied with transparency. This post is one of those cases. Originally called “I Got Trucked,” it was prompted by a bad van rental experience. Enjoy!

I rented a cargo van and that’s when the fun started. I mentioned in another post that we’re preparing to sell Rancho Deluxe and part of the process is cleaning out 30 years of stuff. I booked a cargo van through Enterprise, a company from which I’ve rented cars in the past without issue. They confirmed my reservation but just to be safe I went to the local lot and examined the vehicle I was renting a week ahead of time to be sure it would serve my needs. It was fine.

At 2pm the day of the rental I got a call from Enterprise asking if I was indeed coming to pick it up. I said yes, the reservation is for 5:30 and that’s when I’ll be there. I asked if there was an issue. The guy on the phone said no, we have a van, it’s just not the one you saw. Hmm. Is it the same size? “No, it’s a little shorter.” “You mean less tall because I need height to get some items in?” “No, the length is less.” OK, not an issue.

5:30 comes and I go to get the van. It is quite nice but a miniature version of what I rented. It was no bigger than a minivan or large SUV, and not at all satisfactory for my needs. The customer service rep was very apologetic, informing me that the person who rented it last hadn’t brought it back, they’d been working all day to find me another one, etc. All well and good, but it’s 5:40, most other rental places have closed or will close in the next 20 minutes, and I need a van.

What’s the business lesson? First and foremost, be honest with your customers. Obviously, they knew there was an issue at 2 when they called. Why not be honest? I’ve been on the other end of this, running the NHL’s online commerce. One year we were completely out of hockey jerseys and the inventory system failed to turn off new orders. I told the customer service reps to be honest – we would not be able to fulfill the orders by Christmas and if the customers didn’t want a credit then a full refund should be offered. More than that, I asked our commerce folks to be proactive and contact the people immediately, since it is unacceptable that some kid wouldn’t get a gift due to our faulty inventory management.

Had they been open about the problem at 2, it would have given me 3 hours to find a replacement. They were also dishonest about the size of the replacement. It had nowhere close to the cargo capacity of what I rented. No, I didn’t take the replacement Enterprise offered me. I scrambled and was lucky enough to convince a U-Haul dealer to stay open an extra 15 minutes to rent me something like what I rented in the first place. It will cost me a few bucks more but at least I got what I needed.

I’m hoping this was an aberration on Enterprise’s part. As I said above, I’ve rented cars from them before without a hitch. Customers don’t expect perfection but they do expect to be told when there is a problem and to be told what you’re doing to solve it. I wasn’t told there was a problem until it was too late, and what they had done was to throw up their hands when they couldn’t find a replacement in their own inventory (ever hear of an airline rebooking you on another airline? Maybe get one from someone else?). The goodwill you’ll generate by doing so will outweigh the negative of the moment.  You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?, What's Going On

I Got Trucked

I rented a cargo van and that’s when the fun started. I mentioned in another post that we’re preparing to sell Rancho Deluxe and part of the process is cleaning out 30 years of stuff. I booked a cargo van through Enterprise, a company from which I’ve rented cars in the past without issue. They confirmed my reservation but just to be safe I went to the local lot and examined the vehicle I was renting a week ahead of time to be sure it would serve my needs. It was fine.

At 2pm the day of the rental I got a call from Enterprise asking if I was indeed coming to pick it up. I said yes, the reservation is for 5:30 and that’s when I’ll be there. I asked if there was an issue. The guy on the phone said no, we have a van, it’s just not the one you saw. Hmm. Is it the same size? “No, it’s a little shorter.” “You mean less tall because I need height to get some items in?” “No, the length is less.” OK, not an issue.

5:30 comes and I go to get the van. It is quite nice but a miniature version of what I rented. It was no bigger than a minivan or large SUV, and not at all satisfactory for my needs. The customer service rep was very apologetic, informing me that the person who rented it last hadn’t brought it back, they’d been working all day to find me another one, etc. All well and good, but it’s 5:40, most other rental places have closed or will close in the next 20 minutes, and I need a van.

What’s the business lesson? First and foremost, be honest with your customers. Obviously, they knew there was an issue at 2 when they called. Why not be honest? I’ve been on the other end of this, running the NHL’s online commerce. One year we were completely out of hockey jerseys and the inventory system failed to turn off new orders. I told the customer service reps to be honest – we would not be able to fulfill the orders by Christmas and if the customers didn’t want a credit then a full refund should be offered. More than that, I asked our commerce folks to be proactive and contact the people immediately, since it is unacceptable that some kid wouldn’t get a gift due to our faulty inventory management.

Had they been open about the problem at 2, it would have given me 3 hours to find a replacement. They were also dishonest about the size of the replacement. It had nowhere close to the cargo capacity of what I rented. No, I didn’t take the replacement Enterprise offered me. I scrambled and was lucky enough to convince a U-Haul dealer to stay open an extra 15 minutes to rent me something like what I rented in the first place. It will cost me a few bucks more but at least I got what I needed.

I’m hoping this was an aberration on Enterprise’s part. As I said above, I’ve rented cars from them before without a hitch. Customers don’t expect perfection but they do expect to be told when there is a problem and to be told what you’re doing to solve it. I wasn’t told there was a problem until it was too late, and what they had done was to throw up their hands when they couldn’t find a replacement in their own inventory (ever hear of an airline rebooking you on another airline? Maybe get one from someone else?). The goodwill you’ll generate by doing so will outweigh the negative of the moment.  You with me?

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Siriusly?

Sorry about the length of today’s screed, but the tale is a doozy and requires some explaining. I’ve been a customer of XM radio (now SiriusXM) since 2005. I love the clear sound and diversity of channels, and the fact that several of my favorite artists have dedicated channels keeps me paying those subscription fees without remorse. I’ve also found that on the few occasions I’ve needed something from customer service they’ve been helpful and efficient. That changed yesterday and it can serve as a lesson for any business.

I dropped an old XM radio a couple of weeks ago and it refused to turn on. I reached out to Sirius customer service and they offered me a new radio at a very attractive price. Unbeknownst to me, they also attached a new subscription to the radio, even though I already had a subscription (which I had just renewed) attached to the now deceased radio. In other words, 3 subscriptions and 2 radios.

I reached out to Sirius yesterday to cancel one of the radio subscriptions. The experience was like finding out that your kindly old aunt is really an ax murderer who flies into a killing rage at the mention of a secret word. In Sirius’ case, the word was CANCEL. The lovely customer service agent understood why I wanted to cancel and transferred me to what I guess is the department assigned to customer retention. I explained the situation – 3 subs, 2 radios – and was immediately offered a third radio. I politely declined – I only have 1 car and 1 house and there are radios in each. I was then told there would be a $50 early termination fee. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well and I reminded this agent (less politely, I’ll admit) that I didn’t create this problem: the agent who added a new subscription to the new radio rather than just transferring the old one over did (you don’t suppose they’re paid commissions on new subscription sales, do you?).

I was transferred to a manager.  After she began reading me a script (“when you first got the service, what did you like about it?”), I interrupted her and said she needn’t go through a retention script because I was not dropping the service – I just wanted to drop an unnecessary subscription.  After then having basically the same chat I’d had with the other agent, I was transferred to the department supervisor.  By now I’d been on the phone with them for well over 30 minutes and I was beginning to get angry.  The same chat ensues except it ends with I can send you a new radio and then we can cancel without a termination fee.  WTF?  I reminded her that her actions would cost her company money (the cost of the radio, shipping, etc.) as well as cost me the time it would take to call them back after I get the new radio to cancel.  I will spare you several other details, but the situation was resolved when I realized that they were trying to cancel the “new” subscription and not the subscription assigned do the broken radio, even though I had read them the ID of the radio I was trying to cancel.  Once I was very specific – cancel the subscription assigned to radio XXXX, we were done in about a minute.  Total time on phone: 53 minutes.

In no particular order:

  • Service” implies helping the customer reach his or her goal for the interaction.  In this case, Sirius threw up barrier after barrier.
  • At no point did any of the 5 people with whom I spoke offer to apply the money from the third subscription to extend the others.  Big missed opportunity.
  • I realize that the cost of a radio is tiny compared to the lifetime value of a subscriber, but Sirius was not losing a subscriber and was sending the radio fully knowing that the subscription would be canceled anyway.  What COULD cost them a subscriber was the ill will generated by obfuscation and delay not to mention the time it took when I should have been working.

I also realize that nearly every subscription business – cable, magazines, etc. – employs the same tactics so I’m using Sirius as an example.  I really was considering canceling all my subscriptions at one point – streaming music in the car is pretty easy these days – but that seemed self-defeating.  Still, none of us can afford to alienate our best customers, let alone the marginal ones, can we?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

We’re All Termites

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about eating wood.  There have been a whole host of articles written about it.  We all do it,  unknowingly most of the time.  Oh, you’ll not find “wood” on any label, but you will for sure find “cellulose” or some variant thereof.  As The Street explained it:

Cellulose is virgin wood pulp that has been processed and manufactured to different lengths for functionality, though the use of it and its variant forms (cellulose gum, powdered cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, etc.) is deemed safe for human consumption, according to the FDA.

Don’t we all need a little more fiber in our diets?  It’s in shredded cheeses, ice cream, and pretty much any “low fat” version of your favorite food.  To my knowledge, it doesn’t lead to an insatiable urge to gnaw on a table leg.  I think the real issue is one from which all of us can learn, and it’s our old friend transparency.
Sure, it says cellulose on the label, but when it also says “natural” or even “organic”, I think that there is an expectation that the product is made from the same sort of stuff that you might find laying around your kitchen.  It’s disappointing (or worse) when people hear that wood fiber is being used as a filler to make the product cheaper to produce among other things. Of course, that’s one of the trade-offs that consumers never think about.  Do you want a less expensive, potentially better for you product or do you want it to cost more but be made from the same ingredients you’d buy at the market to make it yourself?

There are tradeoffs like that one in a number of areas.  Do you want a secure phone, safe from hackers, or do you want terrorists to be able to plot without governmental monitoring? Any trade-off involves a sacrifice that must be made to get a certain product or experience. To me, it isn’t so much about what’s being sacrificed as much as consumers aren’t helped to understand how these conscious choices affect them. I think we can all do better in helping them to do so.

I don’t suspect any of us is going to sit down with a nice bowl of wood fiber anytime soon, but I bet you might read the label a little more carefully on your next bowl of whatever.

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Rusty Tanks And Being Ripped Off

20 or so years ago, we installed two large propane tanks to power our cooktop and a new furnace. Since they have an expected lifespan of about 15 years, we asked someone from our propane company to come take a look at them. We had noticed they were rusting a little, so better safe than sorry, right? Sure enough, they need replacing. How this leads to us replacing the propane supplier as well is a tale from which any business can learn.

English: 2 larger propane tanks, one with a re...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have been very happy with this company. Service has always been prompt, they deliver on a regular schedule and we’ve never run out of propane. That was the case when we called this time to come have a look at the tanks – they were there the next day and came back to us with a proposal to replace the tanks. We made an appointment for later this week to have the work done.

Just out of curiosity, we made a couple of phone calls to other suppliers. What we found out enraged us. Not only was what our supplier proposing to charge us to remove and dispose of the tanks way out of line with the market, but what they had been charging us for propane over the last decade was substantially higher as well. I’m talking about higher to the tune of over $1 a gallon, and when you’re using several hundred gallons a year, that’s a big difference.

In addition, these guys never offered us the ability to “lock in” a price for a heating season. Our oil supplier, as an example, sends us a letter every year with three different lock in options. It shouldn’t surprise you that when our supplier called to confirm the appointment, we cancelled it, informing them that we’re talking to other suppliers and had discovered that we were being ripped off for years.

10 minutes later, the phone rang. Suddenly, the cost to remove the tanks had vanished. Our rate for propane had dropped a lot, and we could lock it in for the year if we so chose.  While we still might stay with them, our opinion of them has changed substantially.  Customer service isn’t just about answering the phone and handling issues when they arise.  It is caring for your customer even when they don’t know that they need care.  Would we pay a little more for great service?  Probably.  The propane is a commodity so the difference is service.  That needs to have transparency, and now that we see what that service has been costing us, we are angry.

There are no secrets anymore.  Yes, it’s our fault for not asking about pricing and plans, I suppose.  That, however, demonstrates the value in keeping customers happy.  We didn’t ask because we were happy with them.  Now that we have asked and have realized that this has meant the overpayment of thousands of dollars over the years, we are far less content.  If you’re keeping customers happy by keeping them in the dark, you had better be damn sure there isn’t a rusty tank out there waiting to expose the issue.  Is there?

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Gagging Your Customers

I love the Streisand Effect.  You know – some person or company takes umbrage at what someone else has written somewhere and decides to “fix” things.  Usually, that fix creates even more awareness of the original negative  item and so the attempt to hide it has just the opposite effect.  Some genius at a Florida company that sells weight loss products decided to solve the negative item problem in a different way.  It allegedly made false claims for their products, and then threatened to enforce “gag clause” provisions against consumers to stop them from posting negative reviews and testimonials online.  How great an idea was this?

Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a complaint filed in federal court, the FTC alleges that Roca Labs, Inc.; Roca Labs Nutraceutical USA, Inc.; and their principals have sued and threatened to sue consumers who shared their negative experiences online or complained to the Better Business Bureau, stating that the consumers violated the non-disparagement provisions of the “Terms and Conditions” they supposedly agreed to when they bought the products. The FTC alleges that these gag clause provisions, and the defendants’ related warnings, threats, and lawsuits, harm consumers by unfairly barring purchasers from sharing truthful, negative comments about the defendants and their products.

Hmm.  Maybe not such a good idea after all, huh?  Telling consumers that they would be subject to $100,000 in damages for posting reviews isn’t exactly embracing the customer.  In fact, I can’t really imagine a circumstance where preemptively threatening to sue a customer for anything short of non-payment makes any sense.  In this case, not only has the Streisand Effect kicked in but so too has a stream of legal fees and, potentially, fines and damages.  As it turns out, the FTC alleges that the product’s weight-loss claims are false or unsubstantiated – you know, the stuff they’re selling just doesn’t work. That will move a lot of product, right? Just to kick them a little while they’re down, the FTC also charges that the defendants failed to disclose that they compensated users who posted positive reviews.

The takeaways (none of which are news to anyone who has read this screed before): don’t threaten your customers, don’t lie about your products, don’t pay for fake reviews and don’t actually follow through and sue them when someone posts a negative comment (these guys did file a number of suits).  Sure, if someone is spreading out-and-out lies, you need to respond but hopefully not in court.  If what they are saying contains a fair amount of truth, however, the fault isn’t the customer’s.  Agreed?

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Aligning The Wifi

Suppose you were staying the night at a hotel and got hungry. Let’s say there is a lovely restaurant down the block and you wander out to sate your hunger pangs. As you walk over you realize a game you wanted to watch comes on in 20 minutes so you get the order to go figuring you’ll eat in the room.  You turn on the game and unwrap your food when there’s a knock on the door. It’s hotel security who confiscates your food. “We have room service here, and if you want to eat you’ll use our service.” Ridiculous?

Substitute “high-speed wi-fi” for “food” and it’s true. There is an ongoing battle in the lodging world over charging guests for wi-fi and forcing them to use it by blocking guests’ access to the guests’ own hotspots. No, I’m not kidding.  You might have read about the FCC fining Marriott $600,000 for blocking guests’ hotspots in their convention centers.  I can tell you from personal experience with clients that hotels force you to use their service (and it’s not cheap and not good) in their convention halls even when you have your own.  We can argue the merits of the hotels’ case (it’s expensive to provide, they’re not running a charity, etc) but there is a broader business point.

This is yet another case where a company’s interest and a customer’s interests are not aligned.  That has to impact the value proposition to the customer.  Contrast the hotels’ thinking with Amazon’s.  This from a shareholder letter:

 I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.

We need to take every opportunity to align our interests and those of our customers.  The $10 “resort fee” (since when is mid-town DC a resort?) we charge today may be the last revenues we ever take in from the disgruntled customer.  Foregoing it is an investment in my book.  Yours?

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