Unlimited Frustration: A Sunday with Sprint

At the outset I want to be clear that dealing with wireless companies has always been akin to getting a wisdom tooth removed without anesthesia. However, given that this is 2017, the age of big data, real-time analytics, beacons and of every grandmother knowing that CRM stands for customer relationship management, I had some expectation that my experience with Sprint would not be like it was still 1990.

Our fateful journey started at the only Sprint store near us. The first sign of trouble came when the store manager informed me plan options the store offered were limited, compared to what customer service could offer. It is odd that Sprint is unable to offer the same options at retail, via phone or online, in 2017, but I said I would call when I got home. But that would have been too easy; we were informed that it was better to do the upgrade after we changed our plan, or we would not get access to the good plans.

I thought to myself that Sprint should make life easier for customers, not harder, especially for loyal ones who are about to renew their vows with the company.

I acquiesced and spent the next hour deciphering plan options with customer service by phone while standing at the store counter. During this time we also found out that we would need to postdate the new plan or face pro-rating fees that would double our cost for the month. No doubt this was designed to be just another way for customers to pay Sprint for their loyalty.

Two and a half hours later we walked out with one phone, one on order and a new plan that would take effect in a month.

My phone arrived a few days later and it was the wrong colour. By now I was also starting to get used to the obstacles Sprint seemed to like to put up – to test customer loyalty.

Upon informing the store of their mistake, I was told I needed to wait for a return package that would arrive in 5-7 business days, by mail. Then I needed to wait another 5-7 business days for Sprint to process the return, and only then could the store order the right colour for me.

Out of data and with no new phone, I asked why I was being punished for their mistake. I was told it was because this was not a Sprint corporate store.

I realised that I has just failed another test of customer loyalty.

I walked into this store, the only one in our area code, after seeing a big fat Sprint logo othe storefront, Sprint branded posters on walls, shelves full of Sprint merchandising, promotional cardboard cutouts with Sprint exclusive offers, Sprint logos on the salespeople’s t-shirt, but I failed to notice the small certificate on the wall that said “Sprint preferred retailer.” My bad.

I decided to make a last ditch appeal to the all-powerful customer service and asked them to ship me a new phone, while I waited for the circuitous return process to unfold. They were very apologetic and set-up an appointment for me to visit a corporate store, on the other side of town, and said I could simply exchange the phone. Problem solved!

It was a bright and beautiful Sunday afternoon when I ventured out to exchange my phone. Upon checking in at the store I was promptly informed that the exchange could not be done at the store. And they added that they did not care what customer service had told me, because customer service had no authority over stores. Thankfully, they took pains to re-assure me that this happened all the time to customers, making me feel all warm and fuzzy for not being singled-out.

After a heated back and forth, I dug in and said I was not leaving until my issue was resolved. They dialed customer service and handed me the phone to figure it out with customer service. With a strong sense of déjà vu I spent the next two hours, on the phone, standing at yet another Sprint store.

The customer service people were apologetic and admitted that I had been given erroneous information, vindicating the store, but not really servicing this customer. They assured me that the rep would be “coached”, which was wonderful, but again did nothing to resolve my issue. After a long and patient wait, someone in the ‘order support department’ where I ended up figured out that they could simply cancel the original order and have the corporate store create a new one and give me the correct phone.

Wait, the best is yet to come. We now get to part two of the torment, regarding the plan change.

While upgrading the phone, feeling badly about the ordeal everyone in the store had witnessed, the salesperson offered to look at my plan and see if he could save me money, only to discover that I was tethered to a wireless hotspot device that was on contract – totally unbeknownst to me.

I remember it being given as a free gift during our last upgrade; one I was told required a data plan but no mention of a two-year contract. So I said get rid of it, which required me to pay an early termination fee of over $100. Again, the store folks empathised with my plight and genuinely tried to help, but clearly lacked the authority to free me from my bondage.

So I reached out once more to the all-powerful customer service, and they transferred me to the termination department and to someone who said they would solve my problem without a termination fee. I was unwilling to pay because I was never overtly made aware of a contract. Three quarters of the way through the process the line got cut. I waited but nobody called back, even though they had my number.

So I called back and got a different rep, possibly in the Philippines. She was completely clueless. This person could not even find the device I was referring to, leave alone understand the issue.

After what seemed like an eternity of explaining, and getting nowhere, I asked to speak with a supervisor, but she kept putting me on hold, while going off to ask someone questions and then coming back and asking me the same question. With my Gandhi-like patience starting to run thin, I firmly asked to speak with a supervisor, at which point she hung up.

Glutton for punishment, I called back again.

Of course, I got a new rep, to whom I had to repeat the entire ordeal (this happened every time I called); who was again polite and very apologetic, but said I needed another department. I asked that he at least brief the person they were transferring me to, so I wouldn’t have to go through the entire story every time I was cut-off.

I must have repeated my story at least a half a dozen times as I got transferred between departments, and finally reached someone with an American accent. At least she could understand the issue – progress!

She patiently took me through numerous options. One requires a degree in rocket science to understand the permutations and combinations of data plans and device leasing options, but despite this she was unable to do the one thing I needed – waive the early termination fee.

I suggested she talk with a supervisor and explain that I was ready to leave Sprint over a $110 termination fee, resulting in a loss of approx. $200 per month revenue over the next two years from me. The math was easy. She agreed wholeheartedly, as did her supervisor but again both lacked the lacked the authority to what they truly wanted: to retain this customer. They did offer me a one-time $30 credit to lessen the pain.

Needing to right a great service injustice and feeling like a combination of Mandela and the Energizer bunny, I reached out to Sprint’s CEO, Marcelo Claure on Twitter, asking to speak with him directly because it was clear that he was the ONLY person in the company with the authority to waive this fee.

Needless to say he did not respond but had something called “Team Marcel” reach out. I got a call from a lady in the corporate office and she too was also extremely apologetic and said unequivocally that my experience was totally unacceptable and that she would personally look into the entire matter. She magically waived the early termination fee…

I am still completely at a loss to understand why such a simple process for an upgrade and plan change required numerous phone calls, three store visits, countless hours on the phone with representatives from multiple departments and continents and tweeting the CEO. I have been told childbirth is less painful.

I want to be clear that, based on my experience across all of Sprint’s touch-points, the central issue has little to do with poor or rude employees; in fact the majority I dealt with expressed frustration at not being able to resolve my issue. It has everything to do with a complex organisational structure that is badly siloed, coupled with employees whose hands are tied and who lack the authority to provide resolution, use of third party resellers without a consistent service policy, and offshoring to poorly trained customer service reps who sometimes barely understand the English language, and finally the lack of a proper escalation policy.

This is clearly a management issue that begins at the top with a lack of singular focus on customer care and retention, which you would think is the most important aspect in an industry plagued with the highest customer churn.

So unless Mr. Claure meant he was working on increasing wait times to four and five hours when he said “Customers have to wait one or two hours to get a phone and that’s not acceptable”, I do hope he gets in touch with me. I still believe he needs to hear this unbelievably frustrating and painful experience, firsthand, because no customer should ever have to be put through this again.

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Everybody’s Doing The Social Commotion…

The hype with social has become so big that a whole new industry of “social-experts” has appeared out of thin air. Just a few years ago these people did not exist or perhaps wore some other moniker when peddling their wares.

I am not saying there is no need to have a social strategy but merely that it is also important for to think about the relevance of these platforms for your product and business; think about the best way to engage your customers, based on who they are. This means that every company DOES NOT needs to have a social presence with a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Pinterest board, or a blog. Maintaining a presence in social media is a full time job and doing it in a way that is meaningful to customers and valuable for your business – is a full team job. Few people realize that just setting them up and then posting or tweeting a few times is probably more damaging than not having it an account all. I routinely ask companies why they feel they need a Facebook page or Twitter account, and most say because everyone else has one. For me, a single person startup or small business should have many other priorities they need to be focused on before starting to worry about tweeting every few hours. And then there are also products and categories that really should not have a Facebook page – toilet papers and clogged drain cleaning brands come to mind as high on that list. Ultimately, it boils down to a little old fashioned common sense being utilized before rushing to sign up to the social bandwagon.

It takes time and work to build a solid social presence. Each new platform that you add means more work because it’s not as simple as sharing the same information across all your social pages. If you really want to build value for your business then you need to create value for your customers. This means first understanding the role of Twitter versus Facebook versus a blog and seeing how your customers are using and interacting with these platforms. Only then can you start to formulate a strategy to effectively make use of them for your needs. For example, Facebook can be an effective platform for building a community around your brand; by sharing information, starting discussions, soliciting ideas and requesting feedback on your products and/or services. It can be a great way to build loyalty through engagement and dialogue. Help to create long-term relationships with your customers and maybe turn them into evangelists; if done well. Twitter on the other hand is a great tool for more instant sharing. You can use it to announce new product launches, special flash sales and even to resolve customer complaints in real-time; as Dell and Southwest have done so effectively.

No matter which social platform(s) you decide to use there are a few things you have to be prepared to do; if you want to succeed. First and most importantly, get over yourself, your products and your services. I don’t care how great you think they are – it does not matter if you think so – it only matters if your customers do. Never use social media to blow your own horn; nothing is more off putting to an existing or prospective customer than a company telling them how brilliant they are. Second, never try to sell, sell, sell – you have sales people and channels for that. Social media is not a hit them on the head type selling tool. You can place ads for that. Find smarter and more subtle ways to offer value to your customers that will in turn lead to sales or generate word-of-mouth for your brand. Third, make sure that what you share will be of interest to your customers, beyond just your company stuff. This means not restricting yourself to tweets or posts that are always about your products and/or company. Take some leaps and broaden your horizons. Don’t be scared to follow interesting people, to be creative, human and inspirational. Share things that make you laugh and things that make people laugh about you. Share stories about your customers and even your competitors. All this helps make your brand and company come across as more secure and confident; and those are typically the kinds of brand that customers are attracted to and like to be associated with.

Finally, remember that you will need to grow a very thick skin. By putting yourself out there, and you will be if you do this well, be prepared for harsh criticism from customers and screw ups by employees (have an action plan to deal with them when they happen but don’t retreat). This is the price you have to pay to truly come across as real, in a world where very little can be controlled and preplanned. This will ultimately determine the difference between your social success and failure – how “real” or contrived your company comes across.

RIP Steve Jobs

There is much talk about Steve Job’s being a creative genius and digital visionary, the impact he had almost single-handedly on how we consume personal media. His use of design in both product development and user experience. We are also being reminded of Apple’s cult-like customer fan following that routinely spends days and nights camping on streets outside Apple stores, all around the world – just to be the first to get their hands on the next Apple product, and often just for the new version of an existing product. Nobody will dispute any of this…

Today, I walked by an Apple store and was shocked to see a makeshift memorial. There was a wall being created outside against the glass facade with flowers, cards, candles, pictures, clever manipulations of old Apple ads and dozens of post-it notes that people were handwriting while they stood and paid their last respects to Steve Jobs; like he was a close personal family member! He was the CEO of a company, a corporate executive, not a pop-star, a princess or a movie star – I was amazed.

I knew Job’s was a great showman and presenter but it’s one thing to admire a CEO or captain of industry and quite another for makeshift memorials to start popping up outside Apple retail stores all over the world on news of his death. I saw people standing silently, some looked like they were praying and most were writing a personal note and sticking it on the glass that made up the front of the store. It was not teenagers who were flocking but people in their late fifties and sixties who made up the majority coming to pay and post their last respects to the “genius who changed their life forever.” I am not sure if this happened when George Eastman or Henry Ford died but I cannot imagine any other corporate executive, no matter the extent of his genius, being lauded in this way.

In the end it is a testament not only to the brand that Jobs built but the products he delivered in creating this unbelievable emotional bond with customers. Apple is made up of his DNA and is a part of him. No compromise. Pure design cannot carry the day alone, great advertising and marketing only get you so far, and pure showmanship runs thin if the products don’t deliver – in the end Apple products have delivered time and again, and in the odd instance when one does not, Apple replaces it or fixes it for free; no questions asked. Therein lies the secret of turning a loyal customer into an evangelist for life.

@Zappos Customer Mantra

Treat your customers well and they will come back; treat them like they are really special and they will not only come back more often but also spend more money. Sounds really simple when you say it but much harder to effect when it means making sure that your customer experience is consistent across all your touch-points.

Zappos the online shoe retailer (now owned by Amazon) has embraced and cultivated this customer-centric culture as an organizational philosophy. They ensure that they live up to this expectation of customer happiness in every aspect of their business; even down to making sure they hire people with a certain disposition and a passion for service. Tony Hsieh, CEO, once said “We want people who are passionate about what Zappos is about–service. I don’t care if they’re passionate about shoes.”

Here is an example (and great story) from Zappos.com. A customer checked into a hotel in Las Vegas and forgot to pack her shoes that she bought on Zappos for the trip. She called to order another pair and have them shipped to her overnight. Unfortunately, they were out of stock – most companies would have very politely said they would inform her the moment the shoe became available – Zappos did not. Instead they had an employee go out and find the shoe at a local mall and then delivered it to her hotel; all free of charge!

This is an example of above-and-beyond but the benefits of such GREAT customer service can be huge to a company’s bottom-line. Let’s look at the economics of this act by Zappos. It probably cost them a couple of hundred dollars for the shoes and cab fare. But the value of this seemingly extraordinary act for the customer will no doubt be priceless. I would wager it made her a loyal customer for life, and will probably end up increasing the amount of money she spends at Zappos because she will come back to shop there more often than she would have otherwise. Additionally, how many people do you think she told about her amazing experience; probably everyone she knows – driving countless new customers to Zappos.com – now the couple of hundred dollars suddenly don’t seem so much. Delighted customers are always the most powerful sales tool for a company.

The numbers support this customer-focused strategy. On any given day, 75% of purchases, on Zappos.com, are from returning customers. Repeat customers order more than 2.5 times per year and have a higher average order size vs. first-time customers (source: Luxury Daily, July 2011).

One last statistic I want to leave you with: on average, it costs 10x more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one.