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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“It’s the people, stupid”

Advertising agencies don’t make widgets and they don’t have factories or manufacturing lines that create tangible goods; they are in the idea business. So it constantly amazes me how many of them don’t understand that their most valuable asset is – their people. Every agency’s success relies purely on the talent it has within its ranks and yet so few companies actually do meaningful things to retain and nurture talent.

David Ogilvy famously said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”  Sadly, so many companies today, and it’s not limited to ad agencies, seem content hiring and retaining small people. I understand that when times are tough there will be cost-cutting, and things like training programs and other employee perks will disappear but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and frankly, not the only things that companies should think about when trying to retain talent. These things can help in the short-term but do scant little to address the true nature of retention in the long-run. Don’t get me wrong, money is important but most companies believe that it is the only tool they have to motivate and recognize employee performance.

To me it starts with understanding a very simple formula:

“Happy Employees = Happy Clients.”

When your employees are happy, they are motivated. When they are motivated, they go above and beyond and it shows in both the quality of their ideas and their output. When the work shines it tends to resonate with customers, creates brand recognition and preference, which in turn leads to greater sales. When sales increase we have very happy clients…It truly is that simple! This is really the only way to achieve great results, and client satisfaction. Quite simple when you spell it out but extremely hard when it comes to actually getting management in most companies to recognize it or have the courage to execute it.

The trouble begins with two important areas; both of which are misunderstood by many corporations. First, most companies today, believe that making clients happy involves giving their clients exactly what they ask for –  rather than helping clients understand what they really need. I am not talking about getting a clear brief from a client but about literally letting your clients dictate the idea, and much worse the execution. Following this path will ALWAYS lead to failure; without exception. It is simply a matter of time before you will lose the business. Think about it, if clients knew what they needed, leave alone how to articulate it to their customers, then agencies would not exist. It is like going to a brilliant lawyer and asking them to take your case, then insisting on writing the arguments, the opening and closing statements and doing everything short of standing up yourself in court. It defeats the purpose of hiring and paying someone for their particular experience and expertise.

The second problem is in the way companies approach talent retention. Granted these days it feels like most companies care little about their star performers, leave alone the average employee, but let’s for a moment imagine a company that does care and makes a genuine effort to create “happy employees.” The problems still lies in a flawed approach to providing this happiness. Most companies still believe that hard work should be rewarded by simply paying an employee more money. This is all well and good but retaining talent requires much more than dollars. It requires making sure employees are constantly challenged, that they are learning and growing everyday (and I don’t mean purely through workshops or training seminars). Additionally, it goes a log way to know that your company has your back, by standing behind their work and defending and fighting for it with clients. Also, it would really help if companies spent more time making sure that their people are not constantly doing busy work or re-works on every project – nothing kills morale faster.

If companies really want to retain and nurture great talent, then they need to think about creating a culture that promotes these behaviors in management; at every level of their organisation. They also need to hold management accountable and ensure that they are following through on these practices. It is these things that help contribute most to that most powerful and yet hardest to deliver tool a company has in its retention arsenal – employee motivation. Money cannot provide the same satisfaction that feeling appreciated for your efforts does or seeing the fruits of your labour perform in the marketplace.

To LIKE or not to LIKE…

There seems to something akin to a marketing frenzy to build Facebook LIKE’S among companies. Almost every second email I get relates to a contest that is trying to entice me with a $xxx,xxx prize or a dream vacation. However, when I excitedly click on the entry link it frustratingly forces me to LIKE the product in order to enter the contest.

Sure, it will help you drive up the number of Facebook LIKES on your fan page in the short-term but what is the real and long-term value of this? I get that there are many statistics out there about how conversion and engagement is much higher on Twitter and Facebook and social media is all the frenzy in marketing today but for a moment let’s break down the psychology of most of these contests.

I am not saying all contests are the same and therefore not valuable but am merely talking about the recent frenzy where the prizes have no bearing or relevance to the company, or product, and the contest itself does nothing to build customer engagement with the brand. Most importantly when you throw the kitchen sink by emailing people randomly, it becomes akin to a marketing bribe where in order to receive a LIKE; rather than trying to target a relevant audience and do it on the merits of your brand or product story.

The simplest way to think about – imagine walking down the street one day you decide you want to make 100 new friends that evening. You could simply stop every person you see and offer to pay for their dinner at a really fancy restaurant, like Per Se. I have no doubt you would end up with 100 new “friends” very quickly, and without too much effort. Now what are the odds that any one of these 100 people will actually ever have anything to do with you again or be there in a pinch? Versus building real friendships through time, common interests and all the other real and meaningful stuff.

This is what these almost daily contest emails have become for most of these brands. Everyone from airlines to tampon makers have sent me emails, to enter contests, but only after I LIKE them on Facebook. Ninety percent of them have no relevance to me, my purchase history or my interests. It seems all these so called social media agencies are throwing the kitchen sink to drive up campaign success metrics, which frankly are of little value for the brand. Because even if the grand prize for a tampon product was so amazing that I decided to LIKE it to simply be eligible to enter, I am never going to purchase that product of have any future interaction of engagement with the brand.

Social media done right is about building long-term relationships, kind of the way we build friendships in the real world; and it is hard work.

So the next time you want to increase your fan page LIKES on Facebook, remember that 10 truly engaged customers will not only spend much more money on your products, consistently, over the long-term but also are more likely to become evangelists for your brand. Their value alone will be greater than the 1000+ LIKES you may add of people who don’t even know what your company makes.

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.

#Netflix and the New Red: Act 2

In July I wrote about Netflix poor handling of their recent price hikes and the seemingly callous and arrogant manner in which they made the announcement and dealt with the subsequent customer outcry. Read here: https://brandsandbottomlines.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/netflix-and-the-new-red/

Since the price hike took effect Netflix has lowered its estimates by at least one million subscribers and its share price has dropped about 25%. Sadly, they did not heed the warning of thousands of negative comments or customer threats to close their accounts. It was not until their share price started to drop that Reed Hastings mea culpa surfaced.

Today, they took their recent actions to an even more confusing level when Reed Hastings offered an apology for the way in which the earlier changes were handled.

“In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success,” Hastings said. “We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication.”

But then rather than offer an olive branch to customers lost or currently on the fence, which would have been the most logical thing to do, it seems they completely panicked and lost the plot. Hastings  went on to announce that he was breaking Netflix into two companies; renaming the DVD-by-mail service to Qwikster and keeping Netflix for online streaming and gaming.

This change will further inconvenience customers, who will now have to sign up for two different accounts, create two queues and pay two companies on their credit cards each month and not be able to avail of both streaming and mail service from a single provider. Even more embarrassing for Netflix, the Twitter handle for @Qwikster is already being used someone who has a pot smoking Elmo as his photo, and tweets stuff like “Don’t believe that nigga that sed the bought my shyt cuz it aint tru.”

Hastings ended the blog post by saying, “Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words.”  I believe that Netflix’s latest actions just made this task twice as hard.

@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.

#Netflix and the New Red…

Yesterday customers received an email from Netflix, and in one fell swoop this much loved company, one that was a darling of its customers, had put that strong equity on the line. It is ironic that they were thanking customers for their business, in this email, even as they were clearly holding a gun to their heads with another price hike.

Netflix succeeded in pummeling Blockbuster by re-inventing the movie rental category with an innovative business model, high customer satisfaction and a low cost service that was based on giving customers flexibility and not forcing them to adhere to policies designed to make the company lots of money.

I understand that Netflix’s runaway success propelled then into a space filled with deep pocketed competitors in the form of cable providers, telecoms, Google, Apple, Amazon, movie studios, TV networks and a slew of other companies all vying for a  piece of the pie.  I also realize that the company desperately needs cash to pay for the rising cost of content, and has to lower its costs (example postage) to survive and compete.

Steve Swasey, VP Corporate Communications said today, to MSNBC:

“We anticipated some folks were not going be happy with the change. It didn’t surprise us. 30,000 or so is a sub set of 23 million subscribers. They’re not speaking for the majority. We would like those members to stay with Netflix, but the reality is people will leave. We’ll make it up over time and the service will continue to grow. I don’t want to sugarcoat this. We do expect a certain amount of people to leave the service. Besides, Netflix members already go to Redbox, order cable, go to theater and Amazon.”

Barely a few months ago Netflix changed its plans raising their prices and forcing everyone to add a streaming option. So it seemed like they were gently moving their customer base into a streaming only world; gently being the keyword because new releases are currently not available for streaming and will not be for the foreseeable future and the streaming quality is still mediocre, at best.

Netflix has a customer base that is has been the envy of every company; staunchly loyal and fiercely evangelist; and many would have followed the company to the ends of the rental earth. But large numbers are now seeing a very different kind of red. And somehow I don’t think Mr. Swasey’s words are going to placate them.

This customer outrage is picking up steam. It remains to be seen how many of their        23 million customers will cancel their subscription, rather than pay the 60% increase being demanded, and how many will stay to help Netflix truly stay out of the red…