As if Comcast weren’t hated enough

Comcast has done it again!

Almost a decade since the infamous sleeping technician (it’s only 8 years, but the “almost a decade” quote is relevant — read on*), Comcast has managed to demonstrate once again just why, and how much people hate the company. What’s the latest snafu? A customer service rep (in title at least) barked at a customer and her husband for almost 20 minutes while they tried to cancel their service. The husband managed to record the final 8 minutes or so — it makes for really painful listening.

Unfortunately, for Comcast, the husband — Ryan Block — is a bit connected online. He pasted the recording and it went viral over the past couple of days.

Many of the comments by readers to the various and sundry articles that I read call for the rep to be fired. Heck, CNET even asked in its headline whether he might be the worst customer service rep in the world. What all of this ignores is that this isn’t an isolated incident. Anyone that has tried to cancel internet/cellular/TV service, a credit card, or just a magazine subscription has experienced something similar. Generally, you need to put aside a chunk of time to spend on hold, arguing, and prepping with every last shred of information you might need — the third initial of your grandmother’s middle name? No, sir, that’s not what is in our records!

The barriers that firms place — hiding phone numbers, forcing you to run an exit script gauntlet, patronizing questions about why you’re leaving — do nothing but instill hostility towards the company. Why is it so hard to see that these actions are counter-productive?

In their statement in response to this incident, Comcast claimed to be “very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block” and claim that the way the rep spoke to Block “is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.”

That smells like an incredibly large pile of horse manure to me. It’s staggering difficult to believe that this rep — and every colleague and peer of his with whom I’ve ever spoken — went off-reservation and decided to bark at a customer out of the blue. I would bet my shirt that not only is he trained to do everything he can to retain the customer, but he’s no doubt also compensated on “saves.”

While this call is horrifying to listen to, it’s not surprising. This is really what the media might call a “dog bites man” story — albeit an excruciatingly painful one. It would be a “man bites dog” story if this happened at Zappos or Disney. While Comcast might describe this as a “very unfortunate experience”, I can’t help but think that what they think is unfortunate is that the call was recorded and went viral. If they are truly bothered by it they need to change. What should Comcast — and the rest of us do? If I may channel Souza, they need to:


as though the world is listening


as though the world were watching


as though you actually care


* The recording brilliantly captures the rep’s incredulity that these customers are leaving “after a decade” as customers of the best service out there.


What every brand can learn from T-Mobile’s “uncarrier” strategy

Since publishing the Customer Relationship Architecture report, one of the most common questions I’ve received relates to the notion of a collaborative customer relationship strategy. Among other questions, folks have emailed to ask which companies we would classify as collaborative. Well, as we state in the report, they aren’t all that common. And, even where they do exist, not many firms are executing on the strategy particularly well. We’re not in a position to disclose the companies that took the survey, but what we can do is provide some examples of companies that appear to be pursuing this strategy.


t-mobile international fee ad


One company that comes to mind is T-Mobile. At least in the States, T-Mobile is pursuing a really interesting “uncarrier” strategy. I saw Peter DeLuca SVP of Brand Communications for T-Mobile USA speak at the recent Ad Age Digital Conference and he explained their approach as one that was rooted in customer understanding. Essentially, they looked at the major pain points that customers had with their carriers and sought to change the dynamic in the wireless industry.

How? By introducing policies and procedures that turn the traditional cellphone industry approach on its head. For example, they eliminated contracts. They offered to pay prospective customers’ early termination fees if they left competitors and signed up with T-Mobile. They introduced new ways for customers to upgrade to the newest phones.

When you think about these moves through the lens of a customer relationship architecture, each one feels like they checked the “understand your customers” and “apply that intelligence” boxes pretty well. But, let me give a personal story about where they check the “to the mutual benefit of the company and the customer” box. I was heading to Ireland just after Christmas and saw ads in the airport that claimed T-Mobile was no longer charging for data usage overseas. I was so skeptical I went to their website found the relevant explanation, read it with a fine tooth comb, and took screen shots of the pages in case I had to go back and fight any charges. Sure enough, my data usage while I was there was free. Fast forward a few months later and I received an email telling me that my bill was going to drop by $14 a month because the company was no longer charging for texts sent overseas. I was paying for both my wife and I to have unlimited international texting and they were simply eliminating the fee. It’s fascinating to me that in an industry renowned for the lack of customer concern, T-Mobile has changed the game for me as a customer and begun to act in our mutual interest – not just their own. The zero-sum game has ended.

Strategy or tactic?

Overall, T-Mobile appears to be pursuing a collaborative strategy. And, it’s only fair to point out that we could debate whether it’s out of necessity as the number four player or not. But either way, as a customer I feel that the company understands my pain points and is making strides to eliminate them.

I can think of lots of anecdotal stories about other companies. I’ve written previously about GoDaddy’s call to me that saved me money initially and had me gladly spending more with them by the end of the call. Or, I could point to BankUnited with whom I bank. I landed off a flight one day to three voicemails and an email asking me to call them. Before I had the chance, they called me again. A check I had written was about to bounce and they wanted permission to transfer money between my accounts so that I wouldn’t be hit with an overdrawn or returned check fee. They lost out on the $35 or whatever it might have been, but made me feel like they had my best interest at heart. Does that mean that GoDaddy and BankUnited are following a collaborative strategy? I’m not sure. So far, it feels more like a tactic than a strategy. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, but it does highlight the point that a collaborative tactic — while admirable in its own right — does not a collaborative strategy make.

T-Mobile is one company that stands out as approaching a collaborative relationship strategy — and not simply stringing together a series of collaborative tactics. Who else do we think of as collaborative? Some of the old reliables like Disney and Zappos also jump to mind, but I’m curious to hear about your experiences — who stands out to you either at a strategic or tactical level as collaborative? Email me or post a comment below and I’ll continue to post examples over time.


An alternative to “Random Acts Of Kindness”

One of the great buzz phrases in the world of customer experience is “Random Acts of Kindness.” These programs — which even have their own acronym: RAOK — empower employees to randomly do something nice for customers. This isn’t systematic and algorithmically calculated in the way an airline or hotel might upgrade one of their better customers, but something that is truly random.

Two of my favorite examples were shared by Sean Risebrow, then of Virgin Media at Forrester’s Customer Experience conference in London a couple of years ago. Sean referenced a Virgin Media employee who sent a picture frame to a new broadband customer who mentioned that he had just become a grandfather for the first time. He wanted the faster speed internet to be able to Skype or FaceTime his family to see the baby as he grew. The employee sent the picture frame along with a note of congratulations – just because it was a kind thing to do. In a separate example, another Virgin Media employee received a written cancellation notice from an elderly woman who had bought two smartphones — one each for her husband and herself. When the couple received the phones, they discovered that their elderly and shaky hands weren’t the greatest for using a touchscreen smartphone. She wrote and said that she loved Virgin Media but was going to have to cancel her contract because the phones didn’t suit their needs. Rather than slapping the couple with hefty cancellation fees, the employee went online and researched the best phones for elderly people. She bought two of them (yes, they weren’t phones that Virgin Media sold) and sent them to the elderly couple with a note that expressed their hope that they would work better for their needs and said “We love you too.” Now, admittedly, I’ve heard from plenty of UK-based friends that they’ve had markedly different experiences with Virgin Media, but regardless of your direct experience, I think these are two great examples of how a RAOK program should work.

But, whether or not your company has a formal RAOK program, it’s worth considering whether they have an unofficial CAOH program. Yes, I’m coining my own acronym which stands for “Concerted Acts Of Hostility”. Unfortunately, in my experience, they are far more common. I think of these as different to Reicheld’s ‘bad profits’ — you know those charges that firms slap on their customers, usually when the customer is trapped into the relationship. Instead, I’m thinking of policies and procedures that are deliberately unfriendly to customers. And, policies that employees either won’t or can’t circumvent to help the firm appear less deliberately unkind to their customers.

I’ve written previously about Apple’s lack of employee empowerment, and my experiences with Starwood, Hertz and JetBlue as it relates to customer animosity. As an update to my US Airways experience, I was back in Dublin last week and worked with my mother to complete the requirements to get the value of her canceled ticket transferred over to me – minus the $150 fee, of course! Today, they called me to tell me that the letter that she had signed and witnessed — as requested — has to be notarized. At what stage does a company stop and consider its policies and realize that they are engaging in Concerted Acts Of Hostility? In the case of US Airways, that stage clearly hasn’t happened yet. Have you taken a look at your own policies lately? Even if you don’t have a formal RAOK program, for the love of your customers, please take a look and see if you have any CAOH behaviors that are damaging your customer relationships.


Earth Day: a worthy bandwagon?

As an occasional imbiber of fine wines and craft beers, I’ve noticed a big emphasis in the past few years on “sustainable” farming and all things organic. And, then there’s a few companies out there that make sustainability and saving the planet core to who they are and what they do: consider Patagonia, Seventh Generation or The Body Shop as cases in point.

And, then when Earth Day rolls around, there are a ton of posts, tweets, and claps on the back as firm’s promote their commitment to our planet. But most of it smacks as


really inauthentic. When we asked consumer-facing executives in our recent survey about what drives executive and board decisions, 12% of respondents highlighted “environmental issues” and 15% selected “corporate social responsibility”.

But, really, regardless of how important the environment ranks, the key question for me is what drives the business. And, how well aligned are executives and employees behind that driver. If you were to ask employees and customers of Patagonia or  The Body Shop, a significant majority would probably say that environmental issues are one of the major concerns for the business.

What would they say about your company? And, how consistent would they be? Establishing customer expectations and enabling employees to exceed them require a clear sense of direction and alignment. Alternatively, we can jump on every Hallmark holiday and industry bandwagon and continue to yell in the hopes that someone is listening — and gullible enough to believe.

Happy Earth Day everyone!



The Ministry of Customer Relations

Customer Complaints DepartmentHave you ever noticed how almost every airline has a script that the cabin crew say on arrival at your destination? There’s a welcome to whatever city, the time, temperature, and usually some form of promotion à la “We thank you for flying XYZ airlines, and we hope that when your plans call for air travel that you choose to fly with XYZ Airlines again.” And the person reading the script usually says it with the same enthusiasm as they had for the safety briefing at the start of the flight — that is to say, not much.

Airlines get a bad rap when it comes to customer service. I’m a big fan of Louis CK’s miracle of flight monologue – and sometimes guilty as charged! But, it’s one thing to complain about having to pay for a sandwich or sitting on the runway for 40 minutes, and another to expect some semblance of customer service when you speak to a customer service representative.

After more than a year trying to get a ticket transferred or refunded, I spent 35 minutes on the phone today with US Airways. I ended up speaking with a “customer service” representative, albeit from their reservations team. The corporate “customer relations” department — as they call it — has no outside phone number and can’t be reached internally by phone either, allegedly. Think about that for a second. A department that is called “customer relations” and there’s no way for a customer to contact them.

Here’s the back story: last year my mother was supposed to come over to the States for my son’s First Holy Communion. We booked the ticket in February and she was supposed to fly here in April. Just before she was due to travel, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and her doctor advised her not to fly due to a concern they had with blood clots in her type of cancer and treatment. I contacted US Airways right away — before her departure date — to see if we could transfer the ticket to a family member or to refund it. I was advised to go online to their “customer service” portion of their website to provide the details. Which I did. And, I got a response — in August — with a case number that should be quoted and advising me that my mother should contact them directly for privacy reasons. So my mother sent the doctors note requested (there’s no way to upload that online, of course) and referenced the case number, and we waited. And, at irregular intervals we sent a note asking for a response to the original email, but none came.

Today, I tired of emailing into the ether and called US Airways. I got through to reservations because that seems to be the only place one can call when you call US Airways. The first rep I spoke to told me that it is unlikely that I’ll have the ticket refunded because a year has passed since it was purchased. The supervisor — who was quite the expert in monotone policy recitation — suggested I go to the website and fill in the form I filled in more than a year ago and explain my story. Why? Because there’s no way to speak to someone in “customer relations”.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Why don’t they go the whole hog and call the department “The Ministry of Customer Relations”? Thank you US Airways for demonstrating that even when we thought airline customer service couldn’t get any worse, it can.

Pretty soon, if I keep going at this pace in my airline relationships, I’m going to be swimming back to Ireland!



Jeff Bezos: the new Lance Armstrong?

I’m an Amazon customer. And, have been for about sixteen years – back when they were an online book seller. But, I’m more than that, I’m an Amazon Prime customer and an Amazon credit card holder. And, I have a sinking feeling that I’ve been had. This weekend an article in Salon referenced some pretty Orwellian, or maybe Dickensian, sounding practices that allegedly describe the internal culture at Amazon.

For six-and-a-half years while I was at Forrester, I always asked interviewees who they thought of as great at customer intelligence and leveraging customer data to serve customers better. Amazon was one of the companies that was most often mentioned. Personally, I’ve not been impressed with their customer intelligence for a while. It feels like their recommendation engine — despite being one of the companies that created the category — hasn’t kept pace with the likes of a Pandora or a Netflix. Yet, where I always applauded them, and where I referenced them as a great example of customer-centricity relates to their culture. And, particularly, the notion that an empty chair is left around meeting room tables supposed to represent the customer, who is always present; and how decisions were made, supposedly on how they impacted or benefitted the customer.

Yet, if the Salon article – and the referenced public issues in Europe — are true, it feels like it’s all been a ruse.

As part of a report that I’m working on, just yesterday I interviewed two senior executives who serve in customer relationship-oriented roles at major US corporations (due to promised anonymity, I can’t disclose who, but trust me you’d recognize (and probably love) the brands). What was interesting to me during those interviews – and this was before I’d read the Salon article – was their genuine attempts to do what’s right by the customer. One referenced a willingness by the senior-most executive in his multi-billion dollar division to explicitly take a short-term revenue hit in order to do right by the customer, because they know it’ll ultimately lead to a longer-term, more-loyal customer. The other interviewee spoke about employee engagement as a key part of her role in getting customer engagement right. It seems so far removed from what I just read about Amazon.

Being a huge cycling fan, I have a feeling right now that reminds me of when I first read about Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis’ doping scandals. A big part of you knew it had to be true, but you didn’t really want to believe it (there wasn’t that much of me that didn’t believe Lance was guilty). I’ll hope, for now, that this is a vendetta story designed to hurt Amazon, possibly planted by a competitor. But, there’s a part of me that’s checking when my credit card and Prime membership renew so that I can be ready to cancel if I learn that the story is true. It’s one thing to not focus on building customer relationships. But, if you position yourself as one of the best, try living up to it.



How popular is your “animosity program”?


Wheels coming offFirms spend millions of dollars on loyalty programs — not all of which drive loyalty, of course. And, they go out of their way to try to measure and track loyalty. But how many firms track animosity? How do they know when the wheels are coming off a customer relationship? I doubt I’m alone in having brands that I will go out of my way to avoid. I’ve written about my experience with Starwood Hotels. And, I will never knowingly rent a car from Hertz (after they charged me for two one way trips in the same car). And, to round out my travel examples, I’ve just gone from being an ardent and vocal fan of JetBlue to joining the animosity program they might not know exists.

Why, am I down on JetBlue? Because I expect more from them and they failed to deliver. We go out of our way as a family to fly JetBlue. For example, we are flying JetBlue to NY this Christmas and then Aer Lingus (their partner) to Dublin — despite the fact that it cost more than on another airline. When I called to see if we could change our flight to NY by a couple of days, they told me that the difference in price was $1 and that they would waive it. They told me they would book it and send me confirmation — I was on the phone with them for 45 minutes and they were extremely apologetic that it was taking so long. All of which is behavior and customer care that I expect from JetBlue.

But, then they called me back to tell me that changing my flight to NY would require us to pay for a business class ticket to Dublin despite the fact that we weren’t looking to change our flight to Dublin. In speaking/tweeting with some travel industry experts, this is apparently normal procedure — once you change one leg of a booking, the whole thing must be re-ticketed, and the Aer Lingus flight, which is now sold out, would cost a lot more. Where JetBlue fell down in my opinion was in a) trying to blame their partner, and b) not showing any empathy. JetBlue has just gone from an airline that I felt stood out from the crowd, to one that is the same as the rest. But because my expectations were higher, I’m more annoyed with them than I might have been in the same situation with AA or Delta.

JetBlue bill of rightsOur perception of customer experience is directly linked to our expectations. It’s why Costco scores highly in every customer experience index. They meet or exceed their customer’s expectations extremely well. When I think about the companies and brands for which I’m a card-carrying member of their animosity program, it’s either because they were unreasonable (hello, Hertz) or because they failed to meet the expectations that I had formed. For a non-travel example, consider the Cleveland Clinic. When I was at Forrester, one of their senior executives had spoken at our Customer Experience Forum, and had impressed me enough to switch doctors to the Cleveland Clinic in Palm Beach. All went well, initially, until they sent me to another Cleveland Clinic facility for tests. I’d had some sinus trouble and they wanted to do more detailed tests. I drove for 45 minutes to the other facility, waited for more than an hour to be seen, sat with a nurse and then a doctor for another 20 minutes or so, only to find out that the doctor I was seeing was an allergist (I already have one) and not an ENT (which is what I needed). The doctor was polite and apologetic, but when I explained the story to the receptionist, her response was, “so do you want to make another appointment”. A year later, nobody has ever followed up. If I hadn’t had raised expectations, I might still have given up on them, but with raised expectations, I just joined their animosity program.

And, I recognize that customer’s expectations might not be realistic. It seems my expecting an airline to charge me to change the leg of a flight that I’m changing and not one that I’m not, is unrealistic within the travel industry thanks to inter-airline policies and acronyms that, as a flyer, I just don’t care about. So, you can’t change the policy, but does that mean you can’t get around it? It might not be worth it to JetBlue, but they’ve now lost the loyalty and advocacy of a Mosaic family. I will now only fly JetBlue if and when it works for me – and probably begrudgingly. I might be high on my own opinion of self-worth, but if JetBlue had offered to fly me to NY on a separate reservation and then let me fly to Dublin on my original reservation, they’d have surpassed my already high expectations of them. Instead, they’ve positioned themselves in my mind with United and Ryan Air. Perhaps some naivety and innocence lost on my end; but a loyal customer and advocate lost on theirs.

To go back to my original question though, I’m not convinced that many firms look to measure and understand animosity. I was taking to an agency CEO a few weeks ago who pointed out that because of a bad experience, he had gone from spending hundreds of dollars a week on food for his dogs to not shopping with the store — a national pet chain. Nobody has ever contacted him to ask whether there was something that had happened or something they could do to bring him back. He had one bad experience, and now shops elsewhere. And, nobody seems to notice or to care. In an era in which it’s possible to analyze buying behavior and to predict that a teenager is pregnant before her parents know, surely it’s possible for firms to frequently ask:

  • what are our customers expectations and are we meeting them?
  • what have we done to delver value or to upset customers?
  • why has a frequent/loyal customers behavior changed, and can we change it back?

When it’s possible to analyze and predict so much, it’s not always the analysis that’s interesting. Sometimes, it’s the question. This might be a good time to look at what your data scientists are evaluating, and ask whether you’re asking the right questions to understand, meet, and exceed customer expectations; and to recognize and repair the damage when something goes wrong.



Customer focus isn’t that hard!

Since I wrote the other day about Apple, I had a bunch of emails and conversations that seemed like veiled attempts to defend Apple, disguised as a question. They went something like, “Why are you picking on Apple. Nobody does this well. Isn’t it really hard?” To which my answer is yes, it’s hard. It’s really hard. But, it’s not that hard that companies should get a pass. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to work for a company when you are stuck behind policies and procedures that prevent you from helping a customer. And, yet, most firms exist in this state.

And, it’s tempting to point to the Disney’s and USAA’s of the world that do this better than most. But, I found myself in these conversations referencing two much less well known examples.

Lisa Lindstrom, a board member of Avanza Bank in Sweeden presented at Forrester’s Customer Experience EMEA Forum last year and shared a story with the crowd about the Chairman of the bank who hosts a customer event every year, walks amongst the crowd greeting them and listening to their stories, and even gives out business cards with his personal cell phone number on it.

Then, last week at Neolane‘s customer conference in Boston, I saw a great presentation by Robb Barrett of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Robb was engaging and funny. But above all, he was empathetic. He mentioned that at every executive and board meeting, a “customer” or patient is invited to attend. Sometimes it’s a celebrity; sometimes it’s someone sitting in the lobby that gets invited on the fly. The board and the management team ask them questions, find out what it’s like to be a customer, and learn what they could do better.

Later at the bar, I spoke to Robb and he explained that this isn’t a lip service or feel-good initiative. He has seen the chairman of the board change policies with the customer right there in the room. For example, on learning that family members visiting patients hadn’t been able to eat late at night, he called the cafe manager to see if it could be kept open longer and made the decision there and then to do so. It might seem simple, but imagine these kinds of examples replicated multiple times a day, every day. And, not just by the Chairman, but by every employee.

Yes, in these cases it’s a senior executive asking the question and making the decision, but that’s kind of the point. If these actions aren’t taken at the top, how can firms ever expect them to happen lower in the ranks?

And, sure, Apple isn’t the only company that could do this better. Every company could. But, no matter where you sit in the organization, it starts with asking the question of customers. And, caring enough to do something with the answer.



Can marketers actually learn from the NSA and NYPD?

Stop and friskLet me be really clear from the start. I don’t intend to enter into a political debate with this post. But, a thought occurred to me while reading the arguments raging in the political and public sphere lately about two unrelated Government programs — the NSA surveillance issue, and New York’s “stop and frisk” policy. I’ve been struck that ultimately both programs (and certainly the conversations surrounding them) appear to center on an idea of “targeting” — targeting which phrases to listen for; which ethnic minorities to engage; which languages to listen to; and so on.

It’s pretty analogous — albeit at a different scale and with a different desired outcome — to how marketers target customer segments. Marketers ask questions and analyze data to target customers and prospects alike: they determine who to send which message to; consider who’s likely to churn; and try to predict what products a customer is likely to buy.

And, yet the NSA issue in particular is raising public awareness and getting certain privacy oriented organizations salivating at the opportunity to curb marketer’s opportunity to leverage customer data. And, here’s where the analogy breaks down — whether you agree or disagree with these political programs, their advocates are seeking to justify them by evoking a need for a balance between privacy and security/safety. These programs, they argue, are for our own benefit. They protect us.

Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it is at least a meaty idea. You can picture the front cover of the Economist with privacy on one end of a see-saw and safety on the other.

But what about marketers? What do we offer in return? Better targeted stuff we’d like them to buy? More relevant ads? Unless marketers — and the companies they work for — start to demonstrate the customer value and utility that derives from using customer data, they should start to prepare for the day when they have a lot less access to it.



How often do your execs interact with your customers?

The BBC reported this weekend that Norwegian prime minster, Jens Stoltenberg worked incognito as a taxi driver one afternoon this summer, in order to hear what real Norwegian voters really think, in the belief that people share their true opinions in cabs. While admirable in theory, this seems to be as much a publicity stunt as a genuine attempt to hear from citizens. All of his exchanges were captured on a hidden camera and the footage – compiled by an ad agency – is already posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page, and has been made into a film for his re-election campaign.

But, there are plenty of other examples of company bosses getting in to the trenches to get closer to their business. My former colleagues Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine wrote about Kevin Peters, former North American president of Office Depot, wearing beat-up jeans and baseball cap in order to interact un-announced with in-store customers. I have a buddy who’s a Jet Blue pilot that often speaks about how he used to look down from the airplane and see David Neeleman – one of the airlines co-founders – loading and unloading luggage from the plane.

How much time does your executive team spend understanding what employees and customers experience?

Focusing on employee jobs helps executives see the reality of how their processes impact employees, and how those processes often get in the way of delivering a positive customer experience. Interacting with customers gives executives first hand knowledge and direct feedback of what’s working and what needs to be fixed.

And, even if getting out and interacting with customers is difficult because of the circumstances and nuances of your business, it doesn’t mean you get a pass. Spend time listening in on customer service calls, or take a leaf from Credit Suisse’s book and encourage your executive team to follow your customer’s process of intreracting with your firm. Nothing will encourage them to fix problems faster than experiencing your customer’s pain.


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