I can’t believe I haven’t written about Mona Shaw before, because she’s become a hero to frustrated consumers everywhere who must cope with companies that have a virtual monopoly on some corner of our lives, such as the providers of trash pick-up, energy, phone and cable service – companies that hold you practically hostage (or at least it can feel that way), because you have nowhere else to go.

I had my own experience with one of these companies in the past week – Time Warner Cable – and once again I was reminded that all the marketing in the universe cannot make up for one customer service representative who treats me like I just fell off the turnip truck.

The short version is that, for over a week, I had intermittent high-speed cable service. Do you understand? No Internet connection. I mean, didn’t I come out of the womb with an Internet connection? No? Inconceivable!

I spoke to many representatives. Those that treated me like an idiot made me angry – not at the CSR, necessarily, but at Time Warner Cable. Then the second representative who had to come to my apartment in person restored my belief in humanity by fixing the problem, cleaning up after himself, validating my feelings of frustration and wishing me a good day.

Why do consumers have wild “mood swings” like this? How can one person in a call center destroy years of corporate spending and goodwill?

It’s because it’s not about the product. It’s about a much deeper human need for respect, understanding and honesty.  Too many marketers think that marketing is “the fun stuff” – advertising, PR and whatnot.   Not true.  Marketing must become a student of the entire customer lifecyle, including – maybe most importantly, in many cases – the touchpoint at which the customer and company make contact. 

If you don’t put Customer Service up on a pedestal – push them, but provide solutions, too – you’re dead.

So back to Mona “The Hammer” Shaw of Bristow, VA. Certainly Mona was reacting to a particular seriess of prior events with Comcast when she entered a local office and began bashing phones, keyboards and monitors with a hammer, but her words indicate that what really made her angry was how she and her husband were treated: “[Comcast] thought [that] just because we’re old enough to get Social Security that we lack both brains and backbone.” In other words, a little respect goes a long way. Tara Hunt writes a great post on this very topic, triggered by a recent experience she had with a rental car company.

What’s most interesting to me is that the traits Tara assigns to companies that make customers happy vs. those that make them crazy once again have nothing to do with product quality. In old direct marketing-speak, decent product execution is almost “hygiene,” and consumers do understand that a product or service may not work sometimes. No one takes a hammer to your phone because your product failed: they do so because (a) you put them in a corner with no choice, (b) you duped them (Mona and her husband waited two hours in Comcast’s local office only to be told that the person for whom they were waiting had left) and (c) you treated them poorly.

Companies in these one-choice industries are exactly the ones who have the opportunity to delight customers right into buying additional services. So why is the reality too often the opposite? Where is the rest of the organization when a CSR takes a call?  Is that person adequately trained and ready? If not (and that’s an enterprise-wide responsibility),  treating a customer poorly will overwhelm a new-and-improved widget or ad campaign every time.

If CMOs and CEOs don’t focus on “experience delivery” and include relationship-oriented customer service metrics when they calculate marketing ROI, they’re missing a vital part of the success equation.

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Stephanie Fierman Loves Verizon

November 14th, 2007

OK, I don’t actually know anyone who loves their phone service… but I figured this headline wouldn’t draw Verizon’s ire and, well, I’m afraid of Verizon.

I recently found a blog called eyelesswriter.com, where the writer describes the experiment he did as a follow up to VerizonMath.com. VerizonMath.com is where you can find the story of George Vacarro, guy who called Verizon and recorded 6 different managers
quoting different and wrong rates for the same plan – sometimes 100 times less than Verizon actually charged – and then not being able to understand the mistake when it was explained to them.

But this Eyelesswriter is a fellow after my own heart: only 6 calls? Puh-leeze. Eyelesswriter called Verizon 56
TIMES over two days with two questions:

(1) What is the data overage rate for the basic 10MB data package for $29.99?
(2) If you get the Core Choice 450 minutes package with unlimited data, what is the data roaming rate in Canada?

As the blog explains, the first question was intended to be relevant to a general audience, given that nearly every phone can now receive data – plus the question referred to the most basic plan available. The second question was similar to the one described by VerizonMath.

Of the 56 reps to whom Eyelesswriter spoke, only 1 answered both questions correctly. 52% (29) did not answer either question correctly and 7.5% of the incorrect responses under-quoted Verizon’s actual rate by 100 times or more. (There appears to be a bit of confusion between cents per kilobyte and dollars per kilobyte…).

The recording made me wince.

In the last couple days, as it happens, a couple of my blog/newsletter friends have also posted significant rants about terrible customer service experiences. What’s interesting and most important to me as a marketer is that the prevailing emotion usually projected by write-ups like these is not anger or hatred, but… disappointment.

It’s disappointment, because consumers want to have a good experience and they want to believe us marketers when we advertise, skywrite, promote, print, stunt, twitter, blog, facebook (as a verb), etc. and promise on-time arrivals and correct billing. That our XYZ is better. That we are the brand to trust. Consumers want this to be true!

And then, too often, it’s not. Marketers are imperfect animals, to be sure, but my circle of colleagues frequently discuss how much marketing can actually impact performance in some companies – and whether all the new Web 2.0 tools make folks believe that a little social media and behavioral targeting will make everything ok. I firmly represent the point of view that an entire value chain in a company has got to be ready to deliver or David Ogilvy himself couldn’t make a new marketing initiative work. At my last job at JPMorgan Chase, I sat on the same floor as the Client Relationship Managers and, among other things, was responsible for both marketing and training. So my team could launch the newest whiz-bang product, and that’s great, but we were also able to and fully accountable for ensuring that “the line” was well equipped to help sell and service the product for clients.

If marketing is all about creating valuable relationships with customers, we’ve got to continue to work across our companies to ensure that the rest of the enterprise is executing well. We’re the ones that need to keep articulating the brand promise for the entire company, ensuring that everyone embraces their part in it and working with every division to make sure that delivery expectations are understood, met and exceeded.

This is, actually, the joint mission of every CMO, COO, CFO, CTO, CIO and CEO team.

Verizon spent $1.9B in advertising last year. How much of that is undone by a rep who cannot distinguish between cents and dollars per kilobyte?

Or perhaps we could call this post, “Stephanie Fierman Meets The Future” or “It’s Hard To Keep Up When You’re Over 40.”  Whatever. 

The upshot, I suspect, is to introduce my audience to Tara Hunt, otherwise known as Miss Rogue. Tara is pretty famous in the increasingly important Web 2.0 – I’d say even Web 3.0 – environment of building authentic customer relationships. Tara’s blog made her Canadian phone ring one day, which got her a job in San Francisco, which led her and her partner Chris Messina to start a company, Citizen Agency, which is now turning down clients.  Big clients.  Big Fortune 50 clients. 

Maybe they won’t turn down business forever, but Citizen Agency is currently focusing on smaller technology companies where Chris and Tara think they have the best chance of actually helping the client execute customer-centric strategies around product research, design, development and marketing.  If that’s not clear, Citizen Agency’s blog post of October 2 is from Chris, humorously relaying the explanation of Citizen Agency’s reason for being during a hot stone massage.   

Another post describes it thusly (see picture and text below.  For you marketers out there, I dare you to say that you haven’t been in the room when one of these conversations has taken place… See if you can guess which comment is the client’s and which might come from the agency):


“Your slow performance is the number one reason your customers are leaving.”
“But we can’t afford to buy new servers.”
“Your slow performance is the number one reason your customers are leaving.”

“The reason your developer network is dead is because you put too many limitations on your API usage.”
“But our investors want us to keep it secure and tight track of who is using it.”
“The reason your developer network is dead is because you put too many limitations on your API usage.”

“Your user experience is horrendous. Bloggers all over the web are talking about it.”
“Well, that is just not priority right now. We have to get the next release of features out.”
“Your user experience is horrendous. Bloggers all over the web are talking about it.”

Their point is, of course, that losing customers makes these other concerns superfluous.  But why don’t we listen? And if that’s too much homework for today, let’s just try to figure out how we can use social media and community to help.  I think part of the struggle is that a lot of folks are trying to understand social media and its impact on brands and marketers as a trend, or the new “thing.”  Like… I don’t know, say, six sigma:  for most of us, if we kept our mouths shut and waited it out, six sigma went the way of the time and motion study.   

But social media is not going the way of the slide rule, because it’s not a trend but really the creation of an entirely new communication stream between customers and companies.   Sure, Bebo, Facebook and the like will be old news some day, but companies having to adapt to a constant 24/7 two-way conversation with their customers – where those customer comments may be on display for all the world to see – is here to stay. 

As marketers, it’s our responsibility to make this a good thing for our brands, no matter how foreign it may be.  It’s our job to help our CEOs understand that loosening the reins is, well, mandatory.  It’s our job to define what the new party phrase “the consumer is in control” actually means in our own spheres of influence.  After meeting Tara Hunt today, I was not only tremendously impressed but also very relieved to know that there’s such great help out there.