Anyone remember Mona Shaw?  I wrote about her in March, 2008 after Comcast stepped on her last nerve and she smashed every computer, phone and keyboard within swinging distance at their local office.

She was upset, and understandably so.  It’s worth re-reading the story if you have the time.

Many of the customer service horror stories we hear are characterized by just this kind of anger and accusations of incompetence.  But what if a customer service rep is fantastic, and it’s the brand that falters?

Such was my experience when I called Verizon Wireless to find out why my voicemail wasn’t working.

I sat on hold for two or three minutes, listening to hold messages about new products and services (The iPhone is coming! The iPhone is coming!), before a rep came on the line.  She was a good listener and really got into it.  She tried to reactivate my phone three or four times.  She seemed very competent, so I let her keep trying.  This went on for fifteen minutes.

When she could not solve the problem on her own, she put me on hold while she hunted for someone at the technical help desk.  This time, I was on hold for nearly ten minutes, sitting in total silence.

She then put me on the line with a tech specialist, and stayed with me on the call.  Here’s how that call went:

Tech help desk dude: “Hello, Miss Fierman.  Where are you right now?”

Me: “In New York City.”

Tech help desk dude: “We have a citywide voicemail outage in New York right now.”


Wait – WHAT?  I’ve been on the phone for 30 minutes, a customer service rep tied herself in pretzels and Verizon knew about the problem all along? But no worries, said Dude:  it’s been submitted with a “critical” ticket.

Here’s what should be submitted as critical, Ms./Mr. Service Provider: your customers’ time and sanity.   Within a couple hours, voicemail was working once again.

This experience reminded me of a key principle of customer service that seems so hard for many companies to navigate:  We (consumers) don’t need you (product/service provider) to be perfect 100% of the time.  That’s not going to happen.  We’re not perfect and we know you’re not, either.  HOWEVER:  please demonstrate that you can think like a customer by respecting both my time and emotional intelligence.

That’s where Verizon Wireless really fell down on this one, when only one or two small gestures could have made all the difference:

1.  Leverage technology.

a. Use your website. Companies like VW have consumers reasonably well trained to go to their personal home pages on the provider’s site.  While a company may not want to broadcast its failures to the universe, why not give me access to a “Known Issues” list once I’ve logged in?  I’d be one click away from learning that something was happening and when I might expect relief.   No phone call needed.

Assuming that the problem was corrected in an acceptable time frame, this would have been a good customer service experience.

N.B: it’s not always the initial problem that really irritates customers, it’s how a company handles it.

b. Use your VRU.  I occupied the first few minutes of the call listening to hold messages and staring into space.  Had one of these recorded messages mentioned an outage, or if I’d been able to find this information via the phone tree, I would have been satisfied and hung up.  Time Warner Cable offers this feature in New York City, and it’s quite useful.

Ditto the good customer service experience.

c. Use my email address. Why did I give you my email address and opt in for messages if you don’t use it to send me information that is actually important?  A company like VW could use notifications like any airlines and banks do.  And like the airlines and banks, such alerts could be promoted as a customer benefit.

2.  Leverage your team (even if you have to rethink your definition of “team”).

The blowback from this kind of episode reaches far beyond an unnecessary thirty minute call.  A talented customer service didn’t have the information she needed and poured herself into an unsolvable problem.  Then she was embarrassed and apologized when she heard what the tech said (even though I assured her that the situation was not her fault).  This should never happen: there are many ways that a company like VW can communicate with its call centers in real time.  A rep reads a screen, and it’s over.

And how about the tech guy?  He’s taking what I would consider non-technical calls, his queue is endless and he can’t help customers the way he would like.

What do these circumstances do to employee morale?

Will these two employees stay, but harden their attitudes (and complain to fellow employees)?

Will they ultimately talk about their work experiences on the Web?  Could that keep good prospects away?

If you multiply my experience by a thousand or two, will either of them quit, thereby producing more churn, more expense (which VW will pass on via its pricing) and more customer interactions with less-experienced staff?

And so the wheel turns…

Gestures that may seem small can produce mighty ripple effects from one end of a business ecosystem to the other.  As consumer behaviors and habits change, as technology changes, as internal systems change… a company must constantly put itself in the path walked by the customer (and its own staff) in order to discover and address opportunities to make things better.  And the real day-to-day magic isn’t in the big system rewrites or product announcements – it can be in the small adjustments. 

Observe the small things, and the ripple effect might just flow in the opposite direction.

A version of this post was originally published HERE on the Marketing Executives Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend

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, where the writer describes the experiment he did as a follow up to 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?