Also located at Only Time Buys Trust here
I'm a tough customer. I admit it. Takes one to know one. I'm a loud shocking dose of reality for companies that sell me something. I expect too much from them. I've given them my money for, and put my trust in; their products or services, and I expect them to value that accordingly. I can be a firm's greatest ally or its worst nightmare.
So when something goes wrong, I want the company to fix it. Now! When it takes too long, I let them know it. When service representatives can't solve the problem, I want to talk to their bosses, their bosses' bosses, all the way up to their CEOs. And when a service rep tells me, "My supervisor will just tell you the same thing," well, there's nothing I want to hear less.
Why am I such a pain in the, excuse me, why am I such an exacting customer? Because I've been on the other side of the fence, working in the customer-service business, for my entire career.
I answer my own phone. When my customers have a problem, I have a problem. And it's my job to fix it. My customers aren't small companies, either. They include some of the world's biggest movie studios, software makers, and game companies, among others. But if I want them coming back, I have to fix their problems, and fast.
So I know what it takes. Just because I'm an extreme case, doesn't mean I'm alone (extreme, maybe slightly irrational, and definitely passionate, but not strange). I know customers deserve better than most companies give them.
Michael Treacy was never more right. Why do firms think they can excel in more than one of these three disciplines: Operational excellence, Product leadership or Customer intimacy. Pick any successful firm and see they are great at one, not all.
After all, what's your time worth? For a business, what's your customer worth? What happens when a company doesn't value the time of its customers? As a customer, do you include the cost of bad customer service when you decide to buy from one company over another? Shouldn't our service providers pay us our hourly rate when they put us on hold? Ahh, that would make them think thrice.
And if you don't value your time in dealing with a company that doesn't, you should.
"We don't want to push our ideas on to customers; we simply want to give them what they want." - Laura Ashley
Companies spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars to acquire a single steady customer, on the expectation that they will be able to milk that customer for far more money in coming years (figure out your company's cost of customer acquisitions and their lifetime value here):
The math is pretty straightforward. Yet everywhere we look, there are companies that can't seem to count. It seems they are quite clear about where their heads are at:
* I called T-Mobile on a separate issue and it took 13 minutes to get someone on the line. After multiple ID authentications, the service rep told me he couldn't help with a problem with that phone line when I called on that phone line. "It's Our Policy," they said. I had to call back from a different phone line to get help. You and your policy will send your customers running. My policy is to give my money to someone else. Please don't ever tell me your policy. Just make me happy.
* Credit card companies, especially supervisors, don't even answer your call. (See Jackie Ramos, the bank employee fired after complaining about exorbitant client charges) Instead, you have to leave a number so someone can call back later, even days later, if you're around and able to take the call. And rather than putting your photo on your credit card to reduce fraud, they just charge usurious interest rates to "make up for their losses." Don't the banks understand that we don't even know who owns which bank now? In the jumble of bank consolidations post-meltdown, I was sorting out which credit cards were mine and which were my various companies. Certain cards had different names than the actual bank name. My auto-pay and my firms were fully confused. This of course led to overpays, underpays, extortion and usurious charges, credit limit cuts, etc. Thank goodness Bank of America had one rock star, Janet Sassano, whom I found after being up hung up on, hours wasted and insulted by other customer "service" specialists. Sassano, by contrast, was the proverbial princess in shining armor. She took each of my 12 issues and resolved them to my absolute satisfaction. She took great pride in helping me sort out these issues and was pleasant, trusting, and reliable in calling me and my accounting team back and even checked up on us as the months went on.
* Toyota has a full-fledged disaster on its hands, one that could scar the company for years, because it didn't deal quickly with issues tied to its brake and accelerator systems. (The New York Times took a long look at Toyota's ongoing pattern of slow responses to safety/quality issues, available here.)
* I had to go all the way up the Southern California Edison ranks to its CEO to resolve what should have been a simple matter of fixing an online payment snafu. To their credit, that did solve the problem. I addressed them in a 15-point, 22-page document requesting policy, and governance and process-management changes. Also to their credit, they articulately responded in writing about how they would address each of those issues. But why oh why was it necessary to go to the top for something that should have been relatively easy to fix?
Then there's MacMall, a Torrance, CA. based distributor of Apple computers and related gear. It the same firm as PC Mall. If you're on any technology mailing list, you've probably gotten at least 70 of their catalogs, or seen their multi-page magazine ads. I guess poor customer service is a core MacMall positioning element that I could have known about ahead of time. Note their low consumer rating on ResellerRatings.com. If you were ever to consider returning or replacing a product, it would be one of the worst places you could choose. Out of thousands of online resellers, to me it seems like it's just one step above a phishing site. MacMall execs, I suggest you look at the Apple stores, busting at the seams, and chase the premium services market not the sleazy discount / no service no frills game.
I take a lesson and story from my friend Billy Ladin - founder ComputerCraft, one of the first Apple retailers from the 80's. He was taught lessons from partners Steve Jobs and his former employee, who told him discounts were the only way to survive. Yup, that employee was Michael Dell. I guess in the long run Steve Jobs got it right. It seems he had a tough time finding retailers so he did it for himself. Look at him now. One time I met Jobs, skiing with him on Aspen mountain. We were having lunch, and I was curious as to why he bought 2 apple strudels and no meal. He said, 'Why should I eat that boring food when I can have this," as he crunched into his meal. Classic. I wonder if it was the Apples or if the same would be true for chocolate. Everything he makes is exciting.
A few months ago, I bought a computer from MacMall for the first time (granted, I have been a customer for years). I should have realized then that trouble was coming when the company wouldn't let me buy a computer online, have it configured and installed with my software choices, and pick it up at the store two miles from my place. I had to wait four days for the computer to be shipped those two miles to my office and pay for postage.
Guess what they said: "It's Our Policy." How lovely. They explained that it was a security risk. I asked them how they thought a known customer who puts in a known credit card and will pick up the equipment with his personal ID is a risk compared to international fraud rings that steal products, services, PayPal accounts and more by using a credit card online? Riddle me that, Batman.
"Everything starts with the customer." --Louis Gerstner, IBM
Four months later, the computer's hard drive failed. I went to the Apple Store and had a great experience. But when I went to swap the hard drive for solid-state storage so I wouldn't be vulnerable to another hardware failure, they told me I couldn't, because I hadn't bought the machine directly from Apple. I had to go back to MacMall for that.
That led to a long and unsatisfying dance with MacMall, going all the way up to and through its president, who promised in an email to call me. But then he chose instead to tell his store to blow me off. The bottom line: I wanted the hard drive replaced, but needed the bad drive back so I could recover my important data. MacMall wouldn't let me, and in fact, after a lengthy delay, ultimately refused to do anything to fix the problem because I had complained too much. One MacMall technician was an angel, and I'd like to use that trouper's name, but I'm afraid it'll just get him in trouble.
Apple's process wasn't perfect (some of their policies, later waived, seemed nonsensical). But had I bought Apple's computer from Apple, my problem would have been fixed, and quickly. Apple gives its managers the flexibility and discretion to solve a customer's unique problem. They understand that they're building a relationship of trust with a customer, not just cashing in on a quick purchase.
"Above all, we wish to avoid having a dissatisfied customer. We consider our customers a part of our organization, and we want them to feel free to make any criticism they see fit in regard to our merchandise or service. Sell practical, tested merchandise at reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings -- and they will always come back." - L.L. Bean
So who needs MacMall? They survive on a threadbare margin of just 1.8 percent. They must depend on volume (and those endless ads and catalogs) to generate enough new customers to make ends meet. Margins that thin make it almost impossible for any company to finance a proper customer-service operation, and the evidence suggests that's not where they spend their money. They spend it on making policies to not serve customer needs.
Apple, by contrast, has a secret weapon in its stores: the Genius Bar. If you need help, they answer questions, diagnose issues and solve problems. Even my initial phone call was promptly answered, and the online personnel set up a high-priority appointment at the Genius Bar to analyze the problem in person.
A company like Compact Appliance also understands the trust equation. I bought an air conditioner, but it was too loud to use. I had to return it, and called the CEO, who was apologetic, and fixed the problem immediately, even helping me pick out a replacement. Trust me; I'll use them again and again and again.
"There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users." - Edward Tufte
So, saving $50 on a $1,200 computer is nice, but what's your time worth? There's probably a reason why a company like MacMall has dozens of negative Facebook posts about it.
Too many of us do a terrible job understanding a product's true cost. It's not just the purchase price. It's what it costs to live with that product, and its maker, for years to come, especially if something goes wrong. Companies that skimp on customer service and cut corners on parts are secretly charging you more than you know.
So what keeps a customer coming back? Trust. Trust that they're buying good products. Trust that they'll get a fair price. And trust that they will be dealt with fairly if a problem arises. And how do they build that trust? It seems the more suck-cessful a firm becomes the worse they usually become...
You already know my answer: Only Time Buys Trust. And if a company doesn't take the time to build and continue to earn customer trust, it deserves to be in trouble.
I know every time my company, RampRate Sourcing Advisors, works with a client, it's another chance to build trust. It's also another chance to blow it. I can't let that happen. We don't let it happen ever. Even if we lose money, it's our reputation.
We need to be better consumers if we expect to get better products. That means holding companies accountable when they shortcut on service, and give us short shrift on quality products. Your time matters at least as much as that little discount you may get. Remember that next time you decide whether you want to buy that computer from MacMall or Apple.
So tell me, have you had a bad experience with a company that led you to stop buying its products?
Did you shout it out to your comrades and associates? Did you tip your competitor to buy from them...grin?
Did you tell others? Did you talk about your problem on Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, or other sites? Did you report them to the authorities? Do Something!
Do you include the company's reputation for reliability and service in the cost of its products?
I urge you to tell your stories here by posting to this service manifesto. Pass the link. Shout it out.
Lets all try to make our lives easier.
"There are only two ways to get a new customer: 1. Solicit a new customer any way you can. 2. Take good care of your present customers, so they don't become someone else's new customer." -Ed Zeitz
Follow Tony Greenberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RampRateTony