Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How To Turn A Loyal Customer Into A MORTAL ENEMY: A Verizon Wireless Case Study

We've all experienced the ongoing demise of "customer service." Anyone over 40 who is not enraged every time they visit a filthy McDonalds ("You've got time to lean, you've got time to CLEAN!") never worked in one as a youth.

It seems like everywhere I go any more, it's increasingly difficult to find any help at all -- and IMPOSSIBLE to find COMPETENT help.

During the "good economy" years this was somewhat understandable - everyone who WANTED a job had one, and those with a modicum of intelligence and any sort of work-ethic weren't working minimum-wage fast-food or retail jobs.

As the manager of a Wendy's -- to whom I'd complained about an EXCEPTIONALLY bad experience -- put it to me: "You want me to find people with a brain - I'm struggling just to find people with a PULSE!" -- again, the evidence of a good economy.

One would expect however that in our CURRENT situation - roughly 1-in-4 adults out of work (and younger-folk even WORSE off) that the opposite would apply. People with intelligence and a work-ethic should easily displace the stupid and lazy, even for the lower-paying jobs. Managers should be able to say to the "S&L" folk "I have 10 people who would LOVE to have your job if you don't want to keep it."

Further, they should be doing all they can to hold on to customers -- especially in a line of business where there is much robust competition -- where we customers can say "I have 10 companies who would LOVE to have my money if you don't want to earn it!"

So why is it that neither seems to be the case?

Are business owners and managers REALLY so stupid and/or inept that they cannot improve these deplorable conditions?

My recent experience with Verizon Wireless is a "poster-child" study in how to kill your business! In my many years of experience - both as a customer and a provider - I cannot recall a more idiotic situation.

My family were VzW customers for ~13 years - during which time our bills averaged $250 per month. This alone was enough to put us in the top-tier of what they call "High Value Customers." In addition, on numerous occasions during this period I'd made suggestions to them which helped them to cut costs and improve their customers' experience -- so much so that my account had been flagged with a "listen to this guy!" code which ensured that any suggestions I made were forwarded up through channels to the people in a position to implement them!

  • Sending a text-message when you call 411? My suggestion.
  • Changing to a previously-used handset via the website? Mine.
  • Forwarding your calls via the website or a call in to "611"? Mine as well.
There were a number of others which I just cannot recall at the moment, but... The bottom line is that I've made a very good living as an IT Consultant/Systems Architect/Engineer/Etc... - helping businesses to use IT solutions to support and streamline their business processes, and my experiences as a customer often led me to give them the benefit of my skills and knowledge for free.

Further, I'd also been a very good (yet uncompensated) salesman for them as well. My job duties put me in contact with the top-level decision-makers of businesses of all sizes - and my experience with them led me to recommend VzW to all who asked (and many who didn't). I couldn't count the number of my customers who I'd sold on VzW - much to my later chagrin...

The problems began when my wife's company decided they no longer wished to provide cell-phones to any employees. They DID however expect her to keep the same number - otherwise she'd have been forced to scrap $10 worth of business-cards! (he said sarcastically...) - so we were essentially forced to "absorb" her business-phone into our "family" plan.

They DID however work out some sort of deal with VzW, whereby we'd receive 20% off our bill if we kept her service with VzW -- which (given the size of our usual bill) was no small incentive. Her employer provided her with the necessary paperwork and instructions to ease this transition - and we visited a local "Company" (not third-party) store to take care of it.

I probably should have listened to my instincts, and opened a separate account for her line, but the prospect of the 20% discount was just too much to pass up. I became even MORE concerned when the young man who waited on us told me that we'd have to place the account in my wife's name in order to get the discount... I asked REPEATEDLY - and was reassured every time that this would change NOTHING about our account except the first-name on the address form. My "gut" was telling me this would end up being a problem, but he managed to convince me that all would be OK. This REPEATED assurance combined with the 20% discount overcame my instincts, and we made the transition.

Less than three weeks later, we took a road-trip to go visit my daughter at her College. On the way, my phone handset (which was then only a few months old) broke, and refused to charge. When I called her from Wifey's phone to tell her this, Daughter told me that hers (bought at the same time) was broken as well -- so I called Verizon to arrange their warranty-replacement.

My FIRST irritation was to spend over an hour listening to elevator-music, interrupted every 30 seconds or so by the abrasive and un-grammatical voice telling me "All operators are currently busy at this time" -- which may have been necessary for those who didn't know what "currently" meant -- but I digress...  This was the first time I could recall that my calls to "611" had not been picked up IMMEDIATELY! This long wait - combined with the inevitable dropped-call as we drove through the mountains - had me more than a little frustrated by the time I finally gave up, resolving to try again in the morning.

When I called in again - this time from a stationary point and using a wired headset - I still spent over an hour on "hold" before finally getting an operator. The call went fairly well until she told me she'd need a credit-card for the $100 in charges for the replacement handsets.

"Excuse me? These are only ~3 months old, and they're still under warranty!" To make a long story less-long, after putting me on hold several times for ENTIRELY too long, she eventually figured out that the reason her system showed a "new account" with out-of-warranty phones was because of the "transfer" we'd done. She explained to me that this had "voided" our handsets' warranties.

"Oh? So you're telling me that this 'transfer' - which I was repeatedly assured would change NOTHING - had actually voided all of our existing obligations to one another? GREAT! In that case, I'd like to close this account!"

She then explained that this would cost me $700 -- $175 for each of the (4) new handsets they'd just "given" us a few months earlier...

"OH! So NOW what you're saying is that all of your obligations to ME are voided (by 'the switch that would change NOTHING!') -- but all of my obligations to YOU are still in force??!!"

She didn't particularly like my phraseology, but allowed that was "the gist of it, yes." I demanded to speak to a Supervisor, which resulted in another half-hour or so on hold before someone CLAIMING to be a Supervisor came on the line.

This woman apologized profusely, repeatedly expressing her regret that I'd been misled at the store, but standing firm on the "out of warranty" status of my handsets. I then switched to a different defense...

VzW offered TWO DIFFERENT "insurance" plans -- one plan ($5/month) had a $50 "deductible", the other ($6/month) had no deductible at all.  Knowing my family as I do, I'd always gone for the higher-priced plan, for the simple reason that the "extra" cost would be negated by the first "claim..."

So why was I being charged a deductible when I was on the "no-deductible" plan?

It seems VzW had discontinued the $6 plan -- I "must have been 'grandfathered' before the transfer of the account, but once the transfer happened [we] were automatically put on the '$50-deductible' plan."

Yet another SCREWING from this "transfer that would change NOTHING??!!" Needless to say, by this time I had steam shooting from my ears like a cartoon-character...

I THEN requested that the "deductible" be put on my bill, as all past charges had been for years - figuring this would give me time to scream at the store-manager back home and get the charges removed - but this too was not to be...

"This is a NEW ACCOUNT, Sir - you haven't even received your first bill yet -- so I'm not going to be able to do that..." -- THIS from the woman who had just pulled up our "old account", SEEN my 13+ years of history with her company... But she wouldn't budge. I was forced to pull out a credit-card in order to get handsets that worked, less than three months from the time I'd bought the damn things...

Over the next couple of months, I'd tried on several occasions to get things "fixed" -- even requesting that they just undo the "transfer" and put the account back in my name -- but they were always DREADFULLY sorry that they were "unable to do that..."

In the meantime, I found that the reason I'd never had to wait on-hold when I called "611" was due to my former "High-value customer" status -- I was now experiencing the same lousy service given to all the other sweaty, smelly hoi-polloi...

I was also forced to face the fact that I'd unwittingly misled COUNTLESS people when I'd touted VzW's FANTASTIC customer-service, especially the "never had to wait for an operator!!" I shudder to think what (or how MANY) people must think of me when they switched and found out things were nothing like I'd described... but I digress...

Basically, we were STUCK for the rest of our 1-year Contract -- the ONE thing I'd done RIGHT was to always pay a bit extra for handsets to ensure that I could get out after a year if I wasn't happy...

Near the end of the year, Wifey's boss started really leaning on her to get a "smart phone." Her position is such that not having e-mail in her hand at all times (not to mention SMS/IM, Etc) was a bit of a problem...  She's frankly a bit "technologically impaired" - and this was becoming an unacceptable handicap... So I took her to the VzW store to see what sort of handset she might be able to learn to use...

This was JUST after the "Motorola X" had hit the street -- an oversized touch-screen, Android phone seemed like just the ticket for her. Additionally, I was due a $100 "new-every-two" credit from VzW -- so after much heartburn over previous treatment, we decided to stick with them...

So I sat down to place our order online.  (2) "Motorola X" handsets, (2) Car-docks, (2) Home-docks, (2) travel-chargers, (2) leather cases, Extended-batteries, and Etc... The total came to over $1500 -- quite a chunk of change for a company who'd treated us so poorly, but... I bit my tongue and made the order...

Or TRIED to -- except I couldn't get the website to give me the aforementioned $100 credit that I was due -- so I (ONCE AGAIN!) called "611" and sat through the interminable hold...

It's important to note that this was about the 5th of the month - and the website said (due to the HUGE demand for the "X" handset) they were on "backorder" and would not ship until the 26th -- more than three weeks away...

When the flunky FINALLY came on the line, she informed me that my "new every two" credit wasn't ACTUALLY due until the 9th -- FOUR DAYS into the future. I asked her to "click whatever it is you have to click" to authorize my order -- and was once again told "I'm not able to do that..."

In the past, they'd more than once given us "early credit" -- sometimes as much as THREE MONTHS early - so I KNOW this was yet another example of the "NOTHING" that was supposed to change when we made the transfer...

Further, the phones weren't going to even SHIP until over three weeks AFTER my due-date -- so it's not as if I'd gain any benefit at all from being allowed to place my order!

I managed to keep my cool, and once again asked for a Supervisor. After a full 40-minutes on hold, the same girl finally came back and told me that "No supervisor is available at the moment" -- but promised to have one of them call me within "24 to 48 hours."

Oh -- and I forgot to mention the **REAL** kick-in-the-'nads of all of this...

That "20% discount" that precipitated this whole fiasco? We learned (after YET ANOTHER 40+ minutes odyssey through the hold-queue) that this ONLY applied to Wifey's line - not to the whole bill.

In sum, ALL this disgusting mess "saved" us was 20% off the $9.99 base-charge for her line.

ALL THIS for LESS THAN $2 per month!


Enough was enough.  At the moment when the "48 hours" expired -- with no call from a Supervisor -- I was sitting in the AT&T office, discussing the logistics of transferring all our lines/accounts to AT&T.

THEY were willing to bend over backwards - meet all my conditions and even throw some "freebies" at me to get my business.  I ended up taking (1) smart-phone handset, with the understanding that Wifey and I would each use it for a week or so and - assuming all was well - RETURN IT within 30 days ("trial period") before transferring all our lines and numbers... They were MORE than OK with that!

Before "pulling the trigger", I followed the advice of a friend and called VzW's "customer-retention" department -- in a last-ditch effort to get them to do SOMETHING to indicate that they wanted my business!!  The woman I spoke to (after the usual ~40-minute hold) expressed her sorrow at our bad-experience, but claimed to be unable to do anything to "Fix THIS."

When the day finally came to do the final transfer, I decided (since I was driving it past them anyway) to stop and offer THEIR manager ONE FINAL CHANCE to save my account. After the usual expressions of powerless sorrow, he DID offer to give us "500 free overage minutes" if we'd keep our business with VzW. I asked - to be sure - if this was "500 minutes EACH MONTH?" -- nope -- "Just a one-time thing..."

Bearing in mind that AT&T was offering me 1/2 price on (2) Smart-phones and accessories, and that in spite of adding the (2) smart-phones and their necessary data-plans, and MORE "anytime" minutes per month our monthly bill was going DOWN from what it had been at VzW!

*AND* AT&T accounts included "rollover minutes" - whereby I could EASILY build up THOUSANDS of "overage minutes"!



I guess I SHOULD have expected it, but...  A few weeks after we left VzW and transferred our accounts, Verizon called me, all but BEGGING me to "come back home to VzW."

YES - the woman actually used that phrase!

She really seemed to pull out all the stops -- there was an AMAZING list of incentives they were willing to offer me, from discounted phones to a free "microcell" device to discounted plans!

I managed to conduct myself as a Gentleman while I explained to her this whole, sordid tale -- then I asked her - bluntly - what SHE would say to ME if our roles were reversed...

In the ONE act of genuine integrity I'd encountered since this whole fiasco started, she said "I don't think I'd be able to respond in anything other than four-letter words." She also offered what seemed a GENUINE apology and wished me a "better experience with [our] new provider."

I honestly believe she meant it...

In any case -- in the interest of FULL disclosure -- our experience with AT&T hasn't been perfect.

The smart-phones we got (Samsung "Galaxy S") have had a number of problems, and I let them string us out with promises that "a fix is coming" until it was too late to exchange the handsets for something better.

I've also had a lot of problems with dropped-calls - which again APPEARS to really be a problem with the Samsung handsets as while my phone showed "no signal" my daughters' phones would both be working fine...

They've also screwed up our bill on a number of occasions wherein I had to call in to get it straightened out -- but the "notoriously bad customer service" I've heard and read about from various people has yet to show its face...

So far, everyone I've dealt with has been more than willing to help, whether I called "611" or visited the "company-store."

In sum, though AT&T has been imperfect -- ESPECIALLY compared to my much-missed "High-value-customer" experience with VzW -- I'm still glad we made the switch and wouldn't go back to VzW if they were somehow the only provider on the PLANET.

In fact, I'll continue to do my best to ensure that everyone knows the TRUTH about them -- which seems to be the LEAST I could do given how many people I've previously (though UNKNOWINGLY) misled...

Should someone from Verizon Wireless read this, well... All I can say is this:


Actually, I COULD (and would frankly LIKE TO) say a whole lot more -- but I try to avoid using that sort of language, especially in a place where women and children could possibly read or hear it...


Jewel said...

You know what we did? We finished our ATT plan, and after 10 years with them, they offered NO UPGRADES! So we ditched them and said hello to Straight Talk. We have decent little cell phones. My husband has a blackberry, and he pays 45 a month for unlimited everything. We kept having dropped calls with ATT and now we don't. I paid 70 bucks for a simple LG slider phone, and I pay 30 a month for 1000 minutes, 1000 texts, and unlimited internet time. I always have about 250 minutes left, and if I have 100 messages a month that would be a lot. Our bill went from about 200 a month to 75. And we only pay a sales tax on the minute renewal card. No hidden taxes, either.

Dedicated_Dad said...

Wow - I just found this while re-reading my old posts...

I've been a straight-talk customer for well over a year and LOVE IT!

$45 a month gets me unlimited EVERYTHING - and best of all I'm on the VZW network so I get all the benefits of being their customer with none of the problems (and less than half the cost)!

That I know they can't be making ANYTHING one me is just icing on the cake!

Screw you VZW!