Small Company X vs. Conglomerate X

by Laura Zegar

Raise your hand if you’ve ever loved to hate your cable, Internet, wireless or other conglomerate-sized company after one or more bad customer experiences.

I bet we’re all raising our hands right now.

Most of us, at some point, have unsuccessfully tried to resolve an issue with a large company at their mercy. The bigger the company, the more insignificant or powerless we feel. After all, we’re just one of their millions of customers. Bonus points if your provider has the monopoly on your local market.

We may turn to social media, online reviews and blog posts to be heard within a community of our peers and, hopefully, grab Conglomerate X’s attention.

When that fails, we may start looking at Small Company X to fill the void left by Conglomerate X.

Smaller companies have an obvious advantage over conglomerates: They can often create the superior, personalized customer experience we don’t always get from the big guys. I bet that’s why many of us do business with Small Company X in the first place.

Most organizations battle issues related to people, processes or technology at some point in their operations. A small company with superior capabilities in all three areas can often withstand such struggles, particularly with personalized, proactive customer service. They become the Little Company That Could, a darling of their markets.

But what happens when something goes wrong there? Suddenly, being Small Company X may be a liability, not an advantage.   

Case in point: My own recent Small Company X experience with my Internet / satellite TV provider, a small third-party authorized reseller for a major satellite brand’s services.

I recently moved my service after switching units in my apartment building, kicking off a disappointing, blog-worthy customer experience.  

It all went south when they cancelled my old account and created a new one. This is a standard practice for utility companies, so I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, my online account was entirely deleted during the transfer, leaving me with zero billing or account status visibility.

“OK,” I said to myself. “That’s annoying, but I’ll call to pay the old-fashioned way this time and reestablish my online account later.”

But before I could re-register, they mistakenly cancelled my account again and disconnected my satellite service. I didn’t immediately notice because I hadn’t been watching much TV and, miraculously, my Internet service somehow remained uninterrupted.

One night, I settled onto the couch and switched on the TV, ready for a marathon of recent Revenge episodes. To my surprise, nothing was there.  This was serious. I needed to catch up on what was happening with my favorite fictional TV characters in the Hamptons, and I needed to do it right now.

First, I tried to create my new online account, but was unable to register after receiving the notification that my account was “invalid”.  I called to inquire further.

The unapologetic customer service rep’s response: “Oh, yeah, we’ve been trying to reach you to get your equipment back. You never contacted us. And your Internet should have been turned off, too.” 

No, actually, neither should have been turned off! Both the customer and customer experience professional in me cringed. This phone call did not seem promising.

According to the rep, Small Company X had left voicemails and, since they service my entire apartment building exclusively, sent a representative to my apartment to retrieve the equipment. Just one little problem: Small Company X never actually reached me with a single contact attempt.

My 14-year-old cell phone number on file had never received a call or voicemail from them. I was primarily home during the time period they sent someone to my apartment. No knocks on the door or notes left to indicate anyone had visited. I even checked the enormous batch of delayed forwarded mail I’d recently received to see if I missed a notice. Nothing.

When I expressed my confusion, the rep failed to acknowledge my concern and simply said they would turn my service back on. “And,” he advised me in a tone that suggested he was doing me a favor, “we won’t charge you for the reconnection fee.”  

Gee, thanks!

My service was restored within the hour with no extra charges incurred on my end. That was the bare minimum I expected as a customer, and unfortunately, that’s all I got. 

I finally restored my online account with some extra effort after placing a second call to obtain a special company-provided PIN to enter during registration. Sure, I could have requested a supervisor at some point, but after my initial conversation with the rep, I did not want to chat with anyone else from Small Company X for a second longer.

I hung up the phone, muttering something to myself about being a masochist for wishing I could voluntarily switch back to one of the big guys everyone loves to complain about. Unfortunately, that option is out for me since it’s either Small Company X or nothing in my building.

Oh, and I couldn’t even tweet about my disappointing experience because the company completely lacks a social media presence. I generally reserve customer service complaints via social media for only the most egregious experiences, and this certainly met my criteria. Alas, my planned “Hey, @SmallCompanyX, I’m bummed about my recent bad experience!” tweet only made it as far as this blog.

Afterward, I mused about the issues that led to my service breakdown, how excellent customer service could have negated or minimized its effects on me, and whether such an experience could have been avoided at Conglomerate X.

First, the obvious: An unidentified technology issue led to my service disconnection. It can – and does – happen at companies of any size. I probably wouldn’t even be blogging about this had my customer service rep simply apologized for the inconvenience. Technical issues are par for the course at utility companies, and it’s all about how the company handles them. In this case, the Small Company X rep’s demeanor made the experience more unpleasant when he could have quickly turned it around with positivity.

Certainly, I could have received the same response from a Conglomerate X rep, but I consider this a huge strike against Small Company X when customer service should be a key differentiator against their competition. Because they don’t beat their Conglomerate X competitors on price, programming, equipment technology, value-added features or account management, I expected high quality customer service – but didn’t receive it.

The extra effort that went into creating my new online account was another strike. Canceling one account and creating another during a move is standard practice for many utility companies, and it works as long as it’s executed properly. In this case, my previous account was entirely deleted, and I can’t view any historical account data under the new account. 

By contrast, ComEd enabled me with flawless account management when I transferred my power service. My old account remained online and linked to my new account, all under the same user name. I can review my entire billing and payment history for each account without multiple logins, guessing games, or fervent prayers to locate the information I need. Not once did I have to call ComEd for extra assistance during the two moves within my building I’ve completed in the past three and a half years, but I’ve already called Small Company X twice in a very short period of time. A more effective, less complicated account management system easily would have eliminated the need for my second phone call. Conglomerate X Customer Experience– 2; Small Company X Customer Experience – 0.  

And finally, Small Company X’s process for contacting me failed utterly. I’m still not sure who, if anyone, they actually reached when attempting to contact me, but something failed in their customer data management and/or outbound contact processes. Had they reached me in any capacity, I still would have considered this a more proactive attempt to notify me of the situation. Every other provider has successfully contacted me when necessary since my move.

Small Company X has my email address on file. Leveraging it with my phone number in proactive outbound contacts and enhanced online account management features for more effective communication attempts would be a huge customer experience win for them. In the meantime…mark this down as three out of three customer experience wins for Conglomerate X.

And there you have it. Surprisingly, Conglomerate X does beat Small Company X hands down sometimes, and it’s not always the demon we customers make large companies out to be.

For me, this experience reinforces my key customer experience philosophy: Your customer experience is only as good as your people, processes and technology.

For you, as a customer, that means the experience you walk away with is largely dependent on how your selected company manages these capabilities and overlays them with customer service, rather than their size alone.

Only you can decide whether David beats Goliath. Take a look at your providers and see how your experiences with Small Company X and Conglomerate X measure up against this philosophy. You may be surprised. 

Airline Customer Service: How JetBlue is Leading the Charge

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

For the past few years, I have been a loyal frequent flier with a legacy carrier, slowly making my way from silver member one year, to gold member the next, all the way to platinum today. It’s amazing how instantly one becomes a “travel snob” upon finding a job that sends you places. I remember the days of watching the elite members board before me, muttering under my breath that “the plane won’t leave until we’re all on board anyway,” or the times where I waited in line for TSA, only to see a handful of people cutting me. What’s the big deal about racing through security if the plane has to wait for regulars like me anyway? Are there mysterious planes that pick up the elite members at their convenience and whisk them away to their final destination? It can’t all be for the extra bag of peanuts…

Once you start traveling, these little things start to matter. I’ve become impatient with people who don’t know to take their laptops out of their bags or to take off their shoes before going through security. Whenever I step into the X-ray machine and the TSA agent tells me to put my hands up, I always want to turn and say, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” but I don’t.

I’m a travel snob. I’ve accepted it.

But when you’re on the road a lot, you can’t help it. When your plane is delayed, it’s nice to have a lounge to relax in. When you’re carrying some extra bags for a business trip, it’s nice to be able to check them for free. When the security lines are long, it’s nice to skip the line so you can get some work done. The perks I once considered to be frivolous and self-aggrandizing were, in fact, real perks.

So it was with great interest that I participated in JetBlue’s Mosaic Challenge. As you may know, JetBlue is a younger carrier, much more hip than many of its competitors, and known for providing great service. Whenever my airline of choice did not have a direct route or a competitive price, I would fly with JetBlue as a second option. That might change soon. 

The Mosaic Challenge worked in two ways. Fliers who were not elite with a competitor were given a “challenge,” which was to fly with JetBlue enough times to earn Mosaic status by the end of the year. The caveat was that JetBlue was going to make it easier for those taking the challenge to gain Mosaic status than for members who did not accept the challenge. Brilliant marketing: they’re using gamification to get people interested in booking flights with JetBlue. People who never in their dreams thought they could ever gain elite status with an airline suddenly had a real opportunity.

The other part of the challenge was for people like myself who were elite members with other airlines. In my case, if I could just prove I was an elite member with another airline, JetBlue would match my status by making me a Mosaic member immediately. So it was a no-brainer to give it a shot, especially because I already flew with JetBlue several times a year as is. 

JetBlue has long been known as an egalitarian airline – there is no first class, and many of the same perks you get with other airlines have not really existed for JetBlue. Instead, JetBlue has tried to use speedier security lanes and roomier seats as upsell opportunities. Clearly, JetBlue wants to woo elite members away from other airlines and show them that you do not need all the perks to get a better experience. And eerily enough, they might be on to something.

As someone who travels frequently, my number one complaint with airlines is change fees. They suck. I understand why they exist - they exist because fickle customers like myself would always make changes to reservations if there were no penalties in place. This kills revenue for the airlines, so they cannot afford to operate without putting stiff penalties in place. This way, customers really figure out their plans ahead of time. Something unexpected happens? Tough luck. Pay up $200. There’s dozens of empty seats on the flight you want to get on? You still owe $200. 

But JetBlue gets it. As a JetBlue Mosaic Member, you can make changes to any reservation and receive a full refund to a travel bank that you can use for future flights. No change fee included. JetBlue understands that their most loyal customers are going to continue booking flights with them anyway. So putting the money in a Travel Bank that can be applied to future purchases makes great sense. And because JetBlue offers this perk only to its most loyal customers, it does not crush the airline’s revenues. It’s also the sensible thing to do, because the perk is being offered to people who fly more frequently and who are more likely to need it. It’s simply a thoughtful reward to their most loyal customers. Plain and simple. It makes their elite members arguably happier than those who get to eat pretzels and wine in first class with other airlines. I am living proof of that, because I am 10x more loyal to a competing airline that would never in a million years waive my change fees.

I’ve made use of this feature twice already on trips from New York to Boston. Having made travel plans far in advance, and then realizing I wanted to adjust the plans the day of, I’ve successfully canceled two JetBlue flights from Boston to New York. I used my Travel Bank credit to book a last minute flight from Boston to New York the morning after the Boston Bruins tragic Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. So I can thank JetBlue for getting me to a happier place. I have even really enjoyed their dedicated customer service line. I’ve never had to wait on hold and the reps have always been very helpful. My only complaint? That they can’t match my mobile number to my account. It would be nice if I did not need to have my TrueBlue number handy in order to get the premium service. 

When it comes to change fees, it’s true that I can do the same thing with my current preferred airline of choice – but not without paying $200. And if the fare of my flight was less than $200, then canceling or changing the flight never makes sense for me. 

I’m becoming a big fan of JetBlue. It seems that they are doing the right things all around the board. Specifically, I am a fan of their “You Above All” marketing campaign. Airline consumers never really feel like anything is about them. It costs an arm and a leg to travel, it’s a hassle, and dealing with airline customer service has always been a nightmare. I wonder if that’s about to change.

Next Caller & ICMI

Conferences are fun. San Diego is fun. Needless to say, the Next Caller team is looking forward to heading to the ICMI Contact Center Expo in San Diego this week for the very first time. 

This will also be the first time that we can get together with our good friends at Zendesk to throw a happy hour on Wednesday evening of the conference. Details on that are in the most recent blog post at blog.nextcaller.com.

Since Next Caller only recently launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2013, most of the ICMI community may be unfamiliar with us.

So what is Next Caller?

Next Caller is advanced caller ID for businesses. Our database of over 220 million profiles is the largest in the US. Next Caller delivers important data on inbound callers in real time so that the customers never have to spell out bits of data over the phone, like their name and address, among other things. This saves time and money, but it also makes agents and customers happier since they can get right down to business on every call, rather than asking and answering mundane questions.

This video summarizes it succinctly: https://vimeo.com/nextcaller/advanced-caller-id

Make sure to stop by the Next Caller booth, #335, and say hello! We are excited to be a part of this community. We hope to share our excitement by providing some free breath mints (much needed after talking all day at a conference) and sunscreen (much needed for that warm, San Diego sun). 

See you in sunny San Diego –

–Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)