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.