The customer is always at least a little bit right

As a marketing consultant who manages campaigns and works with support teams when there are problems, I encounter customer “touch points” nearly every day. I try to think about how the customer will feel in a given situation and provide the flexibility to meet their needs and desires while staying within business and technical constraints.

In a world that’s largely dominated by social media, I realize that you can’t always give the customer what he wants. If you do, the customer may post about it publicly to Facebook, Twitter, and public forums, and you’ll be quickly deluged with people demanding the same.

On the other hand, if you treat the customer like she doesn’t matter, she will become bitter or angry, and you may lose her.

Here are three personal experiences that I had this past week that illustrate the point that sometimes the customer is generally at least partly right.

On impulse, I decided to purchase a new cable modem that was on sale at Costco and was being marketed as compatible my Comcast Internet service. If you don’t know, Comcast charges you $7 a month to rent a cable modem from them. That modem retails for, at most, around $200. So after a year and half, you’ve likely paid it off – but Comcast keeps charging you ad infinitum. Even with predatory rent-to-own stores, you’ll someday get to own the item you agree to pay high interest on. But not so with Comcast modems.

I called Comcast to activate the new modem and the uncharacteristically friendly tech support rep told me that the model I had bought would not work with my telephone service (part of their “Triple Play” package that supposedly saves you money by bundling cable TV, Internet, and phone service). She steered me toward two modems she promised would work with our phone and Internet services, and I went to Amazon and ordered one from a third-party seller who also stated the modem would work with Comcast. As expected, Costco accepted the return of the first modem without question (they are a company that really understands the value of good customer service), so it was only a matter of waiting a few more days for the “right” modem.

The day the modem arrived, I tried to reclaim access to my Linksys router – but that’s another story (see below). Once I had the router squared away, I called Comcast tech support back.

You’ve probably heard the horror stories about Comcast support, or perhaps you’ve lived them. We’ve never had any real issues with their service apart from the high cost and what seemed to be the occasional throttling of streaming video (back before Netflix paid them off for preferred traffic priority).

The Amazon seller warned me in an email that arrived the day before the modem that Comcast might try to tell me that the modem wasn’t supported and, if that happened, I should keep calling back until I reached a tech who could activate it. “Many customers have been told that the modem is not compatible in their system, or that it has already been activated under somebody else account. Neither are true,” stated the mail. “If they tell you can’t use the modem for any reason, just hang up and call back. They of course just want you to continue leasing their modems. Each Comcast system is a little different, and some techs of course are better than others.”

My first tech support rep told me to go ahead and plug in the new modem and connect all of the cables, and it’s a good thing she did. Over the next 30 minutes I went through two techs and two escalations, and both times they told me that the modem just wasn’t supported and could not be activated in the system. The first rep told me that it was a first-party modem that only Comcast was permitted to provide, and she all but implied that I had purchase stolen goods. The second tech said it had once been a supported model but was recently dropped from the list of modems they could activate.

Either way, it seemed, I was screwed.

Back when the Costco modem failed to work, I briefly considered cancelling our phone service so that it would work and we’d get an instant Internet speed boost – but the solution suggested by Comcast seemed better, for now at least. While sitting on the phone with these tech support people, feeling blocked on my second modem in a week, the urge to cancel the phone service returned stronger than ever.

I could return the modem to the Amazon seller and buy the Costco one again. I’d move our home phone service to a local provider who might even be cheaper or at least easier to work with. I wasn’t ready to cancel Comcast altogether but I did consider that briefly as well. Where we would we go to get both expansive TV offerings and high-speed Internet? Back to DirecTV? Unlikely but it might be worth a look.

When I hung up with the second tech, it was feeling futile. I disconnected the new modem and then… looked over at my computer. On the screen was a Comcast page saying they had detected new hardware and would I like to activate it? I quickly plugged the new modem back in, waited a few minutes for all of the lights to stop blinking wildly, and then clicked the button to provision the new modem. 15 minutes later it was done and I was connected to the Internet with substantially faster service.

I laughed out loud about the fact that while a tech was insisting that what I expected from them was impossible, their own network went ahead and authorized it. Clearly the modem is supported, but the tools the techs use to provision modems appear to be constrained to a very small list of specific models.

Here’s where Comcast could do better:

  • Offer to replace your modem every 2-3 years. Comcast begins turning a profit on the modem rental about midway through the second year. Sending you a faster, better model every few years provides value for renting vs. owning. It would be similar to leasing a car and trading it in every few years for a shiny new one.
  • Offer rent to own. After two years (once you’ve covered the cost of the modem and a reasonable amount of financing), the modem would be yours to keep and the monthly charge falls off your bill. Just the sight of seeing a cable bill go down instead of up could earn some customer loyalty points! I’d even go as far as to build a marketing campaign around this – “Why did my bill just go down?” – that explains what happened and offers the customer the opportunity to trade up for a new, faster modem.
  • Allow customer support more leeway to activate modems. The cost of repeated support calls and customer frustration doesn’t earn Comcast anything but ill will. If nothing else, let the customer support rep explain the possibility of auto-provisioning, even if it may not work in every case. It certainly did in mine, and I’d bet it works consistently enough to build a customer service script for it.

Before I tried to activate the Comcast modem, I decided I better get my router in order. Without a working router, most of the computers and devices in our home office would be stranded without Internet.

My 2-3 year-old “Cisco” model (which, I learned, Cisco no longer supports since it divorced Linksys) was showing its age. WiFi connections on our many portable devices frequently get dropped and, generally speaking, a new router every few years is a good idea to further boost Internet speeds. I had been planning to replace it in the next 1-3 months anyway, but for now I just wanted to login to my existing router just in case it needed to be reconfigured to work with the new modem.

Nothing worked. I tried connecting via the Web page I’d bookmarked but couldn’t find the password I had set to get in. It appeared to need new firmware but I couldn’t update it without logging in first. The software that I had previously installed to connect to the router no longer would, and the newer version I downloaded from Linksys’ site also seemed unable to see the router. Yet my Internet connection going through it was fine.

After a couple of hours wrestling with support FAQs, I finally did a factory reset – which should have let me start over as though it were a new router. Alas, that didn’t work either and doing so killed my Internet access entirely.

Cisco sent me to Linksys, which recently did away with chat room support (which would have been great for this sort of issue). I called phone support and the Linksys rep offered to do a “hard reset” remotely but only if I paid $30 for an out-of-warranty incident fee.

I can understand that Linksys can’t afford to support their products indefinitely for free. But from my point of view, they were charging me to overcome their mistake. A factory reset should have fixed, not bricked my router. Their software completely failed to connect with it. They were demanding to charge me to overcome a problem with their own shoddy software.

At first I acquiesced and started to provide my credit card. But when they said they would need to transfer me to another department to enter my card number, I balked. Go away and then restart the process with another support rep, $30 lighter? No thanks. By then I had realized I could throw good money after bad, or I could invest the $30 into the new router I had been scoping out. I ran to Best Buy and picked up a Netgear router that is much faster and (so far) more reliable.

Linksys might have preserved my business if they:

  • Waived the $30 incident fee. When the support rep realized I was agitated at what I perceived to be their failing in offering any sort of fix-it-yourself path, they should have offered to do the hard reset for free “just this once.” I’m a savvy router user, and this is the first time I’ve been locked out of a networking product with no way to get back in. I felt like they had me over a barrel, and the only solution was to pay or ditch the barrel.
  • Offered to sell me a replacement model. Clearly I’d be happier with another router that is in the same category, only newer and faster. Rather than throw good money after bad with the old router, I could throw that good money their way – but with a benefit for both of us. They could quickly match me up with a comparable router or two, and offer a small token “loyalty” discount. The only problem there is that I needed a working router that day. They could email me a manufacturer’s coupon I could take to Best Buy or Fry’s, or offer to overnight me the router if I was willing to wait a day. Or, better yet, offer to help me fix my existing router for free while I waited for the new one sent at normal shipping speed.

Instead, Linksys is now the last on my list of router makers I will consider when it’s time to upgrade again.

National Geographic
This one is unrelated but it played out just as I was writing this, and I found it fascinating. National Geographic is one of those brands that I considered unimpeachable. They resonate in my mind with words like “quality,” “caring,” “environmentally conscious,” and “authoritative.”

No more. That image has been tarnished, perhaps irrevocably.

About a month ago, I received an odd call from Nat Geo. They wanted to send my son his free gifts for being a subscriber (I vaguely remember seeing similar gift offers for magazines, but I didn’t sign him up for this one). They just needed to confirm the mailing address was still accurate.

A red flag went up: They send us a magazine every month. Surely they’d just send the gifts to the same address, right? But they already had my address on file and it was correct, so I confirmed it. Then they wanted to confirm that it was all right to send the two gifts: a map and an educational DVD. The customer support lady assured me that we were not being signed up to receive any further DVDs, and that this was not a club enrollment. If we liked the DVD we could sign up to get more. With warning lights and alarms buzzing in my head, I grudgingly went ahead and gave approval to get the bonus items.

Last week, the package arrived. There was a map, a DVD, and a bill for $14! I called Nat Geo support and told them the story. They quickly canceled my club membership, and urged me to keep the map and donate the DVD to a school. (My son tells me that his 6th grade science class had just watched that same video, so I’m guessing that a neighbor went through a similar ordeal before us.) The support guy went as far as to try to sell me another plan that was less frequent and then a specific individual DVD while he had me on the phone.

The first call alone shook my trust of National Geographic. I could tell something was fishy. I don’t know if this was a “rogue” telemarketer trying a Tin Men-esque scheme to improve her monthly sales numbers or a manager’s scripted idea designed to boost sell-through by increasing the subscription base under false pretenses and then having support reps quickly apologize to those who complain.

Considering the quick apology and ready-made process to resolve (along with the attempt to get me to keep the subscription while making it less frequent), I suspect it’s all been carefully scripted and choreographed.

Either way, my trust in Nat Geo is gone. I will cancel our subscription the second my son stops reading the magazine.

What Nat Geo should have done:

  • Call it what it is. You’re signing up for a DVD club with a free map offer. Most people will decline but those who accept will have done so based on your product’s perceived value and not because they were duped.
  • Make it trial. First taste is free, cancel anytime. We’re used to this sort of arrangement and inclined to block it unless it’s something we consider truly valuable, so this would only get middling results. But they would be honest results.
  • Make it a real gift. First taste is not just free, it’s a reward. If you like that reward and want more of the same, include an offer to sell both individual titles and, for a small but notable savings, get DVDs sent to you monthly or quarterly via the club.

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is a good way to validate whether your marketing campaigns and customer support processes reward or unnecessarily punish those who purchase or subscribe to your offerings. I recommend you think of ways to at least reduce the sting of your policies particularly in places where the customer is likely to arrive upset or agitated.

Or reap the whirlwind when the customer leaves and badmouths you on social media. Because no matter what you might think, the customer is always right – at least in his mind.

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