24 hours of customer service fails

Note: This article first appeared on TheCustomer.net and is re-published here with permission.

Last week, I experienced four customer service fails in less than 24 hours. What was interesting was that none of them were human error – and every rep that I interacted with seemed friendly, (somewhat) empathetic, and professional. Instead, it was clear that each case involved a process and system breakdown – clearly none of which were installed with the customer in mind.

My day started with a call to Ikea. I had just taken a couch out of storage and put it together the night before. Unlike when you usually build Ikea furniture and have pieces left over, I was missing the feet. These are seven plastic cones that screw directly into the couch. I looked up the items on Ikea’s website but you can’t buy them online. So, I called the call center and spoke to a service rep. I told them that I had misplaced them and inquired whether it was possible to purchase new ones. Bizarrely, Ikea wouldn’t sell them to me because I didn’t have my original order number from when the couch was purchased. I asked if I could go to the store or whether there was another way to get them, but there was no way for the rep to override the system, and it left me out of luck.

Next up, I called Varo Bank. Varo is one of the fast growing “fintech” banks that are supposedly different from traditional banks – it’s digital-first, there are cool features that you don’t find at traditional banks, and everything is supposed to “just work.” Until it doesn’t. I had sent a check to someone via their app – a neat feature that negates the need for a checkbook. Although it would be even better if the check arrived in the 3-9 days that the bank promised. I called the bank to figure out when I could let the recipient know it would arrive – the money had already been removed from my account.

It started with trying to navigate an IVR that didn’t have any prompts that remotely met my needs. There was also no way to go back in the IVR menu, so I kept hanging up and starting again. Eventually, I picked the closest prompt I could find, and was told that my wait time would be more than 60 minutes. There was no opportunity for a call back. And, they were right – after an hour and twenty-three minutes somebody answered the phone. I explained my issue, and the rep told me that she wasn’t the right person – she worked for Varo Money and not Varo Bank, and she put me on hold to transfer me to someone. else. After another 15 minutes on hold, I had to hang up for a work call. I sent an email to see if I could get the question answered and was told that I would get a response in 4-5 days. So, the next day I tried again. After being told once again that my wait time would be more than an hour, I sat on hold for two hours and eight minutes. This time I got someone from Varo Bank who told me that the check should arrive in the next two days. After almost three hours of hold time, I received an answer in less than 2 minutes – although I’m still waiting to see if the check gets there as promised.

That afternoon – since obviously I hadn’t had enough punishment or enough of frustrating financial institution experiences – I ran out to do some errands. I had been sent a check for a speech that I had given, and even though it was issued in US dollars, the issuing bank was in Canada so I couldn’t use the phone app to deposit the check. So, I went to a CapitalOne branch where a very nice teller explained that it would take up to 14 days to clear, and gave me a photocopy of my check in case I needed to prove that it had been deposited, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

And, then I went to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up a BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) order that my wife had ordered earlier that day. I arrived about 20 minutes after the recommended pick-up time, but the item wasn’t ready so I went into the store to inquire. A really helpful young store associate earnestly set off to investigate. After about 15 minutes, he came back to say he was still working on it, but that they had a lot of orders. I wasn’t the only person standing there waiting for their BOPIS order. After another 10 minutes, he came back with the manager and two alternative products in his hands that I could pick from as they didn’t have the item my wife had ordered – and paid for – online. It took them another 10 minutes to figure out the refund and charge for the product that I was then going to purchase instead. To rub salt in the wound, the very next day I received a generic coupon in the mail for 20% off any purchase at BB&B —addressed to me or the household — despite the fact that my wife is a Beyond+ member who gets 20% off every purchase.

As I mentioned, all of the people that tried to help me were very professional and seemed to want to help. Unfortunately, they were hamstrung by their employers’ systems and policies.

Entitled customers don’t want to wait two weeks for an international check to clear when they can send money around the world in seconds – and are even less inclined when the check is issued in the local currency. They also won’t accept a company’s absurd policies – I went elsewhere to get feet for my couch and Ikea lost the potential for that (minor) sale and the possible loss of future sales, since I’ll be less inclined to shop there in the future. And, entitled consumers who measure every company’s experience against the best experiences that they receive elsewhere now consider failures of supply chain to be failures of experience. Companies are left with nowhere to hide – it’s too easy for us as consumers to see through the system, policy, and process failures, and to take our business elsewhere.

Being a US health insurance customer sucks. Does it have to be this bad?

I have a sick kid. Thankfully it’s not life-threatening, but for the past three-and-a-half years he has been battling an often debilitating neuropsychiatric auto-immune disorder that has severely impacted his education and social life. It has also taken six-figure chunks out of our bank account every year in out-of-pocket medical expenses that insurance companies don’t cover. I share this not for sympathy but for context.

Several months ago, my son’s neurologist recommended a new treatment regimen to add to his current protocol. It’s an antibody therapy that is most often used in combination with chemotherapy to treat cancer patients, but is also used to treat certain autoimmune diseases and the neurologist has had success incorporating it into treatment for my son’s condition. The doctor’s office applied to our health insurer for pre-authorization and we were denied.

We had expected to be denied on the first request and tried to submit an appeal. For the past three months, both the doctor’s office and my wife have called the insurance company multiple times a week, navigating their IVR, and, since no human ever answered the phone, leaving messages indicating that we wished to start an appeal. Finally, last week, we got a service rep on the phone. To make an incredibly frustrating story as short as I can, because we hadn’t previously been able to speak to someone, and, therefore, hadn’t submitted the appeal within two weeks of being denied, we have to start the process all over again. We know it will be denied on what will be a new first appeal, and we have no idea whether we’ll be able to get through to a human being to initiate an appeal within two weeks of that denial.

It’s just one anecdote, but it encapsulates so much of my experience as a health insurance customer. Ultimately, Health insurers suck at CX (customer experience). If I tried to be charitable, I’d say that’s somewhat understandable. Because insurance firms have traditionally sold to, and through, employers, they have never really had to care about member expectations, feelings, or market competition.

But, that’s changing. As consumers’ expectations rise (after all, we are all increasingly entitled) we push back when we don’t get the convenience and value that we get from brands in other sectors. I believe a reckoning is coming for insurance companies and healthcare providers that fail to focus on member experience.

Whether you call them consumers, patients, or members, customers are becoming aware of – or forced into – alternatives to employer-based programs even if they haven’t actually considered switching. Meanwhile regulatory changes have made the market more competitive and the landscape is rapidly changing as new technology-driven providers emerge and non-traditional behemoths (like Amazon, Walmart, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan) consider how they can play a role.

Consumers don’t care about why firms are not delivering on their expectations, they just have higher expectations for service and the reason for brand failure be damned.

Providers and insurers should be scrambling to get their heads around how to manage direct relationships and deliver experiences that at least come closer to meeting consumer expectations. Of course, like most other brands on the planet, they’ll have to deal with the fact that their customer-facing functions are designed to meet performance metrics that have little to do with one another and are often mutually exclusive.

I don’t believe that my insurance company is worse than any other. I don’t think that any of them have stopped to think about what the member actually expects from their relationship. And, I don’t claim to have all the answers.

Although not related to this experience, it’s a timely anecdote. Our team at Atlaas is kicking off research with consumers, insurers, healthcare providers, and experts to get a better understanding of what consumers expect from insurers and providers, the challenges these firms face in delivering excellent (or slightly positive) CX, and seek to recommend and predict how healthcare institutions will adapt in the future. Do you have a perspective? We’d love to hear from you!

Note: This article originally appeared on TheCustomer.net and is posted here with permission.

What causes hostility towards brands?

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When my former colleage Augie Ray posted recently that he has “given up on Amazon until they become a better employer and corporate citizen” it set me thinking. I realized something about how I patronize different brands. When I favor a brand, it’s often due to aligned values — I’m willing to spend more at Patagonia, for example, than at many of their competitors. Yes, they produce a quality product, but I also respect, and am willing to compensate them, for their principles.

I once commented that some companies seem to engage in “concerted acts of hostility” rather than “random acts of kindness.” And, unlike Augie’s principled stand against Amazon, I realized that when I have blacklisted brands, it’s almost always due to negative customer experience – or concerted act of hostility. There are companies that I refuse to patronize. For example:

  • I once rented a car from Hertz to drive to Miami airport. When I missed my flight, I ended up driving back home. I went back to Hertz, was given the same car, which hadn’t even been cleaned yet, and they charged me for two one-way rentals (which was significantly higher than returning it to the same rental center, even though I ultimately did).
  • Avis isn’t any better. They recently charged me for an extra day when returning a car that was 20 minutes late. They failed to take into consideration the fact that I received it late — waiting in line for more than an hour to pick it up — two days previously.
  • Uber has pissed me off in so many ways, but the final straw was when I ordered from UberEats when my son was in hospital. The driver drove in the opposite direction for 20 minutes to deliver a different order, and took more than an hour to actually get our food to us. When I spoke to customer service, initially they hung up on me. When I dialled back, they denied that he dropped off another order, finally admitted that he did, and then told me that our food was delivered within their permitted window. The food was cold and congealed. The customer service was just cold.
  • I live two doors away from a hotel in Palm Beach – The Tideline. It has a beautiful outdoor patio which we should love to frequent. We used to go their occasionally for breakfast or lunch, but the service is so bad that it was hard to keep going back. The final straw was when my son and I were sitting at the Sushi bar eating dinner, and were informed that we wouldn’t be able to order for 45 minutes because they had just received a large order. This had happened to my wife and I previously (although not in the middle of our meal). Beause it had happened before, and we had previously been told the cause, I asked them if it was because the owner had put in the order. And, they confirmed it. So, the billionaire owner of the hotel would rather interrupt a patron’s dinner so that he can be served. I’m not spending any more of my money at his establishment.
  • I once drove more than an hour for an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. After waiting another hour to be seen, I was told that the doctor I was waiting to see was not an ENT specialist – which is why I had set up the appointment to see him. The RN was pleasant about it, but we canceled the appointment. I pointed out to the receptionist what had happened, and she didn’t seem to care. Nobody ever followed up with me either to apologize or to schedule with an actual ENT specialist.

To complicate matters, I do know that my expectations are higher for the Cleveland Clinic than for other hospitals. This is mainly due to having heard from their executives while I was at Forrester, about how much emphasis they place on customer experience. When they failed to meet basic courtesy, yet claim to value CX, I gave up on them.

I had a similarly nuanced experience with JetBlue. I used to hold them to a higher standard due to the experiences that I had enjoyed. When they let me down, badly, on a subsequent occassion, I stopped flying them for a while. Then, when I began to fly with them again, I changed how I thought about them. I now think of them as just another uncaring airline. They’re no worse than the others, but I no longer think of them as better. And, then there’s brands like Comcast, that I’d love to avoid, but I live in a condo which has a monopolistic relationship with the company. I live with them, but loath them.

I don’t have the answers on this one, but I’m intrigued to explore further. Do shared values lead to higher loyalty, while negative experiences lead to hostility? Certainly for me, that’s the case, but what’s your experience?

 

Customer feedback: do you really want to know about my experience?

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Companies try all sorts of ways to get customer feedback. You see those emoji button stands as you exit airline security. Every fleet truck I get stuck behind seems to be emblazened with a “How’s my driving?” sticker.  And, last week I took my first ride on Florida’s new express train, the Brightline. On the multiple screens laid out in each train car, the messages alternated between ads, service information, and one message that encouraged passengers to “share your experience!” providing a hashtag for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. OK, Brightline, since you asked, here was my experience:

  • I was supposed to get a $10 coupon for registering. I never received it. When I explained that to the lady at the ticket counter, she took down my name, email, and phone number, but a week later, I haven’t heard anything from anyone. And, she was pretty rude and patronizing.
  • I tried purchasing tickets on my home computer, on my mobile browser, on the app, and at the kiosk in the station. None worked. The rude, patronizing lady succeeded in booking us on the train. By the time we got upstairs to board the train, we were, late for it. Our tickets didn’t work at the turnstyle. A very nice security officer got us through the gates and radioed ahead to hold the train for us.
  • Although our train car only had about 15 people in it, my son and I were given seats that were four rows apart. There was nobody else at the table which I was allocated, nobody in the seat beside him, and nobody in the 6 seats between us. There was also no way to change our seats in the app, so we just both sat at my table, and nobody questioned us.
  • On our return journey two days later, we booked the “Select” service, which Brightline bills as its “first class service”. This time the app did work to buy tickets (but still no coupon). Thanks to a collosally incompetent Lyft driver we missed the train we had booked. Brightline staff kindly and efficiently booked us on the next train — which was an hour later. We went to the Select lounge, where our advertised “enhanced experience” was supposed to include “an ever-changing lineup of enticing bites throughout the day and evening.” Neither my son nor I had eaten dinner (thanks Lyft driver!) and when we got to the lounge, all of the food was gone. Despite advertising “champagne, premium wines and beers, handcrafted cocktails, juices and soft drinks,” a lounge employee was removing everything except the beer, juice, and soft drinks. When I asked about food, I was told that food was only served until 9 o’clock. We got to the lounge at about 9:04. But, nowhere in Brightline’s ads or promotional literature does it say that food was only served until 9pm. And then, the lounge employee was about as rude and patronizing as her colleage from two days ago. I bought food for my son at Brighline’s over priced cafe — although the only reason we had booked “Select” was because we hadn’t eaten. Finally, a very kind employee at the cafe responded very appropriately to our story and put together a plate of cheese and cold-cuts for us.
  • I bumped into a manager and explained our plight. She was rude and patronizing. Maybe she trained the other two employees.
  • The WiFi wasn’t fast enough for my son to play Fortnite. That was a negative for him and a positive for me.

In Brightline’s defense, it is relatively new. But it’s not that new. The West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale segment opened in January, and they extended to Miami in May. I’d have thought they’d have worked out the kinks by now. My wife had taken it the week prior to my son’s and my trip and she loved it. Maybe that led to a hightened expectation on my end. And, some elements worked great. Melba, the cafe member in Miami that put together the charcuterie plate for us was a sweetheart. The security staff in both the Miami and West Palm stations were efficient, showed empathy, and frankly displayed better customer service than most of the service staff. And, the on board experience is clean, efficient, and pleasant.

But, I came away underwhelmed and disappointed. I’ll give Brightline another go — it’s not like driving to Miami is fun! But, Brightline, I offered my feedback to your employees and to one of your managers, and for the most part they were rude and patronizing. Since you asked for feedback on social media too, I’m happy to share it there. But there’s a lesson for companies to reconsider how they treat feedback — when you get it directly, in particular. If you genuinely want feedback, you might want to invest in some employee training and introduce some processes to capture the feedback and evolve your experience. If it was just an excuse to display your hashtag, I messed that one up for you. Sorry.

What’s your whining channel of choice?

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 9.33.58 AMI was listening to a podcast this morning when the interviewee mentioned that his twitter account had just been verified. If you didn’t know, Twitter verifies “accounts of public interest” so that the public can know that each is an authentic account. The interviewer, who already has a verified account, quipped that the best thing about that was that the interviewee’s complaints would now be dealt with more quickly by companies.

I laughed, and then I realized the inherent message. Some communications channels are better than others for whining. And, I know I’m guilty too. I’ve shouted into the Twitter ether (tweether?) at Comcast, US Airways (now part of American), Avis, ProFlowers, Starwood Hotels, JetBlue, and countless others.

For sure, there’s something cathartic about firing off a tweet in the moment to bitch about some shoddy service or deplorable experience. But, there’s more to it than that. Generally, you’re far more likely to get a response via Twitter than calling a service center (many of which have caused the present consternation in the first place). The social teams at most brands are really quick to respond to questions and complaints on Twitter. Of course, it helps that they know that your followers, and their followers will see your tweet and their response.

Few social teams are empowered to resolve your concern, although I have had some success with teams helping route me to the right people to resolve an issue. But, the cynic in me would say that a major part of their role is to remove the conversation from the public view, and prevent the negative story from gaining traction.

Let me take the example of ProFlowers. In May, my wife received flowers from a friend which were dry and shrivelled when they arrived. My wife called the customer service team who sent a new bouquet. This happened three times. By now, they were sending free vases and had refunded my wife’s friend. I took to twitter after the third screw-up, and the ProFlowers team responded within 15 minutes. They were apologetic, and gave me an email address that I was expected to contact to come to a resolution. Since, I didn’t expect anything to change, I didn’t email them. But, they succeeded in making it look like they were concerned and responsive. However, I will never buy anything from ProFlowers. I will never recommend ProFlowers. I will be an active brand assassin every time I tell this story.

What ProFlowers, and most other companies, fail to realize is although they quashed the public conversation, they didn’t resolve my issue. They never followed up. They lost my trust. They showed that they are not consumer-first. And, they’ve earned a brand assassin as a result. It’s not enough to deal with and try to limit or hide the whining. Understand the customer’s real concern, and do everything you can to make it right. That’s consumer-first. And, it’s critical when seeking to engage and build relationships with entitled consumers.

Why do brands so offend to make offense a skill?

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16th-century imaginary painting of Henry IV, National Portrait Gallery, London

In Ireland, secondary school students take two national exams when we are about 15 and 18 years old. The Junior Certificate helps determine where students will track for their Leaving Certificate, which then determines entry for college programs. They both take place during a three-ish week period in early June, and I don’t think I’ve ever studied more intensely than preparing for those exams.

Maybe that’s why I remember random German phrases, obscure mountain ranges in Eastern Europe, and snippets of poetry as Gaeilge.

This weekend, a famous speech from Henry IV, Part I (which I studied for my Intermediate Certificate, as the Junior Cert used to be known) came to mind in relation to a phenomena Nick and I call the “transference of entitlement.” We use this phrase to describe the effect of experiences we have with one company that set expectations for other companies. We usually think of it as a steady build-up of expectation rather than something triggered by a specific event. The reason Prince Henry’s soliloquy came to mind though was the result of back-to-back experiences that I had with car rental companies that couldn’t have been more different, and “like bright metal on a sullen ground” one of the experiences glittered, while the other offended.

Budget/Avis – the company that used to ‘try harder’ – offended. When picking up a car last Thursday in Boston to go visit our daughter, we stood in line for an hour and a half to get to the counter to pick up the car we had ordered (I know, I could have skipped the line if I joined the loyalty program). When we got to the counter, the agent didn’t apologize, or even reference the time we had spent in line. He was surly and just acted like he didn’t want to be there. Then, when we dropped the car off on Sunday we were about an hour later than we had scheduled. By the time they checked us in, they registered us as an hour and a quarter late (yes, there was a long line again). And, as a result, they charged us an extra $95. I was so incensed, but had the good sense to let my wife discuss it with them. I don’t think I would have been particularly diplomatic. My wife handled it very well, and ultimately they removed the charge. But, we were left with a bitter feeling towards the brand.

We went from the Avis return counter to the Alamo counter to get a new car to drive to New York to visit my wife’s family. The lady checking us in couldn’t have been more pleasant. When I questioned the price she quoted versus what we had been quoted online, she seemed genuinely concerned, and when it turned out she had been right and I was wrong, she remained pleasant and gracious. Returning the car in Manhattan was a smooth process where all of the employees were friendly and responsive. I left with a significantly enhanced impression of the Alamo brand, and it even restored a bit of my faith rental car companies.

Maybe if I hadn’t had the Budget/Avis experience, the Alamo experience would have been unremarkable. But, coming so quickly in succession, the positive Alamo experience seemed to “show more goodly and attract more eyes; Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

I’ll stop torturing the analogy, but suffice to say that your customers’ perceptions of your brand experience is influenced not only by what you do, and not only what your competitors do, but by what every company does. The transference of entitlement is driven by our experiences with every brand – good and bad. When those experiences come in close proximity, the benefit or harm is only accentuated.