T-Mobile Can’t Even Meet Their Own Expectations

This article first appeared in TheCustomer. In the couple of days since it published, I’ve received lots of feedback that it struck a nerve. T-Mobile is not the only company that fails to live up to a customer’s expectation – most brands fail at some point. What seems to have registered is that T-Mobile raised the stakes, but then failed to live up to the expectations they had raised.

I was a T-Mobile customer for more than ten years. I was also a huge brand advocate. I lauded their “un-carrier” strategy on keynote stages around the world. We reached out to John Legere, T-Mobile’s very vocal CEO, for an interview when writing “Marketing to the Entitled Consumer” and quoted him in our book. As they rolled out their un-carrier strategy, I loved that T-Mobile didn’t charge me for data when I travelled overseas. I was fascinated by how they led the mobile industry in eliminating early termination fees and introduced innovative approaches to ensuring that streaming for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others wouldn’t eat into to your data plan. So, it might be surprising to hear that even though T-Mobile still offers all of these benefits, I recently switched providers.

What was it that was so egregious that turned a brand ambassador into a lapsed customer? They simply stopped living up to my expectations. I’ve written before in these pages about the “transference of entitlement” – the idea that consumers’ expectations continuously rise based on their positive experiences. T-Mobile failed to keep pace with the expectations that they themselves had set.

I paid for an unlimited data plan for our entire family. Yet, on more than one occasion they slowed my data down to such a low pace that it rendered it useless. On the second occasion, I had used a couple of megabytes of data more than they included in their unlimited plan. I had less than 36 hours before my data clock would be reset for the next month, but T-Mobile wanted to charge me $15 to provide access to faster data. Across our family plan, we still had hundreds of gigabytes of unused data, but, the way T-Mobile saw it, they were on someone else’s plan.

Across our family plan, we still had hundreds of gigabytes of unused data, but, the way T-Mobile saw it, they were on someone else’s plan.

I probably would have continued to put up with this level of service until I filled in a customer satisfaction questionnaire. I was honest in my feedback. I heard nothing. In my mind, the un-carrier had become just another carrier. So, when Apple released its most recent stable of phones, and all of the carriers rolled out their offers to try to attract new customers, I surveyed the market and switched providers.

Despite spending thousands of dollars a year for more than a decade, nobody made any attempt to understand why I left or whether they could get me back. Which simply confirmed to me that I had made the right choice. T-Mobile was no longer capable of meeting my expectations — ones that they had helped to set — and so I took my business elsewhere.

Why do companies struggle to meet customer expectations? Most of the time, it’s because they make no real effort to understand them. Executives and marketing teams focus on which customers to target with an offer, rather than understanding their customers’ attitudes and values and aligning to meet — or exceed — them. Once upon a time, T-Mobile was a company that I pointed to as an example of a firm doing it right. Now, they can’t even meet their own expectations.

Dave Frankland is co-author of Marketing to the Entitled Consumer. Dave helps brands turn unreasonable consumer expectations into lasting relationships. As a Principal at Atlaas and MD at Winterberry Group, he has helped hundreds of companies to develop business, customer, and organizational strategies. In previous roles, he served as Chief Strategy officer of Selligent Marketing Cloud, co-founded and led Forrester’s Customer Intelligence research practice, and has held various strategy and communication roles at brands and agencies.

Good customer support can instill loyalty

apple support

Although I own a lot of Apple products, I don’t consider myself a fan-boy. If anything, I’m constantly on the edge of giving up. Every time my Apple products don’t work the way they’re supposed to (isn’t ease-of-use a big part of the promise?) I start thinking about giving the Pixel phone a go or trying to work with a Surface or chromebook.

Usually, inertia takes over. I realize the effort it would take to manage and migrate my photos and music, and there’s the need to re-learn which way to scroll and which corner to click to minimize a window. None of it is insurmountable, but the magnetism of the new just isn’t strong enough to overcome the habits of the present (with a hat tip to Jobs to be Done research for this description).

But then I had a great customer support experience that guarantees my loyalty for the foreseeable future and raises the bar for the support team of every other company that I ever interact with. Without boring you with the technical challenge, I contacted Apple’s customer support team and, after some time, my case was escalated to a manager. As well as regular troubleshooting, at a couple of stages I had to send logs for him to forward to engineers.

When we first spoke, he told me that he would remain on my case until it was resolved. It took several days, but he was true to his word. What shocked me was his communication and tenacity. He told me exactly which days he was working and when he would follow up. He arranged specific times to call me and then called me at those times. He explained as much technical detail as I wished to know – and didn’t overwhelm or bore me with the rest. In short, he owned my case. He wouldn’t let go until it was resolved and I was satisfied.

My expecations of every company’s support are now so much higher, and my appreciation for Apple has pushed thoughts of Google, Microsoft, or Samsung to the very back of my mind.

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.