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.

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.

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?

689px-King_Henry_IV_from_NPG_(2)

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.