Learning from experience

In the telecom business, the number-one customer dissatisfier is typically any experience that requires problem-solving. This can range from repairs to billing issues, and is an industry-wide phenomenon. One provider is just as likely to mess up on this as any other.

In the telecom business, the number-one customer dissatisfier is typically any experience that requires problem-solving. This can range from repairs to billing issues, and is an industry-wide phenomenon. One provider is just as likely to mess up on this as any other.

Here is an example. My family and I have enjoyed landline phone service without a break for almost 30 years. But one day this summer it just stopped, along with our high-speed ADSL.

It took three days for a technician to arrive. He spent three hours climbing up and down the wooden pole in our backyard. Up the pole was the box through which all of our communications are routed. It is a small, rusty metal container with a liner of porcelain insulation that you see in the wiring of old houses. I thought: good god, our data’s coming on a can and a string!

The technician said he would have it fixed that afternoon. I didn’t notice him leave. Later I looked up at the pole. Same box. I picked up the phone. No signal.

Over the next week and a half we made a series of increasingly desperate calls to the customer care department, each requiring a re-telling of the story, because the representative was different every time, and in a different part of Canada, if not a different country. It became clear after four calls that there was little continuity, and that reports filed by technicians did not match what they told us on site. And we had to make another 12 such calls before the ordeal was over.

Five technicians tried to help, and on the 14th day, the sixth figured it out. He was a seasoned field operator who admitted that the previous five technicians had botched things so badly that he had to re-do everything. The company in this instance was Bell, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it could have been Rogers or Telus.

If you look at brand experience as a three-stage process consisting of perception, interaction and recollection, Bell created a positive perception with the promise of ‘Making it Simple,’ then reversed that perception with a series of complicated interactions, leaving the customer (me) with recollections of anger, frustration and helplessness.

I applaud the boldness of Bell’s promise. Who wouldn’t like telecom to be simpler? But it’s a tall order, and one that they should look at changing, qualifying or ensuring better delivery on. Fulfilling this brand promise involves customer care, engineering, network operations, human resources, procurement, IT and supply chain management – not just marketing.

But what can the marketing department do about that? A great deal, I think. As the keeper of customer data and insights, marketing has the authority to identify operational deficiencies (supplier subcontracting, inconsistent reporting) that stand in the way of delivering the brand promise. In fact marketing would see a better return on investment if these operational issues were addressed. Imagine the marketing budget required to get to the words ‘Making it Simple.’ Now imagine the financial loss incurred every time that promise is broken – by another department.

Then there’s shareholder versus customer focus. CEO Michael Sabia would do well to heed Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese strategist who said that, if you take care of your customers first, your shareholders will follow.

I don’t know if Darren Entwistle has read Ohmae, but Telus understands that if you make a promise, you must keep it, so it doesn’t promise what it can’t deliver. It does promise to credit your account for dropped calls, to answer every customer care call within 20 seconds, and to give its wireless customers a new phone every three years.

These don’t sound like much, but the mere act of making a promise that can be fulfilled is a refreshing change. It gives Telus some targets to hit, and if it hits them, some successes it can build on. It then becomes a proof point for ‘The Future is Friendly,’ which until now has been reflected in the brand’s image more than in its behaviour.

Given the size and complexity of telecom operations, delivering a customer experience that keeps the brand promise is a daunting task. But customers don’t care about that, so don’t tell them you can when you can’t.

Will Novosedlik is partner at Toronto-based Chemistry, which links brand strategy to communication, organizational performance and customer experience. He can be reached at will@chemistrycorp.com.