Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Living the Customer Service Nightmare...and using the BBB for help!

When we moved into our new house last spring, I started taking note of how well certain companies were treating us with their customer service, and how poorly others were. I thought I would write a Blog article about it, though would wait until all the customer service issues were "resolved" until I wrote it. Big mistake.

It's taken many months to resolve some basic issues, and only after using the Better Business Bureau's assistance to finally resolve some of them. Rather than list them all, I thought I'd highlight a few of them, as I think entrepreneurs should realize that most prosumers are only really loyal to businesses that provide excellent customer service, and excellent customer service is very easy to provide (though sadly, bad customer service is even easier, which is why it's the norm).

I've been in and out of the call center and customer service business for over 14 years, and I think that so many companies today view customer service as a pure cost center and necessary evil rather than an opportunity to solidify relationships with their best customers. I've seen some amazingly good and some amazingly bad call and service center operations, and I've always thought that they provide a good reflection of what the CEO really thinks of his or her customers at the end of the day. Still, there is nothing quite like personal experience as a customer to bring home the happy surprises that make you loyal, and the horror stories that make you gasp. Here are a few Gold Stars and Black Onions of mine:

Black Onion: Protection One. I was a loyal customer of Protection One for seven years at our old house. Read that sentence again. I called to cancel our service in our old house, as I thought I'd start with new bids for our new house security. I figured they were like a utility that would stop service that day - wrong. They snippy lady at the end of the line told me that I needed to send in a written confirmation of my wanting to leave, and then 30 days after they received it they would end my service. I told them I would be out of my house in two weeks and that didn't make sense given I was going to have them bid on the next house. Ms. Snippy then went with sarcasm as her next strategy with "well maybe we should just bill you through your next yearly contract date next January - would you like that then, hmm?". Astonishing. I wrote my letter and sent it in. Then, amazingly enough, we do get a bill for 11 months of service we couldn't use through early 2006 for over $300! They said we were contractually obligated even though the old contract said it was for the first year only and we were customers over 7 years. Then, the thrice daily calls started coming demanding payment. I answered a couple and told them they wouldn't be getting payment from us for service they didn't provide and that we were not obligated to pay. I made one proactive call up the food chain of their customer service, and thought I had the issue resolved, only to start receiving calls again a few days later. Finally, I made a BBB complaint AND...presto. My first lesson that no one likes an open BBB complaint out against them, as they came back with a sappy letter to the BBB noting that I only would need to pay them for one month of service I never used. I paid it...and left the complaint against them open, as I don't think they should have billed me for service not provided in the first place. Needless to say, we decided NOT to use Protection One ever again...I hope you don't either.

Gold Star: Automated Home Solutions. I went a little bananas when moving into the new house buying all new HDTV, stereo and speaker systems. It's a Y chromosome thing. I ended up finding out about this little Redmond small business from a friend, and called and asked them about some speakers they re-sell. The first of several extremely friendly guys gave me good things to think about, and actually talked me into buying some cheaper speakers that ended up working perfectly for us. I also had questions about wiring everything together - when to use HDMI cables, when not to, etc. - and they actually had someone come out to my house to see my set-up. I ended up paying the guy for a couple of hours of his time to help set up a variety of things and check my work on others, after the unbelievable convenience of him custom selling me what I needed right out of his truck. Probably saved me ten trips back and forth from the store plus the aggrivation of plugging things in wrong myself. Now that's service! I'm a loyal customer for life, and pledge many of my future dollars to a business that treats me so well.

Black Onion: Vonage and Verizon. I'll start with the punch line - I paid two companies for two months of phone service that neither of them provided for me. The saga is too long and too amazing to relate here - I wrote it all out on Judy's Book, which is a Seattle company that provides a whole website for customer complaints and praise on various businesses - kind of an underground railroad BBB. Suffice it to say that Vonage dropped the ball...unless Verizon did. They blamed each other, and I am not sure what happened, but I learned that you don't make the switch to VOIP during a move lest you perhaps get caught with NO service for long periods of time (that of course, I needed to tell them about with many calls to customer care). I filled out BBB reports on both of them, and am at least pleased to say that Vonage just responded to with a credit of two months services (raising their grade from an F to a C - that's still a passing grade). Verizon was the only company I ever filed a BBB report on that completely ignored it. Nice.

Black Onion: Gold's Gym. I was a member of Gold's for 11 years (no need to re-read that sentence...you know what's coming). Decided to join the Bellevue Club to do a little more business networking and get the kids a cool place to swim. I figured Gold's would require 30 days notice - they all do. They exceeded my expectations though, by having me call an Arkansas company to cancel...which told me they needed it in writing...and also sent in CERTIFIED mail (couldn't just trust a fax)...and that they would bill out 30 days after they received it...which crossed the line of a 30 day pre-payment credit card charge...which meant that I actually got to pay for Gold's Gym for almost 60 days longer than I wanted to. A nice swift kick in the rear end on the way out. I actually might have joined another Gold's someday if I would have been treated nicely...but they don't want that repeat business appearantly.

The response from call center agents to these black onions (as well as several others not listed here) is almost always the same: an exasperated "but that's just our policy, sir!". People hide behind that cop-out all the time, ignoring the common sense that customers want to be treated with respect as they come and go from a business, that moving is a part of life, and as it turns out nobody but the lawyers that wrote them actually read the fine print.

My lessons learned and your take-away? Simple: Don't ever move.

Seriously, I did use the Better Business Bureau for the first time, and it won't be the last. Somebody has to take these bastards on, and it's a waste of energy to whine to some first-tier call center agent in Wichita, Kansas or Bangalore, India to try and change corporate culture. What I would hope instead is that all entrepreneurs out there would make sure and build good customer service that promotes lucrative and profitable customer loyalty in from day one...and not ever turn it over to others to make into a "cost center". You start treating customers as sources of costs and complaints, and they'll gladly take their money somewhere else and never come back.


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