Posts about customerism

An AmEx member no more

I was a “member” of American Express for 35 years. No more. And Amex doesn’t give a shit. So fine. We’re well rid of each other.

Tonight I had a fraud call, finding false charges made on my account in Brazil. It’s a great thing that they caught this. Amex took care of it. The person I talked to couldn’t send me a new card. That was the first of many unempowered employees I spoke with.

I stopped using my Amex cards, apart from automated billings, months ago. The first problem was that it no longer gave me Continental miles. OK; I don’t know whose fault that is. The next problem was that they started tacking on fees for foreign exchange (in addition to the markup the get on the currency conversion). That’s bullshit. For years, they taught us that the best way to deal with foreign exchange was to use the card. No more.

I’ve charged a fortune of personal and business exchanges on Amex over the years. Suddenly, I stopped. If they had customer-service data mining worth a damn, they’d have found that and contacted me to see what was wrong. No. Tonight, I told them what was wrong.

I thought they’d try to retain me as a customer. The first person only tried to sell me a platinum card for $400 a year. Oh, yes, I’m unhappy, and now I’m going to spend *more* with Amex. Is that what you have to say to me? Well, the woman said, she was not authorized to do any more. So she transferred me to the next person, who supposedly was.

He only tried to sell me Amex travel services. He would do nothing more. “Retain me,” I offered. No, he said. (And I wasn’t even nasty. Oh, yes, I can be. But I wasn’t. Since my heart problems, I’ve stopped getting my blood pressure up on calls such as these.)

I got disconnected. Accident?

I called back to get a card sent to me. Instead, I just canceled. Again, no one cared. I had to get transferred one *more* time to deal with transferring my many, many miles to my Continental account.

That’s that. A 35-year customer relationship with untold thousands of dollars of business gone. And no one in Amex could care. No one was empowered or motivated to talk me out of it, only to try to upsell me as I walked out the door.

When Amex calls me a “member” it’s a joke. Always has been. Membership means something. It means that I’m part of a group that cares about me and that I care about. That’s not American Express.

Members is how every business should be looking at the people formerly known as customers today. American Express makes a mockery of the word.

Buh-bye.

Plug? Ad? Opinion? Life?

Is this a story or an ad? It matters.

I went to Radio Shack today to buy wires and plugs to hook up my iPhone because the damned car radio has no plug and the damned FM kluges don’t work. I bought the wrong wires, realized it immediately, and returned in minutes to exchange them. Radio Shack, as it its irritating habit, demanded my phone number, name, and address. I refused. It was a cash exchange. The guy hassled me and then, on the fourth attempt, finally told his computer that I’d refused, which he could have done in the first place. I cursed myself for not going to Best Buy, where they don’t take your blood type to make a transaction; one of the reasons I like Best Buy is its no-nonsense return policy. They care about satisfied and returning customers over irritating rules. I tweeted that here. Now I’m blogging about it.

OK, so I just said something nice about Best Buy and something critical about its competitor. Look on my disclosures page and you’ll see that I had a business relationship with Best Buy. A few weeks ago, because of my book, they paid for me to come speak to various groups over two days (which I quite enjoyed and which taught me a lot about retail, which I’ve been contemplating and want to write about).

So is what I just said about Best Buy an ad? An endorsement? A testimonial? Or just a story and my opinion? I leave that to you to decide and trust you with that decision. My integrity and relationship with you depends on what you decide. I disclose my relationship for that reason. I believe in transparency and recommend it – in my book – to companies, governments, and journalists. So is this story an ad for my book? That, too, is up to you to decide.

But now the Federal Trade Commission is getting in the middle of our relationship. It has issued vaguely worded rules – amazing that they’re still vague after 80 pages – that make we wonder and worry whether my disclosure is adequate – should ever tweet carry a caveat? – and whether Best Buy will make my observations accurate (what if they give a customer a hassle on a return and that customer complains I misled him?). Best Buy, in turn, might need to worry about what I say about them.

Note that if I were writing for The New York Times – if I were, say, David Pogue – the FTC would not regulate my speech in this manner. First Amendment, you know. The press. But as a blogger, I am now a second class citizen in my speech. The government casts its net over all citizens who now use the tools of the internet to publish – no, to speak. This is a corollary to the debate that’s going on right now over who should be covered under a federal shield law. Who should be under the FTC’s net?

On this blog, that’s my problem and I can handle it. But what about all the huge proportion of the population who are now using the tools of the internet to publish – or what publishers and governments would call publishing when most of them think they’re just using blogs or Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or what comes next so they can talk with their friends – what about them? Now they have to worry about missteps.

Some of you have argued that the FTC is going after deceptive bad guys and that’s good. But what are the unintended consequences? What if one of those unsuspecting “publishers” falls for PayPerPost as Pied Piper and becomes human spam but the FTC sees her as a flim-flam mom? Some of you are pointing to the FCC saying it won’t be mean and it can’t enforce all its regs anyway so we shouldn’t worry – yes, selective enforcement, that’s comforting. But another FTC guy said absurdly that people who review books should return their review copies or they could be in trouble. Which is it? You could be the one person who was fined huge amounts of money because your kid pirated music in your house; you could be the example. Don’t want to take chances? Figure you’re playing it safe?

Welcome to the chill. We all have our own FCC now. Broadcast is an exception to the First Amendment’s prohibition on regulating the press. Now bloggers are, too, because we’re not the press. But we are, aren’t we? See, there are bigger things at stake here than just a few fake Viagra ads. (Mind you, I’m not endorsing Viagra. It’s not working … yet. Now how’s that for disclosure?)

How to handle an ass (like me)

I want to love my cable company – honestly, I do. They bring me things I love and depend upon. I love TV. I really, really love the internet. (The phone? Well, I love that, too – but unfortunately for the cable company, it’s my iPhone I adore.)

So why don’t I love my cable company? We all know why: because it’s a marriage as ruined as the one in War of the Roses. It’s a relationship built entirely on aggression and passive aggression, on each party trying not to give the other one what it wants, on stonewalling or fighting. So how do you change that? I speculated in What Would Google Do? about what a cable or phone company run by Google (GT&T) would be like, but that’s only wishful thinking.

After my contretemps with Cablevision this week – and the ensuing lively discussion about it in the comments here, on other blogs, and in Twitter – I’ve been trying to think about it how this relationship can be rebuilt. Because I don’t like the relationship and I don’t like the way I am in it.

When my internet didn’t work. I called the company and its employee read off a script: ‘Sorry to hear that sir, let’s try this. Oh, that doesn’t work. We’ll see you in three days.’ I then operate off my script: ‘That’s unacceptable. I pay for the service. I want it fixed ASAP.’ Them: ‘No.’ Me: Get me a supervisor.’ Them, after much argument – because it always takes argument: ‘OK, tomorrow, but you have to wait home all day.’ Me: ‘That’s unacceptable. I have a life.’

I pay for the service to work and want it to work. They want to maximize customer service efficiency (is that a sufficiently nice way to say it?). We end up in a standoff that, in my experience, can be broken only by outlasting them and being angry. It’s still a script. But I don’t like the role I play. I don’t like myself. I’m an ass. Because it works. I end up victorious – the internet I paid for is working again – but sullied and embarrassed by what I had to say to get the service I need. How to break that cycle?

There are a few new factors in the cable business in recent times.

First, cable companies have competitors (yay!) – well, at least one competitor: the phone company. In Twitter, it took no time at all – less time, indeed, than it took Cablevision to respond – for Verizon people to smell the carrion of a dead marriage and to seduce me.

Second, we have Twitter (and blogs and YouTube). As I said in the comments on the post below, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have because your message can spread and so the smart company has to respond. The people formerly known as consumers are now media.

But the company also has Twitter. Witness what Frank Eliason (aka @comcastcares) has done to respond to customers and to humanize his company. Oh, Comcast still has problems – Eliason will confess that – but the fact that I got better service on my Cablevision account from a Comcast employee speaks volumes. It says there’s a lesson to be learned there.

At the end of my Dell contretemps, I wrote an open letter to Michael Dell with what I sincerely hoped would be helpful advice. They didn’t change their ways because of what I said. But what they did end up doing what I suggested and I’ve since written about that in BusinessWeek and in my book.

So I’ve been trying to think of advice for Cablevision.

First, throw out the script. Give employees the ability to take responsibility, to deal with us honestly, and to get things fixed. That’s one of the things Dell did and it made a huge difference.

Second, become human. Comcast’s Frank Eliason is a person. He’s not a bot with standard answers. We wouldn’t stand for that; as the Cluetrain Manifesto teaches, markets are conversations and we recognize when they are being held by man vs. machine. Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people. Not every employee will be capable of that; it’s the ones who are you want working and speaking for you.

Third, I’d invest in customer service as the best form of advertising possible. Zappos learned that lesson and it just earned them $900 million.

Fourth, create a service level agreement (SLA) so customers know what to expect when they call and so they can hold the company to it. That’s the real problem. We come loaded for bear because we know what’s going to happen, we know the script: the cable company is going to push us off as far as possible and we’re going to demand as soon as possible. The agreement becomes an assurance (natural disasters aside) we can count on and we know the consequences.

Fifth, you’re not going to believe that I’m saying this, but charge for better service. Yes, I would complain about that. But here’s the way I think it would play out: The cable company charges for a good SLA; its competitor, the phone company, sees the competitive advantage of advertising that you get that included with them; the cable company is then forced to meet the challenge. And we end up with the SLA. If we don’t, I predict that local governments and the FCC and FTC may impose them. So I suggest you figure out the way to get there on your own.

Sixth, make it a goal to have delighted customers. Yes, I know, that sound silly: fodder for needlepoint. But go back to the beginning: I want to love my cable company. If – surprise, surprise, surprise – I do, I’m going to talk about that. In the age of Twitter, that’s the best advertising you can get. This is how the investment in customer service will pay off: with advertising that’s better than anything you put in TV or newspapers … and it’s free. And it keeps customers from leaving for Verizon. That’s how a company takes advantage of the free economy.

This attitude also might motivate cable companies to change other policies that irk, like bundling in dozens of channels I have to pay that I never watch. But the issue that bothers most people about their cable companies is dealing with them for installation and service. That’s what I’d concentrate on first. Service isn’t a favor you do for customers, as various employees implied with me. It’s how you live up to your deal and delight customers.

You see, I’m not an ass. I only play one on the phone to get what I think I deserve in a business deal in which I have no power other than that. And, cable guys, I know you’re not lazy slugs trying to rip me off; that’s just the script they make you read from the policies they set in the front office. Can’t we all get along?

Cablevision sucks

Well, but that’s not news, is it? Everybody knows that.

But that hit home – again – tonight when I returned after three days away to find our internet not working. I called Cablevision and after a few obvious steps, I’m told they can’t see the modem and they offer to send someone out … in three days.

Three days?!?

I’ll spare you the Dell Hell details. But what ensues is amazing, even to me. When I said I wanted someone here tomorrow because I’m paying for service and it’s not working, the tech, “George” – I assume they use phone names – told me they have lots of customers without phones, internet, and cable ahead of me. Well, I said, that’s shocking: lots of customers waiting days to get their internet, phone, cable. I asked him point blank and three times whether if I had my phone service with them they’d also make me wait. Seems so. He asked me why I think I should get service tomorrow and get ahead of a 90-year-old lady without a phone. I asked him why he thinks that lady shouldn’t have had her phone fixed long since!

I got a supervisor, “Marc with a c.” I told him that I’ve had to have a vice-president come to my aid before to get service, that I used to work with Cablevision and his boss, Chuck Dolan (back when I had the misfortune to be around at the start of News 12 NJ), that I saw Dolan at a meeting a few weeks ago (where TiVo’s Tom Rogers, who does fix customer problems, was speaking with a small group), and that I planned to call his office in the morning to report the quality of service I was getting from his people.

“Marc” replied, “I don’t see you listed as a VIP.” I can’t believe he said it either. So you only give decent service to VIPs? He said he was going to tell his management that I was calling myself a friend of Dolan’s. Friend? I said I was going to call the boss to tell him about your service. Maybe I should be his friend. Every customer should be. I tweeted: ” In any good company, there are no VIPs. All customers are VIPs. Not Cablevision. All its customers are prisoners.”

I also said I planned to call Verizon as soon as they finish cabling my street so I can switch. Cablevision didn’t seem to give a damn.

When I had problems with Dell, I waited weeks and then resorted to a blog post. Now is the age of Twitter. So I vented my frustration there (using my iPhone and its AT&T connection, not my Cablevision wifi, of course; that’s how I’m writing this).

Here’s the funny part: Cablevision didn’t answer my tweets. So I tweeted: “Hey @comcastcares, is there a @cablevisioncares? Ha! What an oxymoron.” And two minutes – I swear, two minutes – later, Frank Eliason, aka @comcastcares, tweeted. He said he’d just been emailing with an EVP/CFO of Cablevision on something else and that he’d email him about my problem. Get that: Comcast doing a better job at Cablevision service than Cablevision. Too bad Comcast couldn’t come out to fix my internet. Eliason later tweeted: “I think you & I agree that social media will force that to change for companies, & service by all must improve in the new world.” Amen, but how long will it take companies like Cablevision to learn that?

But there’s another punch line. I got a tweet from John Czwartacki (@cz), Verizon’s policyblogger who tweeted: “Jeff, Verizon is ready when you are! DM or reply and i’ll get things rolling Monday morning. Hope we earn your biz!” A few DMs later, and he’s checking with his colleagues to get my street lit and get my business. Another Verizon person, Laurie Shook, also asked for my business: “Hey Jeff, Verizon is listening. Would love to hook you up on FiOS.” Now that’s the spirit. That’s business.

Comcast cares. Verizon cares. Cablevision doesn’t. But then, that’s not news.

(P.S. If somebody from Cablevision actually does anything tomorrow, I’ll send a free copy of What Would Google Do? to my good buddy, VIP Chuck Dolan. For his convenience, just because he’s important, I’ll put a bookmark on the Dell Hell story.)

: LATER: I tweeted that I had been invited to meet the new head of the FCC this afternoon but couldn’t because of work in New York. Oh, if only I had. I’d have bent his ear about how fine administration goals of broadband for all will get us nowhere if the future of our technology, innovation, communication, and entrepreneurship can be railroaded by companies such as Cablevision. I’d also have bent his ear about the need for customers – not just business customers but all customers – to have service-level agreements with cable and phone companies, guaranteeing us response time and repair (except, perhaps, in the cases of natural disaster), with penalties to back them up. (Here’s today’s Wall Street Journal report on FCC Chair Julius Genachowski’s mission of “making affordable high-speed Internet available to all Americans.”)

: LATER STILL: Oh, just got email from someone at Cablevision who saw the discussion 12 hours ago. He works in media relations. Hint to all companies: Now that we’re all in media, everybody in a company is in media relations.

: FOLLOWUP: A technician arrived yesterday morning. The amplifier on the street didn’t work. He fixed things that would affect other people on the street. It works now. I don’t know whether the 90-year-old lady has her phone back. She should.

Decaffers of the world unite against Starbucks!

Starbucks now has a quiet policy of not brewing decaf coffee after noon.

I thought something was odd as Sbux after Sbux had run out of decaf and I go off muttering, ‘How can they run out of coffee? They’re Starbucks.’ Then an honest counterman in Toronto told me about the new policy. I didn’t believe him at first. But after two failed attempts to get decaf this weekend, I asked another employee and was told, yes, it’s a new policy. They will offer to give you a decaf americano (diluted espresso) at the same price. They will even brew decaf if they have to. But you have to wait for that. And don’t believe it when they say “two, two-and-a-half minutes.” I’ve waited five minutes and more. This is passive-aggressive retailing, putting barriers between the customer and what she wants to get your way.

I went to MyStarbucksIdea and found fellow decaffers urging a change in the policy here and here. As my fellow customers point out there, a lot of us cannot drink caf (for me, it’s a medical necessity to avoid it; my wife wonders why I bother). And, by the way, does it make sense to get rid of decaf later in the day, when more people drink it.

Obviously, Starbucks is trying to eke out operating pennies by throwing away less stale decaf coffee and forcing drip customers to one choice. It’s more efficient and Starbucks needs the pennies as its quarterly profit just dropped 77 percent.

But when companies start inconveniencing customers as a business strategy and being sneaky about it, it ends nowhere good. They might as well just give us coupons to Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s.

My fellow decaffers, please go to MyStarbucksIdea.com and add your voice to the uncaffeinated chorus. We want our decaf.

Screw us, lose us

I made some travel reservations just now. Continental – on which I am a too-frequent flier – wouldn’t give me a seat assignment because their latest trick is to hold them out until 24 hours before and then cause a land rush among the overbooked. I called and said if you’re going to sell me a seat then sell me the damned seat. I got the scripted lecture about their rules. I said this was my rule: The economy’s in the crapper, airlines are in bad shape, if you want me to give you my money for a seat then give me the seat or I won’t buy the ticket. I got the seat.

Next, hotel: Rates for the Hilton are about the same as for the Marriott. The Hilton site won’t say whether they charge for internet access. I call. They charge. I hang up. I book the Marriott, where it is included.

Remember that the economic meltdown only makes us customers more powerful and our money more valuable. At every encounter, teach companies a lesson: Screwing your customers is no longer a viable business model. Screw us, lose us.

: LATER: While I’m at it, how could this conversation not turn to the kings of screwing customers as a business model: cable. Can anyone tell me why on earth they insist on sending a technician out (not cheap for them, by the way) just to put a cable card in a TiVo? I can install phones, mobile phones, alarm systems, routers, modems, anything without having to spend forever on hold with any company and without being required to wait home 8am to 8pm – no exaggeration! – for this to happen. What are they thinking? Oh, for the days of white spaces and wifi on steroids and waving goodbye to these twits.

Consuming Consumerist

At a Consumers Union event at Columbia a few weeks ago, Consumerist editor Ben Popken told about his site being for sale by Gawker Media and I delighted in putting CU on the spot, saying that they should buy Ben et al. Well, it just happened. I want my commission. Popken says he’ll give me a dal on a slightly used toaster.

It’s a smart business move for CU that will bring them a younger audience – with attitude – and potentially a new source of subscription sales. Good on them.

Comcast spared the electric chair

Bob Garfield declares victory against Comcast from his ComcastMustDie shock & awe. What, so he installed Verizon?

No, he points to stories in the Times and Post about the new Comcast attitude and praises Comcast for having…

…institutionalized the practice of listening, in live forums around the country but especially on the internet, to resolve individual problems and learn about the (many, gaping) holes in its customer-service operations.

Does this solve the biggest part of their structural problems? No, not by a long shot. They acquired cable systems too fast and have been inexcusably slow in building network-wide infrastructures for installation, repair and the most rudimentary customer-relations management. In short, they still totally suck. (As Comcast quality czar Rick Germano euphemistically frames the situation, “There’s a lot of upside for us.”) But they are investing a lot of money to build those very structures, and have turned a corner in corporate culture.

Glad he pointed that out. The only real solution to bad customer-service and public-relations problem is to have a great product and service. No — no — cable company is there yet because I argue that they are still built around telling us what we cannot do (no, you can’t watch what you’ve bought whenever and wherever and on whatever you want; no, you can’t just plug in your expensive and sophisticated TV but you have to put this clunky, stupid box inbetween you and the world of possible entertainment and information; no, you can’t host anything to the world because we don’t think you’re creative; no, you can’t download that much; no, you can’t upload that much; no, you don’t have a life and so you have to wait all day for the cable guy). Cable companies are still built on fucking us. But at least now they’re grinning while they do it.

Nonetheless, give credit where it is due: Comcast has made a number of important changes in its relationship with its now-empowered customers and, like Dell, it has benefitted as a result. They also vow to take a next step and within a year play host to a ComcastMustDie on their own. But why wait a year? In the spirit of cooperation, I’ll suggest that they can do it now with GetSatisfaction.com — which they apparently are using, with Comcast employees interacting there — and with an equivalent of MyStarbucksIdea and Dell IdeaStorm — where people can make real suggestions.

In any case, the cause of vendor relations management marches on.