Telecom Customer Service: The Wrong Things Stay the Same
I started writing about service as an editor for Telephony Magazine back in the last century -- well, 1996, if you want to be specific -- but it might as well have been in the days of hula hoops and big fins on Fords.
Service practices for telephone companies -- and for all utilities -- were still rudimentary, and they weren't getting any better. The telecom act of 1996 opened up competition, and every phone carrier became obsessed with customer acquisition. Retention was a distant afterthought, and service became something of a backwater.
Just the same, every week I heard from a software company that had a great idea to improve service for large organizations with big field forces. Most of them failed, were acquired, or faded away -- but the ideas they brought to their products have lived on in current generations of support technology.
That was a long time ago. The pendulum has swung back to retention -- especially for carriers selling landline services -- but there's still a struggle to get processes up to date and to cope with the new expectations of customers.
My landline went dead last week on a Thursday -- not a crippling loss when I have two smartphones in my pocket, but something I'd like to get remedied so I can talk to my luddite relatives and make a 911 call if I needed to.
I called the carrier and explained the problem. In the old days, the response would be to schedule a truck roll and have a technician look things over as a first step. Now, I was pleased to see the agent could do some remote testing. Sure enough -- it wasn't my phone, it was an issue with the line. That's a plus one for the service effort!
Then, the agent said he could schedule a visit from a technician. When? On Tuesday, five days from the time of the call. Score it a negative one, making it even.
"Y'know, I already have a couple of phones that don't depend on your copper plant to work," I said. "If it's going to be five days, I might as well just drop the landline."
The agent said he'd try to get an earlier appointment scheduled, then took my number to confirm when a technician could be out. He also said the carrier would prorate the bill to drop charges for the days when I was without services. That's nice -- and it's what the carrier ought to do -- but in the not-so-good-old-days, this wouldn't have happened. Plus two!
No phone call was forthcoming. However, at 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, the doorbell rang and a technician presented himself. He looked at the boxes on the outside of the house, but since everyone else in the house was asleep, I deferred on letting him check on the phone jacks in the bedrooms. Negative one.
Neutral's Not Good Enough
On Monday, after a call from the carrier (yay!) a technician came out. He tested the same things the first technician had tested, then looked at the jacks in the house and found the offending equipment. Before testing, he wanted to confirm our bill covered wiring repairs in the house. I had to fetch an old bill to confirm it was part of our plan ("WirePro," as it appears on the bill, is apparently insurance for your house's wiring).
He fixed the problem quickly and was pleasant -- but it surprised me that he didn't come to the house armed with knowledge the carrier mails to me each month. Negative one.
In all, the experience could be rated as neutral. On the plus side, the carrier tried to be accountable by offering to prorate the bill, the agent was able to perform basic testing while I waited, and the technicians were friendly and efficient. On the down side, the carrier didn't call to confirm appointments like it said it would, a technician showed up unannounced early on a weekend, and second technician was unaware of whether repairs in our house were covered or not.
These are enormous holes in the service experience. Given the additional pressure on carriers from wireless and VoIP providers, you'd have thought that service would have been streamlined. Clearly, there's some understanding of the changing expectations of customers, but there's still difficulty in meeting those expectations.
The promises of calls to schedule and confirm appointments are evidence that the carrier recognizes that the days of "sometime between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m." no longer work for customers. However, the process of actually making those calls broke down somewhere on Friday or Saturday in my example, only to be righted on Monday. And when the technician arrived, he didn't come armed with information about my account.
Here's the takeaway for businesses: If you know your service processes need to evolve, take the steps you need to take to change them so those changes present themselves to the customer in a consistent way.
Consistency in the experience is important -- the fact that the technician arrived on Monday after a call does not offset the fact that another technician woke me up Saturday without a call. It's great to empower agents to take steps to make things better, but when you allow an agent to promise something, don't allow process breakdowns to make a liar out of him.
It's been 18 years since I focused exclusively on customer service and telecommunications. The good news is that the problems inflicted on customers are new ones; the bad news is that bumpy service experiences seem to be a telecommunications industry tradition.