Service with a Human Face

Even a disgruntled customer can be your company’s best prospect if you understand customer psychology and take a personal interest in his or her well being. As a matter of fact, the rule applies to your high-tech, Internet company as much as it does to the local grocery store.

My recent experience with obtaining DSL California’s large local telephone company, Pacific Bell, provided a case study in how to turn an unhappy customer into a company champion.

DSL, or digital subscriber line service, is a high-speed telephone service designed for heavy users of data. PacBell’s DSL service currently is aimed mainly at small-business and home-office subscribers who use the Internet a lot. In January 1999, when PacBell taxed this service for sale, public response was immediate and strong.

PacBell was unprepared for this surge of interest. As a result, DSL was over-subscribed and under-served almost from the beginning. To meet skyrocketing demand, PacBell relied upon outsourcing to accelerate installation. Otherwise, the way PacBell served its DSL customers was traditional — and as it turned out, totally inadequate.

DSL service, though more stable and easier to provision than the more controversial ISDN service, requires careful installation. According to Andre Moore, PacBell statewide manager of service for DSL, outsourcing was both impersonal and resulted in installations that did not meet customer expectations. Customer service centers were soon swamped with reports of interrupted service and outages.

I was one of PacBell’s unhappy customers. Excited at first by the prospect of replacing my balky, expensive ISDN service with reliable, economical DSL, I jumped at the chance to swap services. An installation crew arrived, added some components to the gray box on the back of my house, plugged a DSL modem into the wall and disappeared. (They had only a PC Ethernet card, and I owned a Mac — but no bother. I bought my own.)

I was ready to surf the web, at high-speed!

…Or so I thought.

Before the day was over, my modem was dropping regularly and my browser froze with every command. I called PacBell’s customer service, only to get voicemail and interminable elevator music. Finally, a human technician answered, took my complaint, put me on hold — and disappeared. I called back several times and always got the same result. I was about ready to jettison DSL and even checked with @Home about high-speed cable service.

Impatient and angry, I took my complaint to PacBell headquarters. Fortunately, other customers did the same and our message was heard.

PacBell’s response in my case was to dispatch the personable Sammy Ho, a DSL-capable technician who correctly describes himself as “a new breed of telephone company employee.” Sammy virtually lived at my house for the next three days. Showing up in the early morning, he ran diagnostics and made changes to the entire DSL circuit from my modem to the central office. He also explained the intricacies of DSL service. While making my system work in style, Sammy made me a better-educated customer.

A former small-business owner, Sammy understood customer behavior. He knew that my unhappiness was directly proportional to my ignorance and sense of powerlessness. Sammy announced that henceforth, I was his customer. He “owned” my account. In the future, he told me, I should contact him, rather than the traditional customer support center or even my ISP. Sammy would be my constant intermediary. He even gave me his 24/7-pager number to call the ultimate commitment in our Information Age.

Each of Sammy’s actions added to my sense of comfort. Most importantly, Sammy put a face on PacBell, an otherwise faceless institution. We would face the trials and ribulations of DSL together!

It’s hard to overstate the magic of sincerely tendered camaraderie as a way of bonding a company and its customers. Of course, Sammy’s proposition also positioned PacBell as my primary source of broadband services, a powerful place to be.

Customer demand is driving changes within PacBell, as it is elsewhere. Robin McGillivray, PacBell’s vice president for DSL deployment, reports that for the first time a customer-centric coordinating council has been organized. Its purpose is to design and manage the customer experience, from the moment a prospective customer first learns about a service (any broadband service, not just DSL). The council’s responsibilities include promoting and supplying service, customer support and planning new broadband services. It has executive authority.

Your company can follow PacBell’s lead. While everyone prefers a happy customer, even your best customers will encounter a service glitch now and then. How you respond to their dissatisfaction will determine whether you woo and win them anew, or lose them forever.

And don’t wait for your customer to call. Know your customers’ needs. I’m sending this article to ClickZ via DSL, but it could have been via a cable modem. PacBell was lucky. You be smart.

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