Five Customer Service Lessons From a Most Hated Industry

Having spent more than two decades building telecommunications companies I’ve come to admire those organizations that excel in pleasing and retaining customers.

Internet. Telephone. TV. WiFi. Wireless. FiberOptic.

Ask most people about their experience with their telecommunications provider and they’ll likely roll their eyes and recall incidents reminiscent of Matthew Broderick and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy.  Across the country, small town to big city, telecom providers have one worst reputations for customer service.  In fact, in this recent USA Today article, 15% of the Top 20 Most Hated Companies in America were telecommunications providers!

During my 44 year career as a corporate employee and running a consulting company I have worked with, worked for, or been a customer of AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, SunCom, TMobile, Verizon, Windstream, and a dozen other telecom providers.  Because I’ve seen both the inner workings and the public faces of these organizations, let me reveal what the best provider did that has earned – and keeps on earning – my business. 


What You Need to Know About the Telecom Business Model

Telecommunications is built on the principle of recurring revenue, collecting a monthly charge for services.  Before the first cent of revenue can be collected, a huge infrastructure investment has to be made by the provider.  The infrastructure investment by each of the major providers is BILLIONS of dollars to bring you unlimited mobile calling and data for $50 per month or a bundle of TV, Internet and Phone for $140 per month.

Customers who sign up for service typically accept an introductory offer that features a low monthly cost  or free equipment or both in exchange for a one or two year commitment.  The telecom provider is betting on you staying on service long enough to recover their costs and make a profit.  This is why the best offers come with a service commitment.


Five Things Great Customer Service Organizations Do to Keep Customers


1. Offer a Clear Value Proposition. When I became a TMo customer in 2012 I had was in the process of getting my first iPhone.  I visited the Apple store and decided on the model and was ready to activate on my existing carrier (not TMo) when I learned that if I activated a new phone my bill would go up $10 per month for the privilege of using a new phone.  When I originally signed up with my old carrier I was assured I could keep my rate plan for as long as I like…which clearly was not true two years later. After a very unsatisfactory conversation with the carrier’s customer service rep, his supervisor, and that supervisor’s supervisor, it was pay more if you want to put a new phone on our service. So I left the Apple store that day angry and with a mission: find a new carrier who offered a clear (and honest) value proposition. And tell everyone I could about the poor way I was treated.

I did some comparison shopping and found that I could save at TMo if I bought a phone outright and then activated it.  Other carriers wanted to sell me their phones on a rate plan and charge me for it monthly.  TMo offered better rates than the other providers and would activate without me buying the phone through them. Plus, they told me how they were building out their network.  The clincher was they promised me that I could always keep the low rate plan as long as I wanted it… or change it if I decided to do that.  Clear value proposition – check!

Lesson: A clear value proposition with a compelling customer offer gets the relationship off on a positive note and builds customer loyalty.


2. Actually Deliver on the Value You Advertise. I had a chance to test out just how customer-focused TMo was when I noticed that inside my house the signal was weak; outside it was fine.  I went back to the TMo store. “We’re building towers in your neighborhood which will solve that problem,” the TMo rep began.  I’m thinking to myself, I’ve heard that before…promise them something you aren’t going to do to keep them from disconnecting, then be ready to zap them with a huge early termination fee.  To my surprise the TMo rep continued with a smile, “So let me give you this in-home signal extender that you can use for free until our signal works well enough to not need it.”  Boom!  No hassle… give customers a simple solution, solve their problem, and make them happy.  I was.

I walked out of the TMo store with an easy-to-install unit to plug in and two small boxes to place in my upstairs windows.  Seven minutes later it’s signal strength wall-to-wall.  Problem solved. 

Lesson: The first problem a customer has is your ultimate moment of truth. When you exceed expectations, you’ll plant the seeds that grow a future customer evangelist.


3. Do What You Say You Will Do. Fast-forward about 9 months and I noticed a new cell tower going up across the valley from my house. Could this be TMo doing what they said they would do?  And would this eliminate the need for the in-home signal extender?  Yes and yes.  Once the tower became operational the signal was full strength even in my basement.  So I called TMo customer service and asked how to return the in-home signal extender.  “Just keep it…we don’t need it back,” they told me.  Another no-hassle experience.  Within a week at least thirty of my friends and family heard about my positive experience with TMo…and a customer evangelist was born.

Lesson: follow through on what you promise and you’ll create an army of customer evangelists.


4. Don’t Make Me Wait (and Wait) and Wait. Most telecom customers have questions and problems that need to be solved from time to time.  What most telecom customers don’t have is lots of time to spend navigating the twin Hells of Please listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed and All our operators are currently serving other callers…  Having to navigate the first Hell only to be dumped into the second Hell makes a total lie out of the inevitable message your call is very important to us.  If that were true, you would have staffed up properly and connected me to a live person within 45 seconds. Six years on TMo and I rarely wait more than a minute to speak to a cheerful someone happy and able to help me. 

Lesson: making people wait too long makes them angry with your brand. Stop with the twin Hells of your call-in centers and keep your customers happy.


5. It’s About the Customer, Not the Provider. Last year I decided to retire my iPhonosaurus and get the latest iPhone.  I again wanted to buy my own because it is less costly in the long run to buy versus rent through the telecom provider.  In conversations at the store and with their call-in staff I educated myself enough to choose the right phone for me.  Of course, so much had been improved in features and functionality since my last phone I was a bit apprehensive about switching over to a device I had no experience using.

When I asked TMo how to overcome this challenge, they asked me if I had considered activating the new phone on a one-month prepay plan in order to learn the new phone, while keeping my old phone in service.  Then when I was ready, I could have my existing number put into my new phone and retire iPhonosaurus. That was a good suggestion.  Three weeks later I called into the customer service and my rep activated my new phone. Problem solved.

Then my rep did what the best service provider reps do.  She said, “You know, I can put you on a new rate plan that give you more features, more data, a wider footprint, and it will be less than a dollar difference a month compared to your current plan.” I worked out the math and she was right: I get more and will pay less.  Thirty seconds later I’m a very happy customer armed with a better plan.

Lesson: take a look at your customers periodically and pro-actively figure out ways to give each one more for less if you want to make it impossible to leave you


Bottom Line

Customers have a choice of who they can do business with. Companies that offer a clear value proposition, deliver what they advertise, do what they say they will do, don’t make people wait, and make it all about the customer are the companies with whom I want to do business. How ‘bout you?

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:


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