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Bad customer support – a great way to destroy your brand

Broadband and Mobile operators in Sweden face an increasing level of complaints about lousy customer service. Complaints to the Consumer Ombudsman almost doubled in 2009 with companies such as ComHem, Telia, and Tele2 on the top ten list. Leaked information to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter from a source working at the customer support of the mobile operator Three revealed some rather counterproductive ways of running a customer support call center.

The customer representatives at Three are required to handle 9.5 support calls per hour and each support call should not be longer than four minutes. 80 percent of all support calls are supposed to be handled during the first contact and calling back to the customer is discouraged. Failure to comply with these quantitative targets results in a reduction of the ten percent variable salary. The staff is not allowed to pass an angry customer on to a manager and they are not allowed to credit more than 600 Swedish kronor (€60) to the customer’s account.

To manage the system, the staff has developed coping methods. For example: They tell the customer that they will call back, but don’t. If the customer’s connection doesn’t work they tell them to turn their broadband off for 30 minutes and try again later so that they can make the support call as short as possible and dump the problem onto someone else. Instead of manually entering information about the customer case in the system they just tick the box for invoice issues, which means the customer has to explain everything again the next time he or she calls. They tell the customer that he/she has been credited 600 Swedish kronor, but the truth is that they have only sent the case to a manager for approval.

One result of this is a record high 15,469 formal complaints filed with the public municipal consumer protection offices around the country.  A  horror story mentioned in the article is about a customer whose IP telephony service stopped working because she never got the information that the application had to be reinstalled when the service provider was acquired by a larger company. She didn’t want to lose her phone number and continued to pay the monthly fee. After five months of complaints she demanded to be compensated for the extra costs of using her mobile but her request to speak with a manager was denied.

She eventually managed to find the phone number to the managing director and called him with her complaint. The company offered to cancel the subscription before the fixed term contract expired and gave her 500 Swedish kronor (€50) in compensation but The Swedish National Board for Consumer Complaints ruled that she should also be refunded for her monthly fee during the period that her phone subscription didn’t work.

Unfortunately, I have experienced similar problems. Two years ago my broadband connection started to disconnect between 10 to 50 times/day. I called customer support at least twenty times over a nine week period and spent hours speaking with their customer representatives.

After around five calls I got the first clue to solving the problem when I was connected to one of their more experienced technicians, who said that my old ADSL modem from 2002 couldn’t handle the new faster download speeds. I bought a new ADSL modem, but had the same problem. I made a few calls to product support for the modem vendor, but they were of no help and I returned the product. Buying a different brand of ADSL modem did not solve the problem either and I had to return the second modem too. After all this my broadband provider finally sent a technician to my home. He accidentally solved the problem by explaining that not all models of ADSL modems are approved and on the network provider’s list of recommended models. The two products I tried (from well-known vendors and found on the shelves of the major retailers Elgiganten and Onoff) were not on the list. He lent me an approved ADSL modem to test and it worked perfectly.

So much money, time, inconvenience and frustration would have been saved if they had 1) informed their customers with old modems that they would stop working properly after an upgrade in network download speed 2) explained that there was a risk in buying the cheapest product off the shelf at the nearest retailer.

On another occasion I discovered a strange anomaly (bug?) in my Nokia N95. I called Nokia customer service, they said that they would call back, but they never did. I have also had very negative experiences with IKEA’s customer support. I am surprised that the mediocre quality of IKEA furniture has not drawn more attention.

Compared to Sweden, customers in the US are more demanding and far less submissive. The dismissive and paternalistic attitude shown by many Swedish companies would not work for a second in the US. The right to have your support call transferred to a manager is taken for granted by American customers. I find it insanely counter-productive to refuse customers the right to speak to a manager.

A manager with good people skills can defuse an angry customer and prevent the situation from escalating. Sometimes it might be enough if the customer is allowed to rant about the bad treatment they got from the support staff. Direct feedback from customers to a manager is also an effective way to monitor the quality of the first line support staff.

I understand that operators want to contain the costs of customer support. I also understand that employees should be encouraged to keep their support calls brief. But it is clear that many operators and product vendors shoot themselves in the foot by cost cutting that only aggravates dissatisfied customers even further.

The call to customer service might be the only direct contact the customer ever has with the operator. Depending on whether the experience was positive or negative that particular customer will form strong opinions about the company – and most likely spread them in his/her network.

At the same time as the VP Customer Service manages to cut costs and keep the budget, the VP Marketing is forced to ask for a larger budget for brand building and marketing to counter a negative brand perception. Anyone connecting the dots?

2 comments to Bad customer support – a great way to destroy your brand

  • Repentant

    The root cause of the problem is of course the fact that any carrier’s principal goal is to maximize profit at any cost. This is done at the expense of providing quality service to the customers. Moreover, the customer representatives themselves are seldom the problem. When you are working under severe pressure and a call has to end in say 5 minutes how can you expect that the customer representative will be able to provide quality service? There has to be a paradigm shift in the industry as a whole. Unless the companies realize that offering quality service is of sole importance and gives its representatives unlimited time at their disposal to look into a case, this will always pose a serious problem. This is merely a utopia, no company in the world will ever do this, the costs are tremendous.

  • Alvin

    Of course, you failed to mention the commonly overlooked but irrefutably the most important factor, namely the fact that companies outsource their customer services, thereby creating a huge conflict of interest.