Customer service in the telecommunications industry is now held in such low regard that even to highlight its few good points seems perverse. And it isn't a problem only for single consumers, but also for business clients.
Here at Dog and Bone we deal with this reality for large parts of every single day, although in somewhat different ways to the normal customer experience, since we don’t operate on the scale of single users. As consultants with strong connections to all parts of the industry we (mercifully) are not obliged to spend countless hours waiting in queues to speak to a service rep. Believe me, I am thankful for that, and I do sympathise!
This doesn’t mean it’s all roses, though. While a single consumer generally only cares about customer service when their phone stops functioning properly, the business and enterprise customers we work with are in constant contact with their telco provider for myriad reasons. Customer service is thus a daily reality.
And believe me, the issues plaguing the industry aren’t confined to the front end, but invariably extend all the way back, and often all the way up. While it is deplorable that small consumers are given bad service by the front of house, you’d be surprised to learn that large organisations often fare no better, for all that they’re supposed to enjoy ‘premium’ service.
There’s sometimes no substitute for an attentive Account Executive (AE), but there’s often nothing worse than an inattentive one. And these experiences will have a decisive impact on an organisation's ultimate decision on whether to stay with their current provider, or to leave and find a better fit.
Here are five related areas telcos really need to focus on.
In my six years working as a consultant at Dog and Bone, I have lost count of the number of Account Executives with whom we’ve formed a ‘special relationship’, only to never see or hear of them again after a few months. There is a high degree of staff churn within the industry, which reflects a number of factors. But telcos should be aware that most customers like to form a relationship with their provider, because it makes their own job much easier. All businesses have their quirks and particular ways of doing things – a good AE or dealer will get to know these, and become invaluable.
We often hear from clients that they only ever hear from their Account Executive when their contract is due to expire. After twenty months of silence suddenly there will be a series of very friendly phone calls, generally highlighting new offers. In these situations AEs can stand revealed as nothing more than salespeople, and they should not labour under any illusions that their customers won’t see them as such. An AE or dealer that only contacts their clients every couple of years is doing themselves more harm than good.
There is also a tendency to promote new offers too aggressively, which is frankly off-putting for the client. AEs need to be aware that theirs might not be the only pitch the customer has heard that week, especially if they are shopping around for alternatives. Customers have heard it all before. Of course, the churn within the industry means that we often hear the same AE delivering a similarly rapturous pitch for a rival telco a few months later.
It’s surprising how effectively a genuine voice cuts through, and how truly nice it is for a client to have a provider who actually listens to what they say. Lots of people say they’ll listen – it's standard sales-speak – but few do it.
One of the most frustrating things that can happen in customer service is for your query or complaint to collide with the brick wall of official policy. Nearly every provider has a list of Terms and Conditions roughly the length of Finnegan’s Wake, and about as readable.
Now, T&Cs are obviously important, and ideally everyone involved is conversant with them. But this is rarely the case, and it is our experience that service staff have some discretion in enforcing them. The best companies are able to show a little leeway, despite boasting monumental T&C’s, and are willing to grant small refunds or concessions. While nothing travels faster than bad news, that doesn’t mean positive stories don’t get about, and their value is immense.
On a related note in the consumer space, getting the right result for a stonewalled customer can often entail nothing more complex than hanging up, calling back and getting a different service rep. Never underestimate the value speaking to someone in a good mood.
Like many of the other points, this should be self-explanatory, but if someone is awaiting a response, provide one. Get back to people, keep them constantly updated, explain why there are delays. Delays sometimes cannot be helped, but almost everyone prefers to be kept in the loop than go for several days wondering what the hold-up is. Emails are quick and free, and customers will only resent it if they have to chase you up, which can be distracting and time-consuming. If you tell someone you’ll update them the next day, then do so even if you have no news (it should go without saying that you must do so if you do have news). We make it a huge point to always get back to people as quickly as we can. Frequently we're forced to explain to clients that we in turn are awaiting a response from their telco provider.
One of the most transparent bits of sale-speak an AE can indulge in is to pretend there’s a close relationship when there isn’t one. I cannot believe that this ever works. In my experience the customer usually shakes their head and wonders aloud whether the telco rep has them confused with someone else. The most outrageous example I’ve seen of this coupled an insistence on the strength of the business relationship with a persistent inability to get the client’s name right. (On a related note: businesses always notice when you spell their name wrong, and it just looks sloppy.)
5. Online Services
Your billing engine may be the most sophisticated in the industry, your online portal might be streamlined to the nth degree, but if the people aren’t there to back it up then it will count for little. You can automate any number of processes, but there will always be exceptions to the rules.
Some telcos have automated their complaint handling, which is fine when it works. But there’s a special type of low key anxiety and frustration awaiting those customers whose specific case doesn’t appear to match any of the criteria. I’m sure we’ve all been there – wondering if our specific case will even get looked at, since it didn’t seem quite match any of the available criteria. When your ogranisation's communications systems might be depending on this, you don’t need any uncertainty.
Or perhaps there’s an automated procurement system, whereby customers can order new equipment such as handsets and SIMs. This is another great idea, but again there are always things that don’t quite match up. Recently in a Review for a large NFP client, the decisive factor in switching providers wasn’t cost, but the fact that with another telco the CIO could simply call the dealer, and have new equipment hand-delivered that day. Now when new stuff is delivered, the dealer also inquires whether everything is working fine, and whether there’s anything they can help with. That’s old fashioned service, and it works.
Automated online systems are great, and clearly the way of the future, but ultimately they still cannot compete with truly great personal service.