Making Waves: How’s Your Customer Experience?

(Commentary) Last week I encountered a customer service episode so bad that I found myself in complete disbelief that the event really happened.

Over the forty years of my career, I’ve dealt with good and bad examples of customer service. One of my first was after I had ordered our TV station’s first frame store synchronizer in 1982. In those days it wasn’t a chip on the output of a video playback device; no, it was a 30-pound chassis with at least a dozen printed circuit boards fully populated with CMOS ICs, costing 25 to 35-thousand dollars. Our Microtime 2525 arrived unable to pass video.

I was too proud to just pick up the phone. No, I wanted to tell them exactly what was wrong with this beast. So, using the great schematics they provided, I followed the circuit path through its maze until a chip was found where the signal and power came in but nothing went out. Took about 20 minutes. I then called to ask if they had a replacement IC because U235 or some such didn’t work. The guy on the other end said something like, “No, we can’t have that. We’ll send you a whole new box.”

I have come to learn that client-vendor relationships should be valued as true partnerships. In theory anyway, vendors value clients for their source of revenue, product use feedback, and maybe a referral or two. Clients should value vendors for their source of revenue-generating tools, their news about technology improvements, and service after the sale. Mutual respect and friendly interaction will always win, and perhaps you become long-term friends with good conversation over lunch or a game of golf, or a boat ride a customer once gave me on Lake Michigan.

At one time, you bought an RCA transmitter, mixing console, or tape machine, and it came with a complete manual. When the device stopped working as expected, you hauled out the manual and your test equipment and you traced the problem until you found the bad component. You replaced the component either with something you had in stock or could order and have back in business in a week or two.

Not so anymore, for better or worse. We live in a technology-rich world with highly specialized and densely integrated equipment that often arrives with unexpected behaviors we call “bugs” that must be fixed over time with software updates and features we might assume are part of the package when we order, but are really sold at extra cost or don’t even exist yet.

Companies have had wildly differing respect for their customers. Some do a puzzling amount of work for their customers, as when some companies would rather talk you through your whole project rather than produce a decent documentation package. It might be a warm way to build a customer relationship, but at enormous expense, and you’d better hope the person answering the phones never leaves the company.

Complex equipment often calls for annual service agreements. Perhaps the equipment you bought had thin profit margins to begin with. It costs money to man the phones with good help. With well priced Service Level Agreements (SLAs), customers can choose a level that fits your need for quick response, parts discount or even on-site repairs. I was astounded the first time a Dell technician showed up with parts to fix a bad laptop computer the same day we called him.

Of course this can lead to the perverse relationship where the vendor is really in business not to sell highly performing equipment, but SLAs. If you look at Best Buy in the consumer realm, you quickly realize that without extended warranties, the company would cease to exist in a hurry.

I recall a famous company that made video edit systems got greedy. They provided responsive phone service when you needed it, but it came at a huge annual cost. Customers of this company were spending as much per edit station annually for support as they would to just buy a whole new Final Cut Pro system from Apple. The industry flocked to Apple in droves. You can abuse your customers, but not forever.

Which leads to my recent phone call. I ordered a satellite receiver recently that arrived incapable of receiving the intended network that had conditional access. It was expensive, with HD output, DVB-S2 demodulation, H.264 decoding, and Dolby audio decoding. With respect to PowerVu conditional access, it turns out that we needed a “generic” receiver, but had received one with the “North American Broadcast Pool” feature. I didn’t order it that way, and no one had asked me which I wanted. I also found that the receiver didn’t seem to be capable of decoding any satellite signal at all–even those in the clear I was decoding with an inexpensive consumer receiver in the same rack. When I contacted the manufacturer to address these problems, the responding operator wanted to know my SLA number. He was unwilling to discuss the problems with a brand new device until we had purchased an annual agreement. The concept of “warranty” or “customer satisfaction after the sale” apparently didn’t apply.

I asked to clarify. “You mean you require me to purchase a service agreement for a device that, out of the box, is for us, nothing more than a $5,500 doorstop?”

“Yes sir, I need your service agreement number before you speak with a technician.”

So I’m working through the dealer to get assistance with this manufacturer, but he is having a tough time as well.

What is the future of a company that provides this kind of “customer experience?”