A Broadband Customer Service Update

by | Mar 9, 2002

My readers know that customer service (or customer no-service) is a running theme throughout my articles. I am constantly aghast at the number of companies who don’t understand that their real business is to provide customer service. You may gain a few customers with your products, but you keep them, and grow your business through […]

My readers know that customer service (or customer no-service) is a running theme throughout my articles. I am constantly aghast at the number of companies who don’t understand that their real business is to provide customer service. You may gain a few customers with your products, but you keep them, and grow your business through superior customer service. The landscape is littered with companies who no longer exist because they didn’t understand and execute on this fundamental concept.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how three broadband service providers are doing from a customer service perspective.

AT & T Broadband has come up with a rather novel approach to customer service: they are arresting their customers, former customers, and people who refuse to become customers. That’s right, people are literally being taken away from their homes and apartments in handcuffs.

Specifically, AT & T Broadband is wrongfully accusing people of cable theft and having them arrested. What a great way to build goodwill! If they won’t buy your product, arrest the bastards, I say!

The craziest part of this story was that one victim of false arrest, Tracey Massay, was charged with cable theft even though she didn’t have the service. And then, to top it off, AT&T Broadband tried to sell her the service while the false cable theft charges were pending against her. Maybe if she subscribes, AT & T will be kind enough to drop the charges.

It was almost midnight on a Thursday last May when a Marietta police officer and a representative of AT&T Broadband knocked on Carmen Gonzalez’s door.

She says they accused her of getting cable service without paying for it. She told them she had a canceled check to show she had paid her bill; they disconnected her service anyway, she says. The next day, Gonzalez called the cable company, which she says assured her it would correct the erroneous information and reconnect her service. A few days later, the police returned and arrested her, charging her with cable theft.

Police handcuffed her and took her to jail, where she remained until she posted bond the next day. In September, she went to trial. It took the jury 16 minutes to acquit her. […] Of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, only Gonzalez went to trial on theft charges. Soon after she was exonerated, county prosecutors dropped charges against the remaining 11. Their lawsuit claims AT&T Broadband “never even reviewed its customer billing records before filing the criminal reports.” […]

Two of the plaintiffs said they lost their jobs after being arrested, and one said she has not been able to find another position “due to the fact that a permanent record of her arrest exists.” Criminal charges, even if there is no conviction, are routinely reported in the criminal information databases maintained by the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Twelve of the customers wrongfully arrested are suing AT & T. I hope they win zillions of dollars. AT & T jumps right to the top of contenders for my annual Customer No Service award. (Charter Communications was last year’s obvious winner.)

And what’s happening with Charter Communications these days? Well, my only personal experience with Charter is as a cable television customer, having escaped the clutches of Charter’s cable modem service last July. Last December, my cable went out. I called Charter’s customer service number and received the following recording:

“We are moving into our new state of the art facility beginning Sunday at midnight. You will experience intermittent channel loss on all channels as well as loss of connectivity to the internet and email services. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

Oh sure. Like, we’re only the customers, you idiots.

Actually I had an unusually good customer service experience with Charter earlier this January. I was having a cable problem that only manifested itself late at night. To their credit, Charter came out at midnight, flashing truck and all. My neighbors were so concerned they called the police. The police were so suspicious they stopped the guy on the way out of the neighborhood, and then came to my house to verify that he was who he said it was. It’s a sad state of affairs when good customer service is so rare that people get suspicious and call the cops when they see it.

Finally, lets take a look at Bellsouth, my current broadband services provider.

In an attempt to improve the quality of their help desk, Bellsouth has signed on with another outsourcing partner, a privately held company in Florida called The Answer Group. The Answer Group has an unusual business model: they measure themselves on the cost per incident, not cost per phone call. Because of this, they understand that it is better to hire highly qualified people and pay them more money than the industry average because it enables them to solve problems on the first phone call. This results in lower overall costs.

Now, while I applaud Bellsouth for attempting to improve the quality of their help desk, I still believe that their strategy is fundamentally flawed. With the addition of The Answer Group, this brings Bellsouth’s total number of help desk service providers to three. When you call the help desk, a call allocator routes your call to one of these service providers in accordance with a predetermined percentage split. That is, each service provider gets a certain percentage of the business. Bellsouth’s idea is to improve customer service by forcing these service providers to compete with each other.

In reality, this approach will likely have the opposite effect. Customers want a consistently good customer service experience, and splitting your help desk among several service providers will do anything but engender consistency. Let’s assume that The Answer Group is the greatest thing since sliced bread. As a customer, I may have to call several times before I am fortunate and lucky enough to have my call routed to the best service provider.

And as if three help desk service providers isn’t enough, Bellsouth is planning to add a fourth service provider, CallTech, in the second quarter of 2002.

As I have opined before, outsourcing customer service is a fundamentally flawed strategy, and Bellsouth, rather than backing away from outsourcing, is going in the opposite direction by increasing the number of outsourcing partners.

Fortunately, Bellsouth has so many other sources of help and information that the help desk is a far less important part of their overall customer service solution than it is for most other companies. And Bellsouth’s reliability continues to be so high that, even if these other tools did not exist, it would be seldom necessary to call the help desk. So maybe Bellsouth is on to something here: build quality into the product or service and you don’t need customer service. Maybe Bellsouth has re-discovered the Maytag Lonely Repairman Business Model.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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