Why do big companies struggle to get the customer experience right?

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to get my wife a new mobile phone. It should be simple – but its been a really frustrating experience. (She wants a new phone so she can keep twitter tabs on me – my twitter feed!).

I’m going to recount the experience and then draw some conclusions on Why Big Companies Struggle to get the Customer Experience right.

The story started a few weeks ago with choosing a contract and phone. We all know how confusing this can be. Last time I chose a phone and contract was a good few years ago and I would have hoped that this frustration would have been resolved but its still as confusing as ever. I battled through this and chose a £30 contract with 300 minutes, texts and data and a Blackberry 8900 on Vodafone.

Firstly talked to VirginMobile to port the number and get PAC code. This was a good experience and Virgin delivered, with a nice operator and a letter confirming PAC code a few days later. Again Virgin delivered a good experience. (If they offered Blackberries we would have stayed with them).

I decided to apply for the Vodafone contract online. Seemed to me a sensible choice – after all I’d researched online and the apply now button was blinking away at me. The Vodafone website worked just ok: stopped once and had to reload losing the data I’d filled in, somewhat confusing on PAC code and lost this during the process but overall got through it. At least I receieved some confirmation emails saying things were progressing which was good.

Got a call a few hours later asking for confirmation of some details and again was told everything was going ahead and to expect the phone soon. Two weeks later (on the day contract was due to finish with Virgin) we had recieved nothing – no phone, no sim, no letters, no emails, nothing.

So a few days ago I rang the call centre. And this is where the whole thing took a massive turn for the worse. Initially a woman answered (after a two stage, 5 options choice menu) told me “we are nothing to do with online applications and can’t access their details” and therefore she would have to transfer me. She transferred me to a number that was closed. I then rang again and talked to a guy who was much more helpful, he confirmed that “they” were nothing to do with “online” and started to check the number transfer and set up. Basically nothing had happened in two weeks. He now, politely, started to get me to buy the same contract with him that I had applied for online. This felt really wierd as a customer – surely I had already taken out a contract with Vodafone online? Why was I now having to do it again. He asked me to email the PAC code to him for process.

I then found a number for the online team (not from the Vodafone website – that number led to the call centre that denied all knowledge of online applications, but on an old email) and rang them. Then talked to a member of their team who was dismissive of the issues and could not explain why nothing had happened. She then proceeded to say that she could do nothing until the “dispatch” team were in on Monday and they would call me. I said, quite angrily (which I regret), that as far as I was concerned they had done nothing with my request to open a contract and therefore it wasn’t done and I would go elsewhere. Of course they didn’t call – I assume that my application got lost in their process somewhere.

I then emailed the PAC code to the Vodafone call centre guy and started the whole process again with him.

Finally, and adding cherries to the top of this bad experience cake, were the two calls that I recieved the afternoon after this from an automated system that was asking me to “spend a few minutes answering some questions” on the experience that I had just recieved from Vodafone. Both these calls failed during the process!

This story is not unique – I am sure many of us have the same experiences repeated over and over again by big companies that aren’t joined up and put more effort into selling than servicing or correcting errors. Why do big companies struggle to get this stuff right?

1. Most big companies aren’t big companies at all but a collection of smaller units and departments (some outsourced) that come together under one brand. This causes many, if not most, of the issues. Trying to co-ordinate these fiedoms is a nightmare. The only way is to define the desired customer experiences through good customer research then design the experience process with good process development techniques to deliver within key tolerances that can be monitored and have ONE PERSON accountable for the whole experience.

2. Most big companies suffer from the “they” disease. This disease infects companies which are lukcy enough to get big enough that people don’t know each other within the company. When I ring Vodafone it doesn’t matter to me which bit I am talking to from the myriad collection of smaller units. I (foolishly) want to call one integrated company. So why do most people – not just call centre folks – refer to other teams and units as “they”. Shouldn’t it be “us”. I don’t care that the call centre folks can’t access the online apps – I don’t want to know that “they are nothing to do with us”. I just want someone to stand up and take responsibility (see 3). A good customer experience is only as strong as its weakest link. The process needs to be understood by everyone from start to finish. “We” and “Us” are powerful words to make me think I am dealing with one brand, one company and a bunch of people who care about the service I am getting.

3. Most companies don’t allow individuals in call centres to be honest, take personal accountability and sort the issues out. Call scripts and training often exacerbate bad situations. Handovers should be much more transparent and honest with the customer. Ultimately my major source of frustration was the fact that “online” were nothing to do with anything else. And the handovers failed. This should be handled in a much more grown up way with the customer. What about acknowledging that the situation isn’t great? That my call might get lost and that if it does I can get back to the person I am talking to at that moment to try another solution? Giving out people’s names and allowing call handlers to take personal responsibility is a rarity but ultimately I went with the guy who said “I will take responsibility – email me directly and we will sort it out”. [If anyone from Vodafone wants this guys name please email me and I’d be glad to get him some credit – he saved the situation for you].

4. Most companies are living with an IT infrastructure that is outdated. I think many consumers think that with the resources at the disposal of companies like Vodafone, especially a mobile technology company, they would have “cutting edge” IT systems. I bet they don’t – I bet their systems are mired in “legacy” decisions and a patch work quilt of different technologies. The result for the consumer is almost always crap. When will companies start to invest in systems that can talk to one another. Why didn’t the phone people have access to “online” applications? Surely in this age of Web 2.0 and APIs, where, for example, I can access my facebook page on my mobile phone, my blackberry, my laptop, my Mac, my PC, Vodafone can get their systems talking – this is crazy. Web 2.0 and Cloud computing might give us hope that connectivity across departments in companies might in the future be solved.

5. All the research I have seen on customer experience says that we all know things will go wrong – its the recovery that is so important. Indivudal units trying to solve complex issues rarely works. Departments are closed, call transfers don’t work. Its better to create the equivalent of the SAS for sorting out customer issues and resourcing this properly. I wish there were more complaint/issue teams that are empowered to access all systems, that are trusted enough to give money off or refunds at point of call, that give their names, numbers and email addresses out, and most importantly stand up and say, “I will sort this out for you until it is solved”.

6. Its easier to deliver a good experience when your brand stands for something. I’m consistently surprised at how Virgin, across multiple categories and products, delivers a good and distinctive customer experience. The Virgin Mobile guys had the “Virgin chat” and “attitude” – one that I like – and it made it better and easier even though I was leaving them. What does Vodafone stand for? I am sure they have “brand manuals” and “brand personality” guides, and have probably spent a decent amount of money paying customer experience experts and brand consultants to translate these words on paper into action. But the bottom line is that I don’t really know what Vodafone stands for, I guess you don’t and therefore the guy in the call centre, especially if outsourced, won’t know either. Or even if they do it is just so bland and boring that it provides no guidance what-so-ever.

7. Most companies measure the wrong things across their customer experiences. Firstly most tracking happens at the unit or department level – it is rarely integrated. Most tracking focused on the process as defined by the company, rather than the consumer. For example, what is web downtime as the key measure, rather than how many points of failure there is in a web application? It’s better in my mind to be told, “our website is down come back in an hour” than start a web application only for it to fail 10 times and take me an hour). Most tracking asks “were you satisfied?” when actually this is a very crude measure – a better measure is to ask the trio of questions: were you satisfied overall, how satisfied were you against your ideal experience, and how satisifed were you against your expected experience? This gets at the fact that if I am talking to an Indian call centre agent I have VERY different levels of ideal experience and expected experience. These ideas and joined up mesaurement are central to the work of Professor Claes Fornell (University of Michigan) and his consultancy CFI Group. Measurement needs to be joined up, from a customer perspective, and intelligent enough to give real insight that can drive action.

I know its hard for big companies to deliver across their processes (I spent a few years trying to do it) but even so “must try harder” is most often the experience and that isn’t good enough when its just too easy to switch.
As ever would love to know your thoughts and comments on this topic. Feel free to comment below and share this blog with others.


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I’ve got a confession to make. My grandmother, who I loved dearly, was quite a fan of Mussolini. She was an Italian who emigrated to the UK in the 1930s when Mussolini was seen as “the only benevolent dictator in Europe” (this quote was taken from a 1930s Geography text book printed in England). And the thing she credited him with most was “he made the trains run on time”. This in her mind was a seemingly impossible feat that he achieved.

Which is one of the reasons why when Richard Branson and Virgin stepped into his train ventures I thought to myself if he can make it work then maybe we will all be looking back in our dotage and saying, “that Branson…he made the trains run on time”. And hopefully he could do it without all the downsides of Mussolini.

We all know that with Virgin Trains that he hasn’t been that successful so far and the Virgin brand I think has been tarnished by the bad publicity and bad word of mouth that this business often creates. But overall I am a fan of Virgin. I love Virgin Atlantic and am a devotee to Virgin Media. Even the few trains rides I’ve had on Virgin Trains have been ok.

However yesterday’s Metro made me stop and reconsider the brand given that the hollowed pages of this freesheet contained no more than 7 pages of Virgin adverts.

Firstly there were two Virgin Media placements on consecutive double page spreads one for Broadband and one for Mobile. Functional, response based, well branded:

Then there was an ad for Virgin Holiday’s new lounge at Gatwick:

Then a double page spread for Virgin Trains:
and then finally a promotional offer (run by Metro) for Virgin Balloon Flights:
This leads to all sorts of interesting marketing and brand questions:
1. Can the Virgin brand extend to anything / everything?
2. Aside the logo is there enough clarity on what Virgin stands for?
3. Is there a danger of Virgin overload?
Strangely enough they all sort of work in my mind (and as I admit I like the brand). They are all visually similar and have a similar tone (despite the Balloon one which I think is probably created by Metro rather than Virgin). They all have something of the razzmatazz about them and offer something tangible to the reader – even if it is just price in the case of VirginMedia.
But I do worry about the seemingly infinite extendability of the brand. The brand licensing of Virgin now extends from Money to Wine to Health Insurance to Gyms to Books to Holidays to a Green Fund. Its clearly an opportunistic strategy.
I’d love to see the books for these businesses. My strong suspicion is that the business where the Virgin brand actually adds value – travel, entertainment, maybe even communication – are the business that sit most easily and make, or have the potential to make, the most money. I think there is a strong spirit to the Virgin brand that is about a business built on customer experience.
This spirit is captured in an old Virgin Atlantic commercial which I often play when I talk about brands and marketing – it is a great example of taking a category which used to be all about functional benefits (the BA commercial at the time was talking food/drink and seat pitch) and competing on new emotional dimensions.
Virgin at its best is an experience brand: the limo that picks you up if you fly Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic and has you in the lounge in 10 mins from arriving at the airport; a dedicated lounge for Virgin Holiday customers at Gatwick; being able to choose your hold music when you call VirginMedia; the way they handle complex disclaimers and information when you apply for a credit card. These touchpoints bring the brand to life – can they really apply this endlessly to health cover, the purchasing of wine or books. In those areas where the brand doesn’t provide a unqiue and fun experience they take the opportunity for cross sell but at the risk of tarnishing the brand perception.
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