In the last six months, I had three painful customer service experiences. I struggled with the whys of all three — afterward, I remain a customer of two and won’t ever buy from the third. Each taught me something.
Find overviews of the three experiences, how I attempted to solve them and the result (spoiler, all tried something to help but only two worked).
First, I want to clarify that I really don’t have these experiences often. It was very strange to have had three in such short order. I find myself to mostly be a pliant, on-time bill paying, happy customer. That’s part personality and part because I want to be able to ring the alarm when I do feel like I am being bullied.
And, as I suspect others feel, that’s the very emotion I have in these circumstances, that someone is bullying me, taking something from me and making a conscious choice that ignoring me is the smarter business decision than actually confronting the problem. It’s painful and disempowering. Fortunately the social web is helping to give the customer voice.
My philosophy in these circumstances is to limit my yelling and focus on the business case. In all three of these situations, I tried to highlight why I thought their compromising with me as a customer had more business value than not. In one of the three cases, it seems they’ve made the wager that the precedent that helping me would set would instead be too costly. I think they’re wrong.
I can say that, like other consumers, I hold grudges for years and think often about how people treat me. Tell me what you think.
(1) I will USE PRICELINE.COM, AND ITS SUBSIDIARIES, BUT I WILL SHARE MY PAINFUL HONEYMOON EXPERIENCE WITH OTHERS.
The situation: In July, I lost a day of my honeymoon when I found out too late that Priceline had rebooked me on an earlier flight than I had purchased. SACM and I lost the first ever First Class seats we had bought and instead had to pay more for economy-class seats on a flight the next day, missing several itinerary plans. Repeatedly I was told by representatives to whom I was pleading for help that I had been emailed about the change, but I could find no record of that anywhere in my Gmail, neither the inbox, nor spam — and Gmail is pretty reliable.
So though it was clear to me I never received any communication telling me they had changed our flights, even if I had received an email, I would have felt cheated. Changing someone’s flight time should require an opt-in acknowledgment I said. (Meanwhile, we were getting as much social media attention as possible).
These were first class flights for my *honeymoon*. @priceline @thenegotiator team says I was emailed April 5. O RLY? pic.twitter.com/ud0OIC7d3g
— Christopher Wink (@christopherwink) July 28, 2015
My request: $735 in compensation for the re-booking costs and a single Airbnb night lost. Crucially, I felt I was attempting a reasonable request — I didn’t aim to recoup the costs of the itinerary activities we missed, nor the time away lost (though they were painful losses).
My approach: I spoke to every layer of customer service on the phone before being told I had exhausted my possibilities. I was told I would have to send a written letter. Find the letter I wrote to Priceline here, which I sent in November 2015.
Their offer: After missing the 30-day deadline I requested of them, I received an email in January 2016. They agreed to send the $735. It took months and a written letter, after hours of calls, clearly hoping I wouldn’t follow through. It’s part of their low-cost model.
The result: After receiving the check, I will keep my promise and remain a Priceline user, but I won’t forget the experience, so any similar experience would likely lose me forever.
And for what it’s worth, they lost some value in the ensuing months of delay. I just booked several work flights and intentionally avoided their servie. In one case, I was even able to helpfully pull the trick another frustrated customer taught me — use their advanced search tools to find flights and then book with the airline directly. I told others about this process.
I've now learned the smartest way to use services like @priceline @KAYAK is to use their powerful search but actually book direct w/ airline
— Christopher Wink (@christopherwink) July 28, 2015
(2) I’LL NEVER BUY ANOTHER PANASONIC TV AND WOULD RECOMMEND THE SAME TO YOU.
The situation: I was never brand-sensitive about consumer electronics. Now I am. I was advised otherwise but I bought a Panasonic plasma TV in November 2013. By July 2015, just 18 months after purchasing it for $700, a large black bar appeared across the screen. Just six months after the one-year warranty, I was out of luck, they told me. I paid $80 for a local TV repair shop to assess the damage and they told me it would cost more than $1,000 to fix the TV that cost me $700 18 months ago.
My request: Reimburse me the original price, though I asked this expecting for a negotiated offer. I think reasonably Panasonic might offer some gift card to go toward buying a new Panasonic product if something you bought new became defective so soon after purchase.
My approach: I spoke to several representatives on the phone, all of whom told me I would have to send a support email. Amusingly after I sent my email, I got a response from a representative who told me I had emailed the wrong account and would have to resubmit elsewhere — I’ll never understand why they couldn’t have just forwarded my email to the right spot. Find the email I wrote here.
Their offer: They would only pay a portion of the fee to fix the existing TV. One rep on the phone said that’s sometimes as much as 25 percent. That would still require me to pay more to fix a TV than I had originally purchased it for. Of course, this was simply telling me to go away.
The result: I won’t ever buy another Panasonic TV, or likely other piece of technology from Panasonic, ever again. I’m actually proud to be able to report that I also influenced two other TV purchases recently. I specifically instructed them to not look at Panasonics at all because of this experience. So their lack of support here already resulted in the loss of three potential lifetime customers.
(3) I REMAIN A LONGTIME VERIZON WIRELESS CUSTOMER
The situation: After being a happy, bill-paying 7-year Verizon Wireless customer, associated with an account of my father’s who has been a customer since 1994 (before it was even called Verizon), I sent back a defective iPhone 4S 32GB to be replaced with a free refurbished one under a warranty I was paying for. Following weeks of confusing charges remaining on our bill and getting threatening automated voicemails that I hadn’t returned the phone, I finally had a representative tell me that according to their records I had returned an 8GB phone, not the 32GB. I had never owned an 8GB one and wouldn’t have particularly benefited from scamming them (an $80 difference on Amazon), yet remained in a three-week death spiral with customer service in which they said I owed them $700. (An iPhone 4S 32GB retails for at most $240) Find an incredulous Facebook post from me giving an overview about the Verizon experience here. (It’s in a Google Doc, without comments, here.)
My request: Waive this ridiculous charge and accusation, so I can remain a longtime customer. (I didn’t request any compensation for my wasted time dealing with their frivolous and baseless accusations).
My approach: After weeks of back and forth got us nowhere, caught in a cycle of different supervisors requesting more time to look into it, I picked a Saturday and decided to stand my ground. I spent 4.5 hours on the phone, telling each insistent representative that I was resolving it today in one of two ways: the charges would be entirely waived and I’d remain a customer (in fact, I was planning on getting a new phone, so I’d re-up into a new two-year relationship) or they would charge me anything, and, after I paid it, I would leave for another carrier.
Their offer: It took nearly five consecutive phone hours (the longest single call of my life) on one day and nearly six weeks of back and forth, but finally a single supervisor followed through (many hadn’t) and got the charge waived.
The result: I did get a new phone and re-up my relationship. It was no bluff, I was going to leave. I remain a customer, but I will say this: I am still frustrated by how long it took to solve something that I didn’t do. Verizon lost a lot of goodwill I had for them. So I won’t be as enthusiastically supporting them when people ask my opinion about carriers, and I’ll be watching closely over the next couple years. I am a vulnerable customer now, one who might leave if pitched the right way, something that wasn’t the case before this experience.
I believe I am an understanding customer. I want to appreciate the brands I use. But all of these experiences seem to show me how you develop longterm relationships (positively or negatively) with your customers.