GEEKNOTE: We've heard a lot over the past few years about banks that are "Too Big To Fail." I'd like to start a discussion about companies that are "Too Big To Have A Clue."
I've got three examples this week of how organizations handle customer problems and I think they are instructive about what businesses need to do when something invariably goes awry.
A local businessman was unfortunate enough to have a water leak pop up just on his side of the water meter. City utility workers had found the leak and fixed it. Jim got a water bill five times what he was used to. He contacted the city billing office on January 22nd and a clerk told that it was city policy that he was responsible. He fired off an email to the city manager and members of the city council outlining the problem. The issue was raised briefly at a council meeting that night by one of my colleagues and staff indicated they were already investigating the issue. The billing was fixed on Friday. Problem solved in less than a week. I consider this to be a pretty good response time.
Intuit Merchant Services decided to "upgrade" all their Quickbooks customers using "automatic credit card billing" to "recurring payments" a couple of weeks ago. This broke things rather completely. The IMS folks insisted that they weren't responsible and referred things back to Quickbooks support. Quickbooks support, which is apparently hosted somewhere overseas, said that the only solution was for the customers to upgrade to the newest version of Quickbooks, which uses the "recurring payments" module without a problem. In our case, this would have involved a thousand dollar purchase to fix a problem that Intuit created. To their credit, a week after this disasterous upgrade, Intuit rolled back their customers using the older module so that things started working again. IMS even sent us an email to let us know things should be working again. Not quite as graceful or as fast as the New Port Richey response, but passable.
My third example is of a large company best known for printing checks. They branched into website hosting and domain registration. I'll leave them nameless to protect the genuinely clueless.
While visiting my inlaws for a late Christmas on New Years' Eve, my father-in-law told me the tale of woe that had befallen the local yacht club. Seems they had set up a website through a web host that had not survived the Great Recession. The website had been partially disabled, by the removal of the index page. The web host had, for all intents and purposes, fallen off the face of the earth.
The registration was in the name of one of the club members, which is great. The ICANN rules for domain registrations provides that the Registrant has the final word in all things involving the domain name.
I grabbed a copy of the yacht club's website and then contacted the registrar on January 2nd. They insisted that they needed to try to contact the web host, but could get things turned around within a week. Fair enough, even though this created a bit of a Catch-22 situation where we couldn't get the domain released without getting the permission of the web host who was MIA.
Two weeks went by and we'd heard nothing. I called the domain registration desk on the 18th and was told that nothing could be done until the registrar tried to contact the web host. I asked if they could send us a copy of the form we needed to fill out and send back certifying ownership of the domain. Nope. Not allowed. I asked to talk to a supervisor and was told that it was clueless registrar's policy that calls could not be transferred to a supervisor!
Several calls and a chat session later, I managed to get technical support to actually transfer me to someone in the domain registration office's supervisory desk. They repeated that they needed to contact the MIA web host, but would try to get it done within two business days. I pointed out that they were supposed to have done this back on the 2nd.
The middle of last week, we FINALLY got them to send us the form they should have sent us on January 2nd and on Friday I was able to get a login / password so that I could get the website back online. Hours expended fighting with a bureaucracy that is clueless regarding their obligations under ICANN rules and clueless about how to deal with what, unfortunately, is not unusual a situation.
Mind you, this is a company that can turn around check printing requests in 24 hours. Clearly, domain registrations and web services is an afterthought for them and they went in the business simply because everybody else was doing it.
Three weeks to solve a problem that other registrars I've used can handle in 24-48 hours.
They won't be on the list of registrars I recommend and I may well get my next check order somewhere else as well.
In the second example I shared above, Intuit may not have the best customer service system in place and their front line folks have trouble with English, but at least they have an internal system in place to identify problems and fix them on a timely basis.
In the first and third example, the key was being able to get through to someone high enough up in the organization to actually have the authority to get things done. You need to know who these folks are, and they are typically harder to contact as the size of the organization grows.
It is easy to get the attention of the city manager and council in a city of our size. An email or phone call is generally all it takes to get things moving.
Lots of luck if you feel the need to contact the president about some federal screwup.
I had a problem a few years back with my car and the local dealer was having trouble getting the parts needed. I called the headquarters of SmartUSA to see if I could get some assistance. The president of SmartUSA answered the phone. The problem was solved shortly thereafter.
I suspect I would not be so fortunate if I tried to call GM headquarters about a problem with my Chevy pickup.
I believe it is largely a matter of scale. The bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to talk to someone who can make things happen. These people exist, but they are often insulated from pesky customers.
Small businesses are the easiest to deal with, since you are frequently dealing with the owner or someone who reports directly to them.
Certain chains are also well known for a customer focus. Anyone who has been around here for long probably knows the name Brian Singletary. He has been the store manager of the Southgate Publix forever and he has a well deserved reputation for customer service.
Publix and some other chains make a point of posting the names and pictures of their store managers. If you've got a problem with something you purchased, you can be absolutely positive you know who to contact to get the problem fixed.
In the case of a problem with my pickup, I wouldn't call GM. I'd call Castriota Chevrolet and ask to speak to Tom Castriota or one of the managers I know by first name. They all have the ability to make things happen. They are the reason that whatever I replace my pickup with will most likely have a Castriota Chevrolet sticker on the back.
Some organizations have created the position of "ombudsman" to help customers. Most recently, the City of New Port Richey is looking at adding an ombudsman function to the Main Street contract to help new businesses get settled into New Port Richey. An ombudsman is single point of contact that can cut through all the nonsense and help you get the answers you need quickly. It's a good idea that all larger organizations ought to consider.
Do you have a business you think does a great job with customer service? Leave a note below.
Feel free to drop me a note or give me a call if you have any questions about your computer.
Rob Marlowe, Senior Geek, Gulfcoast Networking, Inc.
(Rob also serves as deputy mayor of the City of New Port Richey. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of the city.)