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Churn at Large Telecom Companies: a Trail of Failed Opportunities

Telecom giants spend huge bucks on marketing and sales, but when they finally snag a customer from a competitor they still end up losing if that customer walks during the next two years. So why aren't they trying harder, and what can you learn from it all?

Adam Fout
July 03 2017

This is a story about yours truly and a big U.S. telecom company that we’ll call “The Big Guys” to avoid shaming anyone. In the U.S., there are 3 major telecom companies, a telecom company who used to be major and is now not-so-major, and a handful of little guys battling over the scraps. The Big Guys are one of the big 3, they serve a gargantuan area, and they struggle with customer service.

And what big company doesn’t?

In this case, that struggle cost them a loyal customer.

Here’s a fun fact about telecom customers (from one of my favorite articles about customer retention) — depending on who you ask, it can take upwards of 2 years for a telecoms customer to become profitable.

That means the big telecoms can work their butts off, spend a gargantuan amount of cash on marketing and selling, finally snag a customer from a competitor, and still end up a loser if that customer walks in the next two years or so.

Now, that study above is based on customers in Europe, and it’s aged a bit, but the basics haven’t changed much — it still takes a long time to make a telecoms customer profitable.

And, in the meantime, you probably need to keep them happy.

I want to share this story with you because I believe it’s instructive on a number of levels; importantly, it shows how customer retention and customer service efforts failed at a number of levels, despite a loyal customer who was willing to give them second, third, and fourth chances.

I like to believe that I give businesses lots of opportunities to fix the mistakes they’ve made (or just forgive the mistake and move on). I try to be loyal, not make a scene, and just let things go — it’s better for my heart.

But, in this case, I finally got pushed too far. I want to show you that journey, how The Big Guys tripped up, over and over, and finally pushed me away for good (well, so far, anyway).

The Journey Begins in a Land of Brick and Mortar

One fine day, I decided that my wife and I needed a new cell phone plan. For the longest time, it was simply cheaper to stay on our parents’ varied and sundry plans and just pay them for the privilege, but I grew tired of their limited data, and I figured it was high time to just get things switched over.

No big deal, right?

Oh how wrong I was.

I figured that this would be a quick process, in and out, and that I’d be able to walk away with a more expensive, but higher quality, phone plan.

So in we walk, and right away, I can tell that I’ve made a terrible mistake. You see, apparently I was bothering these employees.

I guess they were hoping not to work during work that day, I dunno.

It took a while for them to even notice I existed. Then, with an air of annoyance, they told me that the manager, who was currently doing something on a computer, would be with me in a minute.

So we wandered around for a bit, awkwardly, until she deigned to help us.

Her first words to us (people who were, as far as she knew, either new or existing customers)?

“What’s up?”

Oh. You know. Not much.

Chillin…

Geez louise, lady. I can’t even get a “Hi, how can I help you today?”?

It was a lot more than her words, though — her body language screamed that we weren’t welcome. Her interactions with her coworkers throughout the switchover process made it clear that we were of minimal interest to her, at best. Another guy tried to engage us, bless his heart, but this place was poisoned from the manager down.

We were there 3 hours, and I can’t tell you how many times we were just completely ignored and kept in the dark about what was going on and why it was taking so long.

The truth is, all I really cared about this whole bloody time was getting the right price for our plan — that was it. But such a thing was apparently beyond this woman. I’ll mention that it’s not like we were new customers — I’ve been a customer for well over a decade. You would have thought I just crawled in from the local sewer.

We were due some discounts because of where we work, but the manager couldn’t be bothered to figure out how much we’d actually save — I had to do the math myself. I showed her and asked her if the number on my phone was the amount I’d be paying.

She glanced at it and said “Yeah, sure.”

Ok.

Great.

At the end of three grueling hours, we finally limped out of there.

Everything seemed ok, I guess.

Then I Got the Bill

Oh lordy.

So that number I calculated was apparently way off, mostly due to the fact that the manager gave me incorrect information.

She told me the discount applied in a way it didn’t and didn’t bother to check to see if it had.

She literally had no idea how much I’d be paying (and frankly, she couldn’t have cared less).

So, I call customer service to try to get this figured out, and they basically tell me there’s nothing they can do except drop my plan down several degrees to hit the price I want or keep it at the same, much higher price.

Which, I might mention, was almost 50% higher than what I was promised.

Gee, thanks.

So along we go with this garbage plan that is not what I signed up for and still costs me more than what I walked in and was promised, and somewhere along the line, I make the foolish mistake of buying a phone case at one of their stores, a different store.

That phone case doesn’t work out, so I return to the now-much-hated store for a quick return.

More the fool, I.

You can probably guess how this one went down.

I was in the store for close to an hour. They told me they didn’t have cash on hand to process my return. Then, they said “Oh, we’ll just subtract this from your bill and you’ll be good to go — you can go home, we’ll take care of it from here.”

I have no clue why I believed them, but I did, and off I went.

15 days later, I finally call to see what’s going on, and they say the only way I can get money for a return is to have a check sent to me, from corporate, which will take about 30 days.

35 days later, I call to find out why my check hasn’t shown up, and they hang up on me.

I call back.

They hang up again.

I call back, leave a message, finally, with another employee.

A week later, no call back.

Finally some poor schmuck at customer service just gives me some free money, basically, and subtracts the cost of the case from my bill, probably 45 days later.

Where Things Really Fell Apart, Finally, Was When I Found Out About Their New Deals

I’ll tell you, I look pretty stupid throughout all of this — I probably should have put a stop to this nonsense long before I got to this point, but like I said at the beginning, I tend to give companies lots of chances.

I’d been with them over a decade, after all, closer to 15 years, really, and I just didn’t want to change.

So, one day, I’m thinking about how I’ve run out of data, again, and how I’m going to be dataless for about 10 days, again, and I look at my bill, and somehow it’s even higher than it was initially (oh, I forgot to mention that my bill fluctuated wildly throughout all of this for reasons that remain obscure), and on my way through the website to pay my bill, I notice some promotions for new customers.

Unlimited data.

For some amount that was a lot lower than what I was paying.

For new customers (God only knows why I was seeing this).

You cat to be kitten me right meow.

And I yelled “That tears it!” (or something similarly southern — I live in Texas), and I decided then and there that I was tired of this parade of affronts and was going to switch.

But it was months before I finally made the switch (I’m much happier now… for the moment), and in the intervening time, I decided to leave an honest review for that particular store where I’d had so much trouble.

Very honest, that review was.

Months later, they still hadn’t responded to that review or reached out, and I finally saw an unlimited deal that struck my fancy.

I had some time, so I made the switch.

The best part?

After I had gone through all this mess, I got an email survey asking why I’d left and what they could do better.

I unsubscribed.

A Trail of Failed Opportunities

Now, I want to be the first to say that I let this bull-hooey go on for way too long. I could have put a stop to it at many points, I could have reached out to customer service about this particular store, but frankly, it’s not incumbent on me, the customer, to catch this stuff.

The Big Guys should have been doing that.

There are so many points where they could have caught this mess, halted it in its tracks, and kept a customer around who probably would have stuck with them for a lifetime. (And to be honest, I could be convinced to go back — if that store shuts its doors and those people are fired. Plus, my new network isn’t that great….)

Where to begin? If someone at customer service had simply said, “You know what, you shouldn’t have been offered that price, that’s the wrong price, but, because we told you that price, we’re going to honor it,” then you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

When I made that first call to customer service to ask about my bill (which was almost 50% higher than what I was told it would be), they had the opportunity to take a mistake and make it right.

They didn’t. They set me up with a lower-quality plan instead.

They didn’t bother to look into the employees who caused the problem in the first place, either.

When I was consistently going over my data and getting throttled, someone could have reached out to me to see what was going on, found out the history, and fixed things.

They didn’t.

When I went to return my case, they could have asked me how the service was going.

They didn’t.

When I called customer service, again, to find out why the heck I wasn’t getting my refund for that stupid case, they had another opportunity to fix my bill (that I was still annoyed with and that I had changed a number of times, all unsuccessfully balancing data use with price) and find out what happened to get me to that point in the first place.

They didn’t.

And, when they decided to start offering new unlimited data plans, they could have reached out to me and said “Hey, we have these new plans, and you’d be a great fit for them — let’s get you switched over to a better plan and save you some money.”

They didn’t.

Your Customers Give You Many Chances to Fix Mistakes — Are You Listening?

Studies show that customers aren’t asking for a lot — they don’t want you to go over and above and blow their minds. In fact, they often just want you to solve problems, quickly and simply.

They’re going to make it very clear, in ways you won’t have much trouble seeing, that they are not happy and would like you to do something about it.

We know that a great value, combined with a little bit of trust and the satisfaction of expectations, can go a long way.

Your customers are telling you, every day, what they want, and they’re not asking for a lot in return. Sometimes, they’re subtle about it, sometimes they’re loud, but the signs are always there.

Are you listening?

The Big Guys lost a long-term customer over issues that, I’m sure, any of their executives would immediately tell you are silly or stupid to lose a customer over. I’m sure, had this thing been escalated, that there would have been no trouble getting what I wanted.

But that should never happen. There should be processes and safeguards in place to ensure that doesn’t happen.

In the end, I walked away and gave my business to someone else because, basically, I was ignored once too often and shown, through the actions of The Big Guys, that my business didn’t matter to them. The failure happened at lower levels, but the folks at the top are responsible for what the folks at the bottom are doing.

Truly, even after all that mess, if someone had just reached out and said “Hey, we got this new unlimited plan, you want it?” I would have said yes and stayed. I really wanted this to work out. I felt (and still feel) a sense of loyalty to The Big Guys. I want to go back.

But I can’t let that trail of failures stand.

Maybe one day my network will fail enough to send me back.

But, for now, I’ll be away.

I can tell you that very few of your customers will give you the chances that I gave these guys.

I can tell you that, if you don’t have the processes in place to catch these things, if you don’t foster a culture that encourages everyone, from top to bottom, to always put customer service first, then you’ll lose customers in much the same way that The Big Guys lost me.

And, just like The Big Guys, you’ll probably have no idea why it happened.

To learn more about some of the mistakes that you might be making (and not even be aware of), read this article by Lauren Dowdle on why you’re losing clients.

And keep on truckin’, marketer.

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Adam Fout

Adam Fout, resident content and brand sorcerer at BlueSteelSolutions, guides brands through the mystical process of creating website and blog content that enchants customers and entices leads. He also writes fiction in his free time at My Website

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